By Sean Nelson
Updated August 28, 2009 at 08:15 PM EDT
  • TV Show

August 15. Chicago, IL. Schuba’s x 2.

“So, uh, like… what kind of band are you?”

This is always an uncomfortable question to answer, never more so than when you’re on a crowded shuttle bus between the extended parking lot and the airport. The businessman who asked had been eyeing our guitars and drum cases for the length of the shuttle ride and only worked up the nerve to ask when we were almost to the terminal.

“Well, rock and roll, I guess,” I said. A pretty useful all-purpose answer, given the context.

“A-ha,” he replied. “Like, what kind of… venues?”

“Clubs, small theaters.”

“Anything I would know of?”

Sean’s tour diary continues after the jump…

“Not likely.” I typically avoid saying our band name unless it’s absolutely necessary. Both because so many people know it, and so many people don’t. You announce it from the stage and people cheer. You say it on a shuttle bus and it just makes you feel silly and out of place, especially if they have a story about hearing “Flagpole Sitta” 10 times while on an extreme sports holiday to Cancun (true story). Then again, a lot of times in this situation people apologize for not having heard of you, which only makes an awkward situation more awkward. There’s no offense in not knowing about something. As I learn when he asks if we are familiar with an album called Let’s Get Metaphysical by David Gilmour.

We are not. It is, we are assured, totally amazing, especially if you like wordless, guitar solo-heavy soundscapes — and who among us doesn’t? Arriving at the airport, the man insists on buying one of the CDs he sees peeking through our clear plastic merchandise tub. And so, $10 richer (probably could’ve squeezed another $5 out of him, but what are we, Hare Krishnas?), we make for the elevators, where two rather capacious women ask what kind of band we are.

“Rock and roll,” I say.

“What are you called?” the younger one asks.

“Harvey Danger,” I say, prepared for the worst.

“HARVEY DANGERFIELD!” They both yell, breaking into a mutual cackle that we’re meant to enjoy and even share. Would it shock you to learn this is not the first time someone has conflated our name with that of the late star of Caddyshack and Back To School? Moments like this, legion in our history, are part of the price of doing business, of course. But they also make you realize why bands choose generic names like The Strokes or outré ones like Butthole Surfers. Pablo Picasso was never called an asshole, etc. Our seatbacks upright, our dignity firmly stowed, it is now time to check the bags and fly to Chicago.

The Chicago stop on this mini tour was occasioned by an event from our last tour, in 2006. I had oversung myself into laryngitis at two previous Midwest shows, the second a narrowly-averted disaster that ended with individual members of the audience stepping up to sing our songs for me. Now it was looking like we’d have to cancel a sold out show at one of my favorite little rooms in the country, Schuba’s. I bolted Thermoses full of Throat Coat, didn’t speak at all, even got a prescription of steroids to help with the inflammation of the tissue around my vocal cords. But the outlook was grim. I went to the hotel to rest while the guys did a sound check and briefed the club about the situation. I wasn’t going to go on for a paying crowd unless there was some reasonable expectation that I’d be able to at least finish the set. Hours passed and while there had been some improvement, I didn’t feel very confident. So I went down to the club to make myself available to shake hands with people and apologize, prepared to vow to return one day to make it right. But when I arrived, I found the opening band, So Many Dynamos, loading off the stage, and Harvey Danger loading on. They had said not one word to the club or the audience (conflict-averse bastards!) and now we had to play. I panicked, but then accepted the circumstances and summoned whatever vocal power I could to announce the situation: “I have almost no voice. I can’t guarantee anything, but we’re going to try and play for you guys, so please bear with me. And thanks in advance.” And the wave of applause that came from that tiny room was so ferocious, so full of love and encouragement, that I felt l could almost literally lean into it for support. And I did. Every song was answered by heroic waves of applause that felt as much like advocacy as appreciation. It was the best feeling ever. We wound up playing a slightly abbreviated set, but we made it through with the conspicuous help of the crowd, whose generosity that night had a powerful effect on the band and on me — not least because of its stark contrast to the kinds of shows we’d gotten used to playing when we were a band with a hit. These folks were living proof of our conviction that playing for a few hundred people who actually wanted to hear us play would always be better than playing for a few thousand who only wanted to hear us play “Flagpole Sitta.”

That conviction was what brought us back to Schuba’s to play two sets, instead of playing a larger room where we might have made more money. The point was to be there again, and say thanks. The shows this time, unhobbled by vocal strain and adorned by the melancholy of knowing they’d be the last ones we’d play here, were every bit as powerful as the one in 2006. There were many happy moments — an interview on JBTV; the inadvertent mash-up of a street drummer and a passing car blasting “Peg” by Steely Dan; visits from Chicago friends like producer/Shellac bassist/Mission of Burma tape wielder Bob Weston, golden couple Jessica Hopper and Matt Clark (who acted as our official post-show photo-op coordinators), and former Sarge/The Reputation frontwoman Elizabeth Elmore (who stepped out of her musical retirement to join us on our song “Old Hat”); plus opening sets by So Many Dynamos and Sleepy Kitty, featuring our original drummer Evan Sult — but the unquestioned highlight came during the first show, when we played the song “Woolly Muffler,” from our first LP.

None of us had thought of this song as a particular favorite, and we hadn’t played it regularly in years. But it had been requested a lot at in Boston and Brooklyn, so we learned it. And as soon as the quiet first verse began, the entire room started singing along, so loudly that I stopped singing and just listened. It’s a long part, and they were perfectly in sync with the words and melody (and with one another) throughout. To hear a room full of strangers singing words you wrote (12 years ago, no less) is a uniquely thrilling and strangely emotional experience. Talk about breaking down the barrier between artist and audience. Once again, the room was just one big themless us. The connection carried on through the whole long, glorious night.

We found our “them” the next day, when our flight was cancelled because it rained lightly for 15 minutes and thus O’Hare was completely overmatched. We were given a choice between staying the night at the airport, or unchecking our bags and racing all the way across town to try and catch a flight out of Midway. We went for it, only to discover that, one $100 cab ride later, we hadn’t actually been booked on said flight (despite what our boarding passes said), and would in fact be spending the night at a Doubletree Inn in scenic Alsip, IL. When we arrived there in a shuttle with a clutch of fellow weary flight missers, it didn’t take long before a woman in a Jesus visor asked the inevitable question. What kind of band are we? To find out, I said she’d have to come see our impromptu show in the lobby at 2 a.m.

I hope she showed up.

Photo Credit: Nelson: George Pimentel/Getty; Chicago: Blue Lantern Studio/Corbis

Attack of the '90s

  • TV Show
  • In Season