After a quiet year as Phil got back on his feet following the events in Spain, things picked up again at the end of 2013 when X invited the Blasters to join them on their annual West coast “Xmas Tour.” The idea had come up earlier in the year in Phoenix when X and the Blasters happened to play different venues on the same night; fans of both bands were forced to choose, so it seemed obvious that we would all benefit by joining forces. In recognition of the long, intertwined history of the two bands they dubbed it the “Family Xmas Tour.”
The first show took place in late November at the Crescent Ballroom back in Phoenix, and the large, enthusiastic turnout was proof of concept. Both bands were inspired to put on a strong show and the audience responded in kind. The next night we played the classic Rialto Theater in Tucson, again to a strong crowd, and the following day drove back to LA for the Southern California leg of the tour.
For the SoCal shows (Ventura Theater northwest of LA, two nights at the Observatory in Santa Ana, and the Belly Up near San Diego) we were joined by Gene Taylor, just in from Belgium where he has been living for a number of years. When we play as a four-piece I need to cover the piano solos and generally fill in the harmony as much as possible so it’s refreshing to hear piano in the mix; Gene slid right back in like he’d never left. All of the shows had a strong turnout and response.
The next stretch of the tour started in San Luis Obispo, a mid-sized college town halfway between LA and SF. The venue (SLO Brewing Co.) was packed, as was the very compact dressing room shared by both bands backstage. After our set I was changing my strings as I do after every show and Billy Zoom asked why it was necessary; I said that otherwise I risked breaking a string on stage and having to deal with the pain of replacing it on the spot (I carry only one guitar on tour, as does Billy). He said that he rarely changed strings, but due to his very light attack he had not broken one in years. I mentioned that the one I’m most apt to break is the D string, which receives the brunt of the rhythm attack (as guitar players know, even “lead” guitarists play rhythm 90% of the time). He said that didn’t seem very likely, but sure enough, two nights later he broke his D string on stage for the first time ever. I call it mere coincidence.
The highlight of the tour came the next night when we played the sold-out Fillmore in San Francisco. I lived in SF for several years in the ‘70s and my daughter lives there now, so the city is like a second home, the venue is legendary, and playing there has always been a dream of mine. From the minute we hit the stage the crowd was extremely enthusiastic and despite its epic reputation the room felt very intimate, which undoubtedly explains why so many great performances have been captured there over the years. It was the type of experience that sets the standard for what we want to achieve every time we go on stage, even if it remains a rare event.
The schedule kept us moving over the next two nights to Fresno and Petaluma. The Fresno show was in a warehouse-style venue with a punkish vibe; there was no backstage area at all, so we all crowded into the back hallway to avoid the freezing temperatures outside during the set change. The Mystic Theater in Petaluma, by contrast, is an elegant old movie house converted for live music that has a very warm feel, and again it was an enthusiastic, sold-out crowd. The next morning we left for Portland and a couple of days off. The typically cold, wet Northwest weather was perfect for sleeping in, which is pretty much all anybody wants to do when there’s a break on the road, so we were well-rested for the next show, held at the Roseland Theater, a big, old dance hall in the middle of downtown. During sound check it was as cold and dank as the weather outside, but when the crowd arrived it warmed up nicely. Exene joined us that night for “Jackson,” which as always was a highlight of the set–she still approaches performing with the same enthusiasm and energy as she did thirty years ago and inspires us to rise to the same level.
Old LA pal Rosie Flores was booked to appear across the street on the same night but had to cancel due to road-related misfortunes – a blown-up vehicle followed by road closures kept the band from making their scheduled showtime. We ran into her at the hotel where we were staying, but despite the depressing circumstances she was upbeat and the true embodiment of a “trouper.”
The last two shows of the tour took place in Seattle at El Corazon, a club we had played just a few months earlier. It’s a raw, loud punk venue located practically under the freeway, not the most appealing setting for middle-aged fans, but the place was packed both nights with a cross-section of ages and styles and again the shows were strong. We all aspire to the philosophy “play every show as if it’s your last,” but when it actually is the last show, at least as far as a tour is concerned, you throw in whatever extra energy you might have been holding in reserve so you can head home knowing that you left nothing on stage.
The next morning we hit the road while it was still dark in order to make it back across the Southern Oregon/Northern California mountains before sundown and avoid any potential snow and ice. Fortunately the precipitation was limited to rain, so all went smoothly and we finally pulled into LA at around 2am after 19 hours of driving. It was good to get back to warm, sunny SoCal after a successful tour and look forward to recuperating over the holidays.
Winter 2014 Texas Tour
The mid-January Texas tour kicked off in Vegas with a date at LVCS, a roots-oriented bar on Fremont Street at the north end of the strip. We stayed at the El Cortez, one of the oldest hotels that remains in the city; it walks a fine line between “vintage” and “run down,” but the vibe is much lower-key and friendlier than in the huge hotels further down the Strip. Our set was scheduled late, which made it hard for long-time fans (i.e. those with jobs and kids) to make it out. Especially after the packed houses of the X tour the turnout felt relatively light, but it was a good opportunity to get back in gear after the layoff.
