European Busking Tour 2016
When I left my home on July 4th, there was no plan. I bought a one way ticket. I had no idea of when I would return or if I would return. The only thing I knew for sure was that I was going to land in Berlin. And I did. My friend Anna was there at the airport and we took a taxi back to her place in Kreuzberg.
Coming from the small community on Vancouver island, this city would continually blow my mind. From the radio tower in the centre to all the architecture, I was astounded. And there were people everywhere, sitting around, visiting and being seen. In a city of over 3 million, it was strange to me to see all these people just relaxing. The one thing people don’t tell you about Berlin is about all the green green parks around town. Trees and grass and all the tended to plants. THIS is what a metropolitan city should look like. And it has all of these green spaces for people to hang out in and visit and to be in the community. Amazing. And the biking….wow so much fun.
On the very first weekend, I was carried off via train and bus to Poland. Just off the Baltic Sea, to a huge techno dance party, 20,000 strong, In a small town/defunct steel factory. Everyone camped out in the fields next to town and all the stages were either recessed into these collapsing buildings or completely and beautifully created from scratch. Anyone that knows me, knows that a techno party would be the last place you’d find me but I found this to be so much fun. Full of various and sometimes sketchy people and the eerie landscapes that were created by these huge janky metal structures and tools. I’m not sure if I actually got to experience the “real” techno that Berliners talk about but either way this was a new experience. That is all I can ever ask for!
As for the rest of my time in Berlin, it was mainly spent biking. Thanks to Robbie for lending me a fantastic one gear metal steed, I ripped ALL around that city. And it is designed so well for that. I had my first rush hour experience on bike here too. I felt safe and that people in cars were genuinely looking out for bikes. It was weird that in a way smaller city in Canada, there is a utter lack of care and respect for bike culture. I biked and busked all over Berlin allowing me to take it slowly and understand the layout of this complex and bustling city.
I decided it was time to begin another adventure and that was going to be the Rila Music Exchange in Bulgaria. Ever since my last trip to Eastern Europe, I have been fascinated with the folk music here. So many complex rhythms and strange melodies and the remnants of the Soviet Union. It has equally a grim yet inspiring feel to it. I took a plane, train and bus (which was caught behind a donkey) to get to the small mountain town of RIla. I spent 2 weeks with a close group of younger people, all hailing from completely different places around mostly Europe and all of us sitting in an old recital hall learning note by note Bulgarian folk songs. A kopanitsa to a djangorica and other types that I cannot even spell and all with complex times. We ended our learning session with a series of performances that were in small towns and villages where they cooked up huge traditional meals and we drank way toooo much rakia. Infact, I think this was the first time I ever had a combo of flu and alcohol poisoning. Rough. The Exchange finished up at a big festival in a town near Plovdiv and we all went our separate ways. I met some very inspiring people and not to mention Sofia, who is an absolutely AMAZING and well rounded violinist/fiddler. Holy moly.
Back to the capital city, also called Sofia, to meet my sister Ali. Again, no plan. No nothing. But we meet and we are off to busk in this strange, post communist city. We meet lots of friendly people and then decide to take the night bus to Istanbul. We brushed our teeth and peed in the parking lot and hopped on that 12 hour bus to that seemingly strange far off place.
I tossed and turned and was finally awoken by a border guard. We exited the bus and then had to pay $50 american to get that 90 day travel VISA. And then off we went. We arrived in the wee hours of the morn and it was still cool but humid. The bus station was absolute chaos with people moving in every direction. We made it out and onto the metro and eventually found our hostel. Neverland. This hostel was truly a one of a kind lodging, especially for older and more experienced travellers. No frat house or hilarious leather couches and swanky chochy living room designs. It’s a multi level building with tons of chill spaces, good cooking area, cheap rooms and the staff are the centre of it all. I’m not turning this post into an ad about this hostel but really, it made being in Istanbul so much more of an experience.
