From somewhere in the dark recesses of my physical perception, the foggy intersection between dream and reality, I felt a small, sticky-hot hand on my face.
“Wake up Bowman!” A sing-song child’s cadence lilted into my ear.
Two figures slowly came into focus; one, my girlfriend Sophie, fair, beautiful, lithe, and the other, a small boy, tiny hand out stretched, sitting calmly in her lap. The early evening sun filtered softly through the shutters, bathing them both in a golden glow. “Wake up Bowman!” The child called once more, and they both smiled expectantly down at me. I felt warm and content, but as the rest of my surroundings filtered in a new emotion came stabbing through my half-sleep haze…. panic. Like the neurotic staccato of David Byrne in that old Talking Heads’ song, my fresh fears came stumbling from my brain…. How did I get here? This is not my beautiful house! This is not my beautiful child! Sophie, serene and motherly, continued to smile down on me, oblivious to my inner confusion. I opened my mouth to speak, but before the words could escape the warm hooks of exhaustion had pulled me back under, and I was instantly asleep.
Same as it ever was…..
Same as it ever was…..
“BOWMAN! THIS! IS! YOUR! GIIIIIIIIIIIIIIRRRRRRRRRRLLLLLLFFFFFFRRRRRRRIIIIIIIIIEEEEEEENNNNNDDDD! SOPHIEEEEEEEEE!” A comically high voice caterwauled in my ear.
I awoke with a start. Sophie was still next to me and there was still a boy with her, but a different one. He was older, bigger…….. and wearing a dress. They were both giggling wildly at each other, and I realized that in my sleepy stupor the boy had been trying to convince me that he was in fact my girlfriend Sophie. I know this kid, I thought, still half asleep. He is the son of my friend. But before I could remember his name or where I was, I fell once more back to sleep.
“Good morning GRUMPUS!”
Damn, not again. This time it was Sophie and a young girl sitting beside me. I faded once more back to sleep. What is going on? My subconscious screamed. Is this all just a strange dream? Like some bizarre bastardized version of Bill Murray’s “Groundhog Day”, every time I woke up I was in the same strange room with Sophie, a different child next to her.
“Alright Bowman. You really need to wake up. We are leaving for dinner.” The voice was Sophie’s. I awoke fully this time, the three previous wakings having beat the last resistance out of me. Sophie was once again with a different child, this one a girl, barely a year old. She was small, pudgy, adorable, and stared at me with a fiery malevolence at extreme odds with her innocent features. I instantly knew who she was. She was Cruz’s youngest niece, and she HATED me. I was in Seaside, Florida, where the previous day I had played a well-intentioned game of peek-a-boo that had so traumatized this poor child that when forced into my company she gave me looks that most people reserve for convicted serial killers.
We had arrived in Seaside two days prior to try out what was to be a new concept for The Black Lillies…. a “vacation”. “Vacation” is actually a pretty relative term for us, however, as our “work” usually feels like “play” and our “play”, as was the case with this trip, usually involves some kind of “work”. This weekend was unique, however, as much of the extended Lillie family (2 girlfriends, 1 boyfriend, 1 husband, 2 sons, 1 sister + spouse, 1 brother + spouse, 2 nieces, and 1 nephew) were to stay with us for duration of our time in Florida. Our first night was short and uneventful. We arrived around eight o’clock, with just enough time to hit the grocery store and see a little bit of the beach before the sun set. The house was beautiful and easily one of the taller in the neighborhood, and while not directly on the beach, it’s considerable height afforded it a spectacular view of the ocean. Despite its size and grandeur, our large party (19 strong) made space fairly cramped. Sophie and I were the last to RSVP for the house (I did not even know her when the trip was originally planned), and as such were relegated to the pull out couch in the downstairs living room. This did not bother us much; for the first month and a half we dated I did not even own a bed, but, because the living room contained the only door leading out of the house, it did provide some logistical problems. Most nights we fell asleep to the inevitable clatter of late night revelers returning to their rooms and awoke (although briefly, as we are both heavy sleepers) to the early morning, insistent shush of parents escorting their children out to the beach. None of this, however, even remotely affected me on that first night. First of all, I, in a moment of solidarity with my chronically car-sick girlfriend, had taken a Dramamine for the van ride down from Knoxville which had left me as drowsy, albeit in a fake, plasticky way, as I had ever felt. Secondly, our time in the our new “vacation” home was to be short lived. The morning after our late evening arrival, at precisely 9 AM (a notably early time for most musicians), the band, two girlfriends, Chyna, and KK piled into our assorted vehicles for the six and a half hour trek to St.Petersburg, FL.
