You can read Chapter One of Sean Nelson’s farewell diary here. Our story continues…
August 8: Bell House, Brooklyn
You start in a van. If you’re lucky, you progress to a bus, and onward to multiple buses, trailers, semi-trucks. The goal of a touring band, presumably, is to be big enough that making a personal appearance requires a fleet of vehicles and a staff of dozens to make sure your sound is properly dialed in, your sets fully assembled, your spotlight correctly trained. But the real gold standard for band travel is by air. While the road crew is still tearing down the gear and humping it into the ground vehicles, the “talent” is already sleeping on Egyptian cotton sheets in the next town on the itinerary, having soared there immediately post-show, either privately or, if they insist, commercially.
I would like to tell you that is what our trip from Boston to Brooklyn was like. In fact it was like this: Finish show around 2 a.m. Hang out talking to people till 3:30 a.m. Load out and decamp to the very bizarre Days Hotel (not to be confused with the Days Inn, which is a little more deluxe than our budget allows) — whose lobby is bumping with drunken teenage Italian figure skaters (true) — at roughly 4:30. Attempt to decompress from post-show adrenaline until circa 6:30. Lobby call at 7 a.m. to fly to JFK. We flew because we got a deal on tickets and figured it would be worth it to save three or four hours of driving time in exchange for nap time before the show. This was not the Eagles on a Lear Jet. This was five exhausted Seattleites on a Jet Blue shuttle. Regardless of what it was, we were despairing of our decision not to just drive when we made it to New York nine hours later, just in time for sound check. I’ll spare you the details.
Sean’s tour diary continues after the jump…
The Bell House is a new club in Gowanus, Brooklyn. (Not Park Slope! God, you must not be from around here.) It is a perfect mid-size room — 400-500 capacity, beautiful brick walls, warm golden lighting, emphasis on being welcoming as opposed to the two dominant schools of NYC rock club, “forbidding” and “forsaken.” The sound is great. Everyone who works there is nice and easygoing. The only problem is that most of our party has been awake and active for around 70 of the past 72 hours. I know what you’re thinking: It’s all part of your rock n’roll fantasy. The thing is: That’s great if you’re Bad Company. Harvey Danger, however, is not now and has never been Bad Company. Nor are we young men. (Nor, for that matter, are Bad Company, but that’s a different discussion.) Well do I remember the days when skipping a night of sleep felt like a form of victory against the tyranny of the boring everyday routine. Now it feels like taking out a twelfth mortgage on a house you don’t even want to live in anymore. Yet, as nice as a nap sounds, I am late for a barbecue dinner with the writing staff of The Daily Show.
This wouldn’t be much of a tour diary without some name dropping, but we don’t really have too many options. Though there was a time when it wouldn’t have been impossible — just massively unlikely — to see a properly famous face at an HD show, we have long since exited even the fringes of that radar. I have some celebrity encounter stories, but like most celebrities, they’re not that interesting. And anyway, if I had my pick of Gossip Girl cast members to rub backstage shoulders with, there’s no question I would choose Wallace Shawn. I didn’t see him at the Bell House, alas. I did, however, see my excellent friend John Hodgman. And when I say excellent friend, I should clarify that I have known him a little for about five years, in which time we have gotten drunk on expensive gin more than once, eaten extensive and expensive meals more than once, and performed together on stage exactly once. Oh, and let’s not forget all those scintillating exchanges on Twitter. Nonetheless, he is excellent, and he is my friend. Therefore: excellent friend. (The fact that I have memorized the audiobook of The Areas of My Expertise is something else again.) Anyway, a while back I had asked John to record an introduction to play at the farewell shows, incorporating the ludicrous text that Bob Dylan has been using as an intro at all his live performances since 1988. The idea was to play this recording at all of the tour stops, but because John is a Brooklynite, and because his schedule allowed, he agreed to come introduce us in person. This was very exciting news for everyone. How exciting? Remember when Andy Kaufman met Howdy Doody? Along those lines.