Armed with our instruments, Ali and I took immediately to checking out the neighbourhood/taksim square and planting ourselves admists the hoardes of people that funneled down the streets of Istiklal. I had never seen that volume of people moving by in such a tight area, not to mention the odd tram and automobile pushing it’s way through. It was electric. We set up, accordion and vioin, and began to trumpet our arrival in this magical city. What we didn’t know was that it was approaching parayer time, which happened 5 times a day, with a loud song being blasted over speakers ALL across this huge city. People still walked down these streets but it was an unsaid thing that you did not play music during those intervals. Unfortunately we did not know that and were scolded by a mean faced turkish man, yelling at us in a language that was so so unfamiliar.
This definitely informed me of this place. I wasn’t on Vancouver Island anymore, I was in the wilds of sprawling concrete, mosques and markets of this ancient city. SO much history is here. I could feel it yet I didn’t feel the same hardness from the people like in Bulgaria. It appeared so….open and inviting. People really looked at you and made an attempt to have a connection. In fact, Ali and I were taken out to dinner more than twice by locals so they could show us their pride and and joy which was Istanbul (thank you Erdal, Umut, Ozgun, Cihan and Feyza).
In a city with more than 10 million people and with the very real threat of terrorism in the air, it was a total surprise that it would be such a friendly city. Ali and I busked everyday, mostly on Istiklal and occassionally on the Princes’ Islands and were fortunately only arrested once, by mistake I believe. Because of the climate of political tension, there were far less buskers, which was a bit disappointing. But we made the most of it and were in turn, handsomely rewarded for our persistant efforts. Not only did we fund our stay, but we met so many different peoples. I even managed to get a swing gig at an old, yet incredibly lavish embassy from olden days (and had the honor of playing with Bilal, incredible). We stayed almost a whole month. We tromped around to most all of the special spots in that city from the Blue Mosque, to the Bazaar to all of the little streets and markets and ferries and people and food and and…..And I even got top notch and cheap dental work done to boot. YUS!
So off we went. Back to Bulgaria and then onto Thessaloniki, the culinary capital of Greece. We took, you guessed it, another bus and arrived early in the morning just off the side of some road. It really didn’t look like much compared to Istanbul at first. It was way dirtier and there was grafitti everywhere. But mostly terrible grafitti mixed with some good stuff. We meandered our way towards any hostel and finally managed to spot some cool buildings and ocean side views. We rocked up to our hostel and then went down to experice our very first of the best food of my trip. Burrata. Filo pastry with either cheese, spinach, meat or cream. Soo good. And the triangles with cream. Oh man. There was a bakery on every corner so it was a surprise that we got anywhere in that town. But we sure did, after all besides music, we sure did walk a lot. Finding a good busking spot proved to be very problematic. In fact, I think busking was not really appreciated here which was a stark difference from Turkey. But Ali and I still persisted but definitely made more time to go to the beach or to just plain stuff our faces. And we did manage to experience some intimate live rebetika music which filled out our Greek experience. We hung around this delicious town for about a week then moved onto the capital.
Athens. So much history. So much pollution. So expensive. so…disappointing. I mean this in a comparative way. It just seemed so uninviting and the food was nowhere near the quality of Thessaloniki. But then again, to see the Akropolis in person and to walk on cobblestones that have been tredged for hundreds of years, it was so humbling. And this had been a dream of mine since I was in Art School. The sheer magnitude of these structures is what really blew me away. And not to mention, how high above the city it was. You could look out upon all of the tiny white buildings and really see all of Athens. And the area around the Akropolis was such a treat to get lost in. All these tiny walkways and starways and homes and views. Ali and I busked a bit in this town but it was to be the last destination for my sister. She was flying off to meet a friend in the UK. I carried onwards with Anna and we rented a cute little car to explore the Pelopenese Islands.