The gig was a last minute addition; a bit of a wrench thrown in to the original plan of two days vacation, one day work, but it ended up being a highlight of the trip. We were opening up for Old Crow Medicine Show! Now, I must admit, going into the show I was not particularly familiar with OCMS’s catalog. I was, however, familiar with their ubiquitous hit song “Wagon Wheel”. VERY familiar. So familiar in fact, that it almost wouldn’t be a stretch to say that for a period of time I owed a substantial part of my livelihood to their insanely catchy, powerfully simple tune. I first learned the song in one of my first ever bands since moving back to Knoxville as a freshman in college. The group was called “Undercover”, an assortment of four jazz-nerd students looking for an avenue to play the rock/pop songs we loved and make a little cash on the side. Our bass player, Daniel, first introduced us to the song that would become a repertoire regular. “I swear dudes,” I remember him saying. “This isn’t so much an expectation for us to know as much as a requirement in the UT bar/frat party scene.” I was asked to learn the words and sing (everyone in the band was expected to contribute vocals), but as I soon learned, this was usually hardly necessary because, barring the Volunteer staple “Rocky Top”, never has a song I have performed live so unanimously caused people to stop what they were doing and sing along at the top of their lungs. In fact, at one particularly raucous fraternity party, I distinctly remember switching my vocal mic “off” after the first line of the tune as the singing from the crowd not only overpowered my PA-assisted voice, but also the sound of the heavily amplified band. Similarly etched in my mind was the time another cover group I moonlighted in decided, in one PBR-fueled gig at a UT-area dive bar, to see exactly how many times we could get away with covering the set list staple before people got bored. We never found the answer as, after six faithful renderings (each crowd response more enthusiastic than the last) spread over the course of a night, the guitar player exclaimed that he would sooner quit the gig than have to play it a seventh time. Truly this song has a life all its own.
We arrived at the venue to a balmy North Florida afternoon; split-pea soup air palpable and suffocating, and were lucky enough to catch the latter half of OCMS’s soundcheck. Watching a professional, road hardened band sound check is a lot like watching a tribe of warriors in those blockbuster action movies prepare for battle; the overarching mood is light and jocular but the understood undercurrent is that we came to conquer. No prisoners taken. Just as we have hundreds of times before. The energy and inspiration of watching these seasoned pros followed me into our soundcheck and, as nervous and self-doubting as I usually get before big shows, I couldn’t help but feel like some of Old Crow’s subtle musical mastery and quiet, easy confidence had cast a protective glow over me and the rest of the Lillies.
It certainly seemed so…. from the opening note of “Gold and Roses” the throngs of music lovers, though only about half of the horde that was to amass when OCMS took the stage, bobbed and danced in the venue’s open cobblestone court yard, sweat and beer mixing into an intoxicating perfume that perforated the humid Florida haze. To recount the rest of our forty-five minute set would be impossible as it seemed to pass in the blink of an eye, but as my sweat drenched hands finally relinquished my drumsticks I do remember an appreciative cheer reverberating back at us with what seemed like a physical force.