Before the show, however, he invited me to a fancy barbecue restaurant in Williamsburg called Fette Sau, where he was dining with a few of his Daily Show colleagues, including writer Sam Means, producer Jimmy Donn, and correspondent Wyatt Cenac, whom I had met earlier this year at an awards show at which small movies we were in were nominated. (The utterly gorgeous Medicine For Melancholy him; My Effortless Brilliance me.) Needless to say, this sounded better than a nap. When you’re my age, that’s actually meaningful praise. We ate succulent meat and briny sides by the pound, drank high class booze and black cherry soda (lock up your daughters!), and I tried really hard not to try to be funny. Aside from the obvious facts that these guys were effortlessly funny, nice, and at ease with each other, and part of the brain trust of one of the smartest shows on TV, there is also the whole thing of how everyone tries to be funny around comedy writers and it’s like trying to be handsome around a model. Guess what: They have it covered. So we ate and chatted and it was so enjoyable I almost forgot that I was exhausted beyond all reason.
Back at the show, the opening bands, Jukebox the Ghost and Valley Lodge, neither of whom I had heard before, were stunningly good, playing clever, crafty power pop that made me wish I could see them all the time. The same thing had happened in Boston, with Magic Magic and The Organ Beats, two bands I had never heard or even heard of, who completely tore it up. Openers are a total crapshoot most of the time, which is why I almost always insist on hand picking either friends or bands I already like. Circumstances didn’t allow that on this jaunt, so I felt extra fortunate. I know a lot of people feel competitive about this sort of thing, and though I have opened for my share of unappreciative jerks, I generally feel that a spirit of camaraderie and mutual appreciation is an achievable goal, and something that really makes a show or tour not only memorable but truly inspired. And then came Hodgman, a surprise that set the crowded room on fire. Not literally, of course. But almost literally; consult the YouTube footage for reference.
It was the coolest thing ever. And then we came out and played… pretty well. About a B, I’d say, ranging variously between B+ and B-. There were excuses. We were exhausted. We weren’t sure what people were expecting of a last show ever. The turnout was better than expected: close to sold out, but more to the point, deeply engaged, singing along to every word, and really really with us. But I was struggling with my voice and the nerves that ensued made the between song banter a little wobbly. Again, not bad, but not great. And you really want your last show in a city, especially New York City, to be great. So after about an hour, we left the stage and regrouped for the encore. While I am sympathetic to the argument that the whole gesture of leaving the stage and returning to play encores is kind of bulllshit, I will always be grateful for this instance of it, because it allowed the show to achieve glory.
Rather than just playing another little set, we came out, did a quiet, pretty song that just happens to be set partially in Brooklyn (“Pike St./Park Slope”), and then basically let go of the pretense that we were in charge. Stealing a trick from Shellac and David Bazan, I opened the floor to questions, which we did our best to answer. They ranged from random (“How much ice cream could you eat if you had a gun to your head?” A: As much as the gunman wanted me to, probably) to genuine. After every few questions we took requests. Whatever had been missing from the regular set was suddenly abundant. We played with stealth and grace and power. We were sincere. We were funny. We meant it, man. In the best, purest sense of the word, the show felt like a conversation between us and the audience. Better: it felt like there was no division between band and audience. There was no them. It was all us. It was probably the kind of show that can only happen once. It was definitely the kind of show you can only have when people have an intimate relationship with your music. I surmised that the unique quality of the night owed a lot to the fact that these people had a very private connection to the band, but that the connection was initiated in the most public way imaginable: a song on the radio. An intensely private thing, shared. That’s a lot more like my rock’n’roll fantasy than anything Bad Company ever described.
We played for nearly three hours — unheard of for Harvey Danger. And people stayed. Not everyone, but almost everyone. It was almost certainly the best show we ever played, and one of the best nights of my life. I only wish it were still happening. But everyone has to sleep eventually. Just not till Brooklyn.
Photo Credit: Nelson: George Pimentel/WireImage.com