We drove straight towards Pylos but really didn’t have a plan as to where we were going to settle in. Car camping it was and the weather had been absolutely fantastic in my travels up to this point. Sunny and no rain. None. And as we were now on the coast, it was even more ideal. The road was small and windy after we got far past Athens and past Sparta. We were driving along the coast through small town after small town, each with an impressive fortress built against the rugged cliffs. We drove to the end of the road and then through a dense olive farm and out to a small road. This road took us to the most magical and seemingly imaginary beach I have ever seen. Voidakilia, with it’s outstretched hugging arms of sand and cactus. And accented by the rising rocky cliffs at both ends and an old ruined castle at the top. When I imagined a beach in my mind, this is what it looked like. So anna and I stayed for a handful days, crashing out in the car with really no one else around except for the mosquitoes at night. Woooo. Damn. That was definitely not part of the dream. Nope. But we did get to wander around the whole area on acid, regardless of my shoes being stolen the day before (Damn you bastards!). This was a part of my travels that actually felt like a vacation. I was lazing around on the beach away from people and traffic. It definitely recharged me and we made our way slowly back to Athens, visiting little towns along the way.
We flew back to Berlin and it was October, so it meant it was grey now. Grey was the color now. All the time for a month actually, with little bits of rain here and there. But there were beautiful autumn leaves that decorated all the parks and streets. I started my metro busking tour of the city and kept ferverously biking around these bustling streets. I also had a chance to play a show with the Turbans, an amazing balkan style band. This city began to feel really comfortable after a while, and in fact it did from the start. Even with all of the people, Berlin has a serious charm to it. It is still very affordable for most to live in it and the access to arts is spectacular. There is something for everyone. Like going to a dark industrial building and partying until 10am while techno music blasts away to the masses dancing. Or visiting an old nazi college turned US spy base turned condo turned artist residence for visual/grafitti artists. Or going for a swim in a beautiful lake just on the outskirts of Berlin.
I couldn’t believe how generous my friend Anna was in allowing me to share her space and meet her friends and have this wonderful opportunity to expand my horizons as a person and artist. Thank you ever so much Anna. So we took another trip and this time it was back to Poland but we would do it in her newly aquired 1999 Opel. We took a small detour to Dresden first to visit family and the city. It was famously destroyed and rebuilt in WW2 and it was stunning. We stopped at a couple small towns before crossing over to Poland. We went to both Wroclaw and Katowice before reaching our destination Krakow. And what a fine city it was. Untouched by any of the onslaught of WW2, it was pristine in archetecture and class. Tourism was certainly apparent here but there were places called “milk bars” where you could duck in to grab a delicious, cheap and traditional meal. We explored this city for a couple days but no busking happened here. It was too heavily tapped so that it was not worth my while. After all, I was still technically on vacation!
I suppose I forgot to mention the driving on European highways part. Well, I would say it was definitely faster but I would also say it felt safer. People actually had an understanding of the right and LEFT lanes which meant traffic flowed smoothly. But driving a 20 year old car admist all of these newer mercedes models was definitely a bit nerve racking. We did make it there and we made it back safely (with a bit of car troubles) and it was soon to be time for the next chapter of my travels.
Oh Budapest. You will always have my heart. My true heart, with off of it’s grit, resilience and shrouded beauty. This would be my third time in this enticing city and I would come there to meet my Canadians cohorts. I met Dustin and Jen in a ruin bar/hostel that we were going to be staying at and the night began raucously. How nice it was to be back with friends that I hadn’t seen in ages. And the fact that we were all here again in the rough jewel of central Europe tickled me. We drank. Oh yes we did and we did until it was daytime and it was snowing. It was November in Hungary and cold but it was so pretty to see the dark ornate building blanketed under thick wet snow in the new light of day.
But we were not staying long for we had to meet other friends in Beograd. I was excited to return to this dirty yet beautiful city. And now it would be with 4 other people in the mix. Of which, a trio of us could now hit the streets in unison. How exciting! We found a great hostel and some decent spots for busking. I began teaching these fine gents some of the songs I had learned in Bulgaria and Turkey and we headed out to grab a pljeskavica at Mike’s fav spot. How I miss those delicious and greasy meat sammies with all the dressings! We ended up being run out of the main shopping district due to no license for busking, which was bs with all of the Roma doing it anyways. It turned out to be a great opportunity to check out Zemen though. It was on the other side of town, almost an entirely different town actually. It had all these little shops and neighbourhoods and all the locals seemed to be around. We set up here and began to quickly take favor by all the passerbys. Not only that, we got invited into a tiny bar up on a hill to play for a Russian man and his clients. He fed us delicious food and rakia and we played until a woman cried from joy.