After a short, frantic set change, OCMS took the stage. From the very first song they had the crowd eating out of the palm of their bow-wielding, banjo picked hands. Definitely one of the sweeter concerts I have seen in a long time. One of the best of many great moments occurred when they brought out our very own Trisha Gene and Cruz for rousing renditions of a bluegrass standard (I think it was “Orange Blossom Special”) and the geographically appropriate “Seminole Wind”. While I would never say I take anyone in the band’s talents for granted; it is one thing to hear those two’s vocals coming through a (not always ideal sounding) monitor mix night after night, visually only staring at their backs, and quite another to hear and see them front and center on a monster PA system, belting out barely rehearsed cover songs over a power house band. “Hey! Those are MY band mates!” I remember thinking, like a kid watching from the bench as a teammate smacks a game winning home-run. The night was a huge success, and as we pulled back into the pebbled driveway of our Seaside digs somewhere around 7 in the morning, we all felt the satisfied exhaustion that only a Black Lillie “vacation” can induce.
The following night’s show in Seaside was a similarly rock’n’tropin affair, with two notable exceptions. 1) No Old Crow Medicine Show. 2) Take every drunk reveler from the previous night and replace him/her with a child under 7 years of age….. and give every single one a flashing light saber, glowing hula hoop, or needlessly sparkling whatever. I am not sure where these children amassed such a plethora of plastic-things-that-make-light, but the field in front of us looked kind of like how I would imagine “Barney the Purple Dinosaur presents Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon” would. In fact, when the sun went down early in the show all you could really see of the sizable crowd was an incredible assortment of these luminous toys whizzing about, the tiny faces of those who wielded them occasionally caught in their afterglow. It was truly the most wholesomely psychedelic event I have ever witnessed; a drug free, juvenile rave with “Smokestack Lady” as the soundtrack.
The following day was our true “vacation day” at the beach, and it passed in all the beer-drinking, castle-building, football-throwing, sun-soaking, ocean-frollicking glory that we had all been hoping for. I, in a tradition I have unwilling participated in since childhood, got viciously sunburned despite multiple coats of SPF 50. I, also rather unwillingly, engaged in another time honored beach tradition of old….. a sand war. The concept is quite simple…. it is a war involving sand. My opponent was Chyna’s ten year old son Hayden, who, as the sand war rules of engagement mandate, threw sand at me. I retaliated quickly and the game was on. The short skirmish that ensued reminded me of a lesson that I had learned several months previously from Cruz’s also-ten-year-old son, Cash. The battle between a fit, energetic adolescent and a once-played-sports-in-high-school-now-sits/lies-in-a-van-2-to-12-hours-a-day 23 year old plays out much like a wolf hunting a caribou on the frozen tundra. The caribou, though larger, faster, and stronger than the wolf, eventually ends up losing simply because the wolf will not stop chasing and following till he has himself a damn caribou. In this case, the caribou was tired, sunburned, and in need of a beer, so after about 20 minutes I admitted defeat. THE END.
Wow. Even by my own loftily low blogging standards, that one took a while to get out. I am not sure why. Maybe laziness. Maybe busyness. Maybe the fact that I read this book called “The Goldfinch” that blew my literary mind wide open, rendering every attempt at putting (typing) words on the page (screen) worthless in its artistic shadow. I don’t know, but there it is, and I hope it makes sense. I’ve got to admit, I am getting a little nervous at all the metaphorical blogging elephants accumulating in the metaphorical blogging room. There’s Bonarroo, meeting the reason I play music, that one bizarre night in Seattle…. hopefully all of which and more to be addressed in the coming months. We are currently on a massive tour, which typically leaves me little time to sit down at my must-always-be-plugged-in-or-it-will-die-immediately lap top and try to put words to all the amazing things we are privileged to experience on a daily basis, but please know that I will try my best. I appreciate all the blog encouragement both online and in person more than I can express, and it is that encouragement that motivates me to try to provide y’all with a piece of writing deserving of all your positive comments. I am going to work in the coming months to provide a more constant stream of content for the blog, and I hope that as I become a better writer and our traveling allows, this will become a place that you can check more than half a dozen times a year for all Lillie-related yarns. Until then, thanks as always for reading and for all the things, large and small, that y’all do to enable us to follow this crazy rock’n’roll dream.