The next night we were back in Phoenix at the Rhythm Room, a long-standing blues/jazz venue that we have played many times over the years. Since it was barely six weeks since we last appeared in Phoenix on the X tour we were concerned that turnout might be affected, but the place was jammed and the crowd was very up. Afterwards, a number of people said that they had also seen us with X, so it was especially nice to know that we could draw them back again so soon.
The next night we were in Albuquerque at “Low Spirits,” an under-the-radar bar located in an industrial part of town; even GPS had a hard time finding it, but the turnout was good despite the late-night Sunday slot. This was only our second show in Albuquerque in the past two decades; the previous time was a couple of years earlier when we literally played in the zoo as part of a city-sponsored concert series. Even the mayor (Richard Berry, but not the composer of “Louie Louie”…) turned out and declared himself to be a fan. “Breaking Bad” has since put a whole new spin on perceptions of ABQ and one half expects to see Pollos Hermanos instead of KFC, but no such luck.
The next date was in San Antonio, over 700 miles away, so we split up the drive with a stopover in El Paso. On the way down from Albequerque the highway follows the path of the “Jornada del Muerto,” the waterless “trail of death” taken by early Spanish settlers traveling between Mexico City and Santa Fe. Every few miles along the way historical markers indicate the sites of Indian attacks or deaths from thirst and starvation– it’s hard to imagine how unforgiving the landscape was to those who walked for weeks through the desert, and it still is if you venture off the Interstate.
Arriving in Texas naturally calls for BBQ and we hit a joint in El Paso that was appropriately good and greasy. The next day was a long haul through the Great Bend region of West Texas – mile after mile of dry scrub that eventually gives way to the oak trees of the Hill Country. Entering Texas from El Paso gives you a true appreciation of its immensity – its more than 900 miles to the next state line. We arrived in San Antonio to beautiful weather, warm and sunny even in the middle of January. The venue, Sam’s Burgers, sounds like much less than it is, which is actually a very well-put-together music venue adjacent to a popular restaurant of the same name. The owners are also involved in reviving the Aztec Theater, a 1920s-era venue in the middle of town, so it appears that there’s a sincere effort underway to support the live American music scene. Once again, despite a late weeknight set, turnout was good but could probably have been better if promoters considered how hard it is for working/child-rearing fans to attend late-night shows; the extra draw that results from scheduling the sets earlier would seem to compensate for any loss in late-night bar sales.
Our move to Dallas the next day was accompanied by a sudden, drastic change in the weather; Texas had so far escaped the “Polar Vortex,” but it arrived that afternoon with a vengeance. What made it a particular concern was that the venue – the Gas Monkey – is designed for outdoor summer-time shows and the stage and audience areas are protected from the elements only by plastic sheeting, with gas patio heaters providing extremely limited circles of warmth. By the time we hit the stage the wind-chill was at 19 degrees. The heat from stage lighting normally raises a sweat by the third song, but this time we had to perform in overcoats and scarves and every breath produced a cloud of vapor. Somehow we made it through a complete set; despite the challenge, we were actually better off than the audience, who could only huddle under the heaters while holding their drinks in gloved hands.
Fortunately, the weather warmed again before we got to Houston so we avoided any ice-related traffic problems along the way. The venue there was the Continental Club, a long-time venue that serves as an anchor for a gentrifying downtown neighborhood. Thankfully we were back indoors, and with a Friday night the club was packed and the crowd raucous. We had not played in Houston since appearing at Fitzgerald’s a few years previously (en route to another tour of Spain), so there was pent-up demand and it was a good show.
The next night at the Continental Club in Austin (loosely related to the Houston venue) was the final date of the Texas leg. The bill was special, with LA transplants and longtime friends Gil T (former Rhythm Pig bassist and my own band-mate in the Dime Bags) and Rosie Flores (this time arriving with no mishaps) opening the show. The club was at maximum capacity and the Saturday night crowd was primed. Once again we were joined by Gene Taylor, who splits his visits to the States between LA and Austin, and we played a long and sweaty set right up to closing time. The Continental is like a down-home Fillmore, and it was one of those shows that you remind yourself of in order to keep your spirits up when things aren’t going so well.
The next day we still faced the 1300+ mile drive back to LA. We left town at noon and made it back to El Paso around dinner time, stopped briefly to eat and hit it again, rolling through Tucson at around midnight and finally making it into the LA area at dawn, just in time for Monday morning gridlock. With everyone stretched to the limit the last stretch of commuter driving was brutal, but we wound up making it in around 21 hours. It was not a drive that we’d look forward to repeating any time soon, but Phil’s (formerly Dave’s) van made it through another tour without mishap, so it goes in the win column.
The whole tour didn’t actually end until the following weekend following additional shows in San Diego, Corona (about 50 miles SE of LA) and Long Beach. The Long Beach show was a real surprise; the venue, called the “Madhouse,” is a bare-bones concrete-block industrial building a block or two off the main entertainment strip; basically a “space” rather than a typical club. It was a loose, all-ages gathering of hundreds of people ranging from teens to college to old-school Blasters fans. The crowd was involved from the first note – exactly the kind of response you hope to get every time. At the culmination of the evening Exene joined us again (on her birthday, no less) for “Jackson”– as always, she brought a full measure of energy, and also reminded the crowd that this sort of wide-open, makeshift, and utterly non-corporate event was where the early 80s LA underground scene got its start. It was a fitting final show – bringing it all back home in every sense of the phrase.