Beograd is a gem in that it is one of a kind. From the outside it looks quiet industrial but the heart of the city beats with the love and desire for song and dance. I could see this in my nights out at bars on bohemian street, where the locals would carry on long after the band was done and sing all of the Serbian folk songs they all knew and loved. I had never experienced anything like this before coming from my baby country called Canada. People were barely comfortable with yelling in public let alone singing. And what songs would we sing anyway? A nickelback tune? No one has a connection, especially in the West, to any defining songs tying them to a shred of Canadian culture. It was so refreshing to see this and be welcomed by the locals as a way of exchanging culture.
Mike had been to Bosnia and the thought of it intrigued meand Dustin. So we hopped in a minivan, hailed by the hostel and we were off on a 5 hour drive to Sarejavo. It took a while due to unforseen traffic and one VERY surly driver but he got us there safe and sound. As we travelled into the valley where that city resided, I was awestruck. We passed through/across snowy mountains to get to this sacred place. And it was a place where christians and muslims lived together. Mosques and Cathedrals shared the vistas. And in the centre of town was a white stone road that meandered through all of the historic places. And the borek was so flakey and delicious. People loved us here and we immediately met Lily and her partner while we were busking. They invited us to play a show at their art gallery/bar/cafe and we did. Almost everyone loved us…well…almost. Except for the cops. One in particular hated us so much, even though there was no written law forbidding busking. And we were polite as best as we could. Some people are just dicks though. In fact, we had to leave town a bit earlier because that one cop was making it so hard on us. No hard feelings though and we did make a killing on the streets so this leg of the trip was almost free.
So we decided to go to Dubrovnik in a greater plan to make it to Albania. But that would prove to be nearly impossible due to zero trains and the unbearably long bus rides required to get there. Oh well, maybe one day. So we took a bearable bus ride over to Croatia and arrived in this ridiculously clean and touristy town. I don’t know what we were thinking as it was drawing close to december and all the decorations were up and well…G.O.T. So we stayed at a place hilariously called Kings Landing which was anything but with it’s tight quarters and shitty beds. haha. Touristic places never pay off so I’ve learned. You only pay more for less actually. But for the 2 days we spent there, it was stunning. We wandered all around that old town that was completely walled in by ancient stones and towers. I had never seen anything quite like it. And the busking at the entrance way proved to be quick and lucrative and it sounded amazing due to all the stone enclosures. And like any touristy place, the locals were definitely far less warm and inviting. But I was glad to have experienced this place and we made our way out back towards to Bulgaria.
We made it back to Beograd and then took the night train to Sofia. I had taken this train once before with Dustin and Jen without incident but this time would prove more eventful. And we definitely had enough whiskey for the trip which was key on a poorly heated communist era train. It would turn out that we would make a couple new friends at the train station and we would all cram into a crew couchette. We stayed up late drinking and one of the chaps from the UK would go to bed in a different spot, due to our general rowdiness. But we would later hear him yelling for help. He was getting robbed while he slept and Dustin jumped up to respond in kind. He cornered the guy until the authorities arrived and then the 2 delinquints were let off at the next stop. In the cold and in the middle of nowhere. That was a surprise for me as nothing even close to this had happened in all my travels. This barely dampened our sleep as we rolled along closer to the border from Serbia to Bulgaria.
We only woke up when the train was stopped and off, including heat, for what seemed like a couple of hours. There was snow everywhere outside and it was COLD inside our couchette. Freezing. So we woke up and were soon visited by the border guards. Off we eventually went and we arrived in a snowy yet wet Sofia. I had the responsibility now for booked hostels and I got us lost on the way to this next one. It was worth it except for some other grumpy Canadians. The snow on all of the post communist era buildings looks so strange and magical. We stayed in a crowded hostel which was oddly busy for this off season time of the year. Dustin and I actually busked when it was -15C but got a sweet gig at an irish pub for being seen. We met a great local folk singer Ilko and he reminded me of so many of my talented friends back home in the folk scene.
Then off to Plovdiv. And by that time, the snow had receded, not unlike my current hairline. But thank goodness for hats in keeping my head warm. I had been in this town previously and each time I have discovered more about it’s kept secrets. And being back here with a crew made it even more enticing. We were almost the only ones in the Hikers hostel and that was so great. Dustin and I had the run of all the spots for busking too, although you did need a permit, we found appropriate spots. We ended up meeting Tui, a new zealander that sang forlorn bulgarian folk songs. And she had studied with the same teacher as I had but a month prior. Small world I suppose! We stayed for a couple of days and then the group voted to go to Istanbul. Ever since returning from that vitriolic city, I couldn’t help but feel apprehension over the idea of returning.
Thankfully all the blogs out there were wrong and we could take a train to Turkey. Anything but another bus I thought.Thankfully for me, I had already purchased a VISA for entry as my friends weren’t so lucky and were whisked away in the backs of pickup trucks at the border. We were transferred to a bus and then we rolled into Turkey in the wee hours of the morning. It was interesting to be back but at a colder time of the year. There was definitely way less people on Istiklal but that didn’t mean it wasn’t busy. Having already been there, it was a real treat to show my friends around to some of my favorite spots. One of which was Kadikoy, technically the Asian side of Istanbul. It held so many hidden spots and secrets and busking areas for me to newly discover. We made lots of new friends and I got to know some of the other ones I made earlier a bit better. We also narrowly avoided being killed by a huge terrorist bomb by 30mins one night in Besiktas. That night I found out what it must be like to live in constant fear of this political and idealogical nightmare. We were even asked the same day by the staff if we were going to leave now but I willfully replied “No”. I was definitely committed now and because it had become so cold, we had many late nights sharing music and raki. It was an honor to hear and play music with some of these people from around Turkey and be a part of this authentic cultural exchange. And lest we not forget Taxim Square and wet burgers. Wet. Burgers.
The weather continued to turn and get colder so we thought, let’s go to Izmir. It’s nearly christmas and it must be warmer there. Plus we would get to stay in Turkey and keep with the open feels of Turkish culture. Izmir was also a very welcoming and generous city and the hostel we stayed at turned out to be a major support network for the influx of Syrian refugees. While Dustin and I busked across that town, our friends went and visited the camps that were on the outskirts of town. Dustin and I landed a university gig and a couple cafe gigs so that was boss. All because we were a bunch of weirdoes that were either talented enough or brave enough to be out there on the streets. This city continued to unfurl it’s secrets to us and the Bazaar turned out to be the most spectacular of markets. It easily bested the one in Istanbul because it seemed less commercial. We stayed until the weather again was becoming a bit too inhospitable due to strong winds. Mike and Caroline had already headed to the Dominican and I eyed up some cheap flights west.
So west we went and off to Spain and to warmer climates. We landed in Barcelona and immediately took to the streets. And to our surprise, busking seemed discouraged mainly and the citizens were far from friendly. The hostels were 4x more expensive to stay in and were pretty much glorified frat houses. Oh the glamorous west and all of its “luxuries”! We didn’t stay long in this town but getting to experience the insane archetecture of this city was well worth all of the other short comings.
With the impending Christmas and surge pricing for accommodations, we had to move south. We settled into Sitges at the second best hostel we had stayed in on this whole trip. It was a converted hotel which now played as a swanky hostel/bar/beach house that would be a much needed refuge for us. The days were sunny and warm but the nights were definitely winter like. The busking was way better for us here and we made decent loot which offset the higher costs of travelling through the West. Not only that, people were much more relaxed here and upon discovering later, this was also a great place to be if you were into parties and the queer scene. So many beautiful and friendly people were here and christmas ended up being so great and so understated. I think we endded up at a gay bar just dancing all night. Dustin even got 3 numbers from some very interested men. We ended up taking a day trip to Tarragona and hanging out with a super cool person, Mari, from Brazil. We swam along the coastline just down from our hostel then decided after 10 days of super vacay, we should embark on another trek.
We flew to Amsterdam now and it went off. It was still full swing holiday season so it was cold yet busy. Like the rest of the west, everything here was ludicrously expensive, like 10 euro beers and 30 euro a night accommondations. That was a stark contrast from paying an averge of 8 euros across Eastern Europe and Turkey. But we did have the option of busking. We just had to be brave enough and have enough layers to endure the cold of January in Amsterdam. We were the only idiots busking on the streets so we made a decent wage and as a former Albertan, it really wasn’t that cold. It certainly made the beers even more worthwhile at the end of each day though. Anna came and met me here and we stayed at a cool airbnb just outside of the city. The metro was easy to take and Dustin and I convened in the morning to begin the adventures through the bustling city streets each day. Something in the air of that city just made me and everyone else so open to new experiences and encounters. And I definitely learned quickly to look for bikes before crossing any street! We smoked a bit of weed and took a couple ganders through the red light district and checked out all the other touristy places Amsterdam had to offer. It really was a charming place full of so many opportunities!
While in Izmir I had finally decided on a return ticket back to Canada. I spent the last of my travel days in Amsterdam and I definitely found myself looking forward to returning to my quiet cabin on the ocean. I was exhausted but completely filled with inspiration and awe. It was almost too much for one person to contain I reckoned. And i had also had the time to examine and reflect on how good my life truly is on Vancouver Island. Funny how it is that you would need to travel halfway across the world to appreciate even the most subtle things aobut your home. After travellling for 36 hours (3 delays/cancellations in Seattle) I arrived back weary and relieved. I nestled back into my cabin for the winter and to settle back into my life as an artist in the Comox Valley.
Donkey Tour 2014 – NC/Appalachian Mountains
A reflection of this trip is absolutely necessary. After all, this definitely changed my life. To be a part of the Rural Academy Theatre and to bike through the Blue Ridge mountains was an absolute dream. A dream that was filled with such amazing views, charismatic people, weird sleeping arrangements and the view of the American country side that few get to gander. I was commissioned by my sister to put together the music for a variety act show with theatre, puppets and music. And what an honor that was! We spent a month practicing and putting together the show and tweaking the small stage that was to be dragged through the mountains by 2 beautiful lumbering horses through the mild southern fall.
Crazy. And us, we were to be pedal driven alongside on bicycles. Driven by our hearts and curious minds. We travelled through many small towns from the beginning of the Appalachian mountains outside of Asheville. It started off a bit too ambitious as we had a HUGE show in Lenoir. It proved to be almost too big as our acoustic show could barely reach back past towards the 150+ crowd. Still people were thrilled about the idea of this kind of show coming to their small town. We ended up being put up in a gym where we all slept on cots. In the morning, we made for Linville but it would prove more difficult than anticipated. Our horses were pretty green and couldn’t make that steep incline of 3800ft to Linville. Luckily, the folks in the south are so so kind, we were towed up to Linville in no time and 2 of the crew had to walk the horses back. What a first couple days of travel!!
We went from Lenoir to Linville and promptly got to eat some amazing southern BBQ and things. Our show was well attended and My sister Ali and I played beautiful intro music that cold cold evening. In fact, our clarinetist, Jeff, had to get another chamber for his instrument made due to the cold and humidity. But we got lucky as there was a wood artist there with a full setup and a lathe! We stayed up late in the cold and jammed with some old folks where I played some of the few American tunes I knew.
We were up early again and made it for Boone! It was a ride downhill for a good part so that was nice but along a busier road. This was a bit stressful on the horse and our driver so we all had to play a part in buffering the stage with high vis vests and signals. Ali and I volunteered to scout a shorter route to Boone. We took Clarke’s Creek which was a stunning valley with lush farm land and winding roads. But it turned out that this way was not the one we wanted. So, we hitchhiked 3 times to get back to the group. All of us made it to outskirts Boone and we camped out.
We made it to Boone proper by the early afternoon and we had a show at Appalachian state. What a contrast that show was, to a bunch of university kids. And it was reasonably received but we were just trapped inside this huge campus. Eating cafeteria food. Watching all the kids on their phones and things. So different from that open valley and country just a day ago. We camped out back in the sports field in tents that night. The next day we made for Horn of the West, another campus show, and had a good reception. I later rushed off to catch the last of a great oldtyme jam in the basement of the campus.
The next show was a 2 day travel deal. It was almost 1500ft in elevation so the going was slow. The views were amazing and the weather was fantastic. Lots of sun and absolutely no hint of rain. After a day and a half of travel, we made it to Lees McCrae in Banner Elk and put on our show that was now quite tight and well rehearsed.
Another 2 day travel was ahead but it was mild. Full of winding roads, sunshine, snacks and changing leaves. More than that, we were off to the fabled Penland school of Arts and Crafts. A whole 18 miles were done today as we met up with really friendly horse kin on Prison camp road (there were at least a couple of prisons on that road). We camped at Greg’s ranch that overlooked the whole valley. We had to find a spot between the cattle and the cowpies that night but once we were settled, the stars and the campfire were absolutely magical!
When you sleep in grazing fields in a tent, dont expect to sleep late. Those cattle, as slow as they look, love to move around. So we were off after our obligatory oatmeal and coffee in the morning. I do believe it was my turn! As it turns out, we were averaging about 15 to 20 miles a day out of those big beautiful lumbering beasts. They hauled that 1000lb stage slowly yet steadily as Jayce commanded their path. We made another easy 15miles and made it to Penland by the early evening. Entering the property, it was an expansive and rolling valley. With a bunch of buildings devoted to a whole array of differing material arts. Metal working, glass blowing, print making, wood working, etc. It was like a dream. I made some fast friends and then wandered around from open studio to studio and watched as these artisans created publicly. I ended up drinking too much and laughing too hard while playing cards against humanity. A perfect way to get to know anyone. The next day I woke up with a mild hangover and then headed up the beautiful trail behind the school. After that, we set up the show and performed in front of an adoring audience. They were artists after all too! The night was full of magic and we stayed up late drinking Dickel bourbon. damn you Jeff!
Then next day, we aimed to be just outside Burnsville at a tiny private school called Arthur Morgan. Again, through winding small roads and passes that went by quaint homes and expansive properties that seemed almost abandoned. The school was tucked away between 2 farms and it seemed so simple and unassuming. It seemed to have a really well rounded curriculum with singing to begin each day. We had a fire and got to sleep inside that night. The next day I took an absolutely necessary shower and we set up the show in the small school house. As luck would have it, Bruce Greene showed, an oldtyme fiddle legend, and he actually lend me a set of strings as I broke my current set upon striking the first notes. I was hoping to jam with him after but the time never asserted itself. Shucks.
After this, we set off to Marshall, a beautiful town nestled in the mountains with a jam on Sundays with Bobby Hicks. Wow. It was full of misty mountains and lovely artsy people. We put on our show outside and it was COLD but well attended. This was the night I got to jam with Bruce Greene! On a more grim note, I ended up smahing up my foot pretty bad and it was bleeding. It would prove only later to be a bit of a problem though.
We had another show that would take us right through the heart of Asheville. Ali and I managed to sneak in a very lucrative busking session on a sunny day. I guess they don’t hear much klezmer on the streets of ‘merica on the East. Biking thorough was a bit of a nightmare but we made the best of it by getting Mcflurries with the horse drawn stage through the McDonalds drive-thru. Hilarious. Either way, we got to stay with M and he was a fantastic host. He put us all up and I remember sleeping like a wee babe.
The next day we made it for Franny’s Farm! What a place and the best hospitality too!! It was nestled in the hills just outside of Asheville surrounded by friendly neighbours. Not many people appeared for the show but there was PLENTY of moonshine. Woo. I ended up staying up way too late and having to get up wayyy too early. Slow learner I guess.
As we weaved on back through Asheville, my foot was really starting bother me. It looked a bit swollen and I thought, hmmm…couldn’t be infected! It’s not like I had been swimming in all the rivers along the way…Oh man. But I was pretty stubborn and my friends from Canada had come and visited me. I had to be up to mingle and have fun but being on my feet and bike was proving to be quite painful.
We played a show at a really unique land co-op called Earth Haven. All the people that lived here were choosing to not participate in the good ol “american dream”. They all bought shares of land and built little homes out of repatriated materials, in what ever shape they so decided. This made for a fascinating stroll through the neighbourhoods. Some people were friendly and a lot seemed to want to be left alone. The main building was fantastical and beautiful. Made from the wood in the area, milled logs and various stones from the Appalachian mountains. High vaulted ceilings and lots of natural light with a big central space. Perfect for our performance on the next night.
Quince came and met us earlier and now he would truly add to our variety show. He would sing a beautiful Greek folksong to kick off the night and this had the community at Earth Haven just in awe. It was such a treat to meet these people and to see how hard they worked at an alternative vision for what their lives could be. Really inspiring.
After that, We meandered up to Black Mountain. Yes, THE Black Mountain. Birthplace of bluegrass. So I just couldn’t resist the chance to crash a jam at the local bar that night. It was such a treat to hear real Americans singing their folk songs. Not a recreation but the real deal. I had a real time playing that night as I sawed away at my steel strings. But while on stage, my foot was nearly unusable, but I grinned and bore it out in order to experience this American past time. That night, I had to get a bottle of whiskey in order to dull the pain. But in the morning, with it’s change in color, I knew it was time to act!
Getting around Asheville on a bike was lofty at best. Not designed for bikes in any way. None. And to get from Black Mountain to Asheville wasn’t that far but with a bum foot and the highway, it was nigh impossible. Enter Quince. He had wheels. One of the only people because he drove down from NY a couple of days prior. We had to go to multiple clinics due to a policy of no help for international emergencies. Finally, we found one and I got admitted in and was sent out almost as fast. A bottle full of antibiotics and a bill for $350 american dollars. Holy moly. Well, I thought it wasn’t so bad but later had discovered that my coverage had just expired. Classic.
That didn’t bum me out at all though. Onward and Upward! My foot recovered in NO time but the weather continued to get cold. Tenting at night would prove to be a lot more challenging. Not to mention the frost in the mornings too. We only had a handful of shows left though. One at a puppet academy and the Leaf Festival. The Puppet academy was really fascinating because they housed some of the biggest most elaborate and stunning puppets I had ever seen. Just crammed into an old gymnasium. So neat.
The Leaf Festival was the real deal though. Tucked away in the rolling, easy Appalachian mountains and full of people from all over. Couldn’t have been more than 4000 people camped out so it was just big enough. Maybe even smaller though. It was definitely varied in acts. And it was hilarious that we had to sort out where our horses were going to be hitched. We didn’t want then pooping on a tent or five. Some highlights were seeing an amazing African band that was a direct link to American banjo music. So rich. I remember seeing Dom Flemons put on the most amazing solo trad show I have ever seen. What a performer! I also remember seeing Talib Kweli tear the roof the outdoor stage. And the contra dance bands were so so solid. An amazing level of musicianship here. There was a fiddle contest that I entered just for fun but I only took home second, and was bested by an amazing 16 year old fiddler. I think my favorite part was getting in on the late night oldtyme jams around in the tents. I met such friendly and inviting people and heard/learned so many tunes. It really set me on a path of wanting to learn this hypnotic music.
After a total of about 2 months with this fantastical group of people rehearsing, creating, navigating, deciding and travelling in the most insane of ways, it was time to part ways. I mean come on, horses pulling a stage on busy roads with cars. This is a relic of a time that is actually not that long ago when I think about it. A bit more than 100 years I reckon. Funny thing is it seemed to me that it evoked some very strong emotions in people as they encountered us on the road. Almost as if, they too wanted this. To go back to a slower more gentle life. Without all the fast loud cars and without all the ignorance to this ever beaming world around us.
To the other artists involved in this project, thank you for being a part of this. For inspiring the world around you. For inspiring me and reminding me that our lives can be shaped in most any way we choose. Only if we are courageous enough to take those first steps and believe in ourselves.