Ashland, OR -- San Francisco
I slept late on Monday, taking advantage of back-to-back nights off. When I finally stumbled out of the motel around 11am, there wasn’t a soul on the road, and I rolled 20 minutes down the highway to Ashland, where I’d be playing the following night. Ashland is home of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in the summertime, when the streets flood with thespians, musicians, and art enthusiasts alike, many of whom have been making the yearly trek to southern Oregon for generations. I remember seeing a number of classics here as a child, spending the hazy evenings in dark theaters, and doing my best to clean out the local gelato shop.
On one such night in 2004, when I was 11-years-old, my parents brought me down to see The Scottish Play. We happened to be in town the same night as what I believe was the second of three presidential debates between then-Senator John Kerry and President George W. Bush. My folks snuck me into a local dive bar that had a small Panasonic T.V. in the corner with the volume turned all the way up, and a mob of fellow liberal artists crowded around the curved screen. By the end of the night, the room had decided that Kerry had mopped the floor with W., and, as you all know, he went on to win the election that year, 251 Electoral Votes to 286 (not unlike the 1986 Boston Red Sox, who won the World Series over the Miracle Mets 3 games to 4). That’s how I recall it now, at least, and I remember walking with my parents into the warm night with smiles on our faces.
On a breezy afternoon in March of 2018, though, the streets are much more bare. Ashland’s seasonal migrants have yet to annex the town this year, and the locals seem content walking about their modest town as any person would, separate from the heavily romanticized characters they become in stories the summer crowd is surely telling their niece or nephew right now. I joined the roaming locals wandering the streets for a little over an hour, then stopped to chat with some buskers who I remembered from my last visit. They were nice enough to play a couple tunes I knew, and I sat on the pavement singing backups for a short while, before heading over to a trendy little coffee shop called Café 116, where I had my first hit of caffeine that day and did some writing. When I hit the bottom of my mug, I walked over to the local library to finish up some more work, and ended up staying there until they closed for the day. I closed my notebook, bumbled on back to the Civic, and doubled back to Medford for the night.
I’d originally planned to play in Medford that evening, at a longstanding dive called Johnny B’s Rockabilly Diner (with the word “diner” used fairly loosely, unless you’re accustomed to a double bourbon each morning in place of your ham and eggs), but I hadn’t found an available local act for the bill. Johnny B’s is a cool spot, but on a Monday in March, it’s about as dead as Marley’s ghost, and the last Monday I’d done on my own had been to an audience of Johnny B, Johnny B’s wife (who’s name I regrettably don’t recall), and a younger regular who frequents the “diner” so much that Johnny B eventually put him to work behind the bar in exchange for an unlimited supply of cheap whiskey. It’s a fair arrangement for a hard drinker in Medford, I suppose, but the Civic doesn’t run on Jack Daniel’s, so I decided working for four hours playing to nobody wasn’t worth the buzz.
One of the bands I’d contacted had a friend who was out of town for the evening, and having been tasked with collecting their mail, they very generously let me sleep on the futon in the hallway for the night even though the show didn’t happen. Not wanting to be a bother, I left early the next morning and rolled back into Ashland around 8am. After a quick coffee at Café 116, I took to the streets with my guitar and busked until the early afternoon, not making much but getting a few smiles from the locals, and I directed a friendly couple to Oberon’s Tavern, where I’d be playing that night. Around 4pm, I walked over to Mix Bakeshop (which is a couple doors down from Oberon’s) to do some reading and get myself back in the headspace to perform. I’ve been flipping through Henry Miller’s, “The Air-Conditioned Nightmare” and Kazuo Ishiguro’s, “The Remains of the Day” simultaneously, and have been intrigued by the contrast in travels — Miller the hardened veteran traveler, trashing cities like Boston without regret (“If I only could have seen a horse or a cow, or just a cantankerous goat chewing tin cans, it would have been a tremendous relief.”), and Ishiguro’s Stevens, roaming the English countryside for the first time (“...the English landscape, at its finest — such as I saw this morning — possesses a quality that the landscapes of other nations, however more superficially dramatic, inevitably fail to possess.”). I put both books down and stared at the wall for a while to contemplate, when I saw a familiar face coming my way.
An old friend of my mothers, Tessa Brinkman, who’s a fantastic flautist and musician, and lives in Ashland, had walked in for a coffee and happened to see me in the corner. It was a nice surprise, and we had a brief exchange of hello’s. Tessa said she had a rehearsal in the evening and was sorry to miss my show, and I said I was sorry for missing her last performance in Portland because of a rehearsal of my own. Hello’s and apologies taken care of, we went on to our goodbyes, and I packed up my stuff to head down the street for my gig.
Oberon’s is a fantastic venue, with a hip looking bar hooked around the kitchen on the left as you walk in, and a long hallway filled with tables and booths on the right. I set up early with the help of a local musician who performs under the name Jaya, who was kind enough to help me soundcheck. I found a table by the bar and ordered some hearty beef stew, which was as filling as the name implies, and provided some much needed fuel to get me through the night. The back room had largely cleared out by the time I started playing, but there were still plenty of regulars at the bar, and I was happy to find they were familiar with a number of traditional tunes in my repertoire. We had a nice time that evening, me playing and the regulars telling stories, and I had a nice quiet drink after my set before leaving town.
Back on I-5, I drove about 4 hours south to Redding, CA, getting through the Californian border without even having to hide my fresh fruit. I checked into the Motel 6 South in Redding around 3am, fell back to my room and slept for what felt like just a few moments before shaking the fog from my eyes and getting back on the highway en route to San Francisco. I left the radio off for a couple hours, taking the advice of Ray Mann, an older guy who I’ve played with and befriended in Portland — I once asked Ray for music recommendations on the road, and he retorted, “listen to your automobile.” So I let the Civic do its best to entertain me until making my first stop at a filling station, where I finally caved and found a Sacramento based, all-blues radio station to keep me energized down the coast.
When I arrived in San Francisco early Wednesday evening, I’d run out the clock about as much as possible, so I zipped through traffic the best I could over to an area of town known as the Richmond, and loaded my stuff into Simple Pleasures Café for the night. I’m in no way an expert, but from what I know, Simple Pleasures is a slice out of old San Francisco in the best way. A group of very kind-seeming art lovers gather on the stone benches outside the café, and a number of them inside filling out crossword puzzles, hoping to catch some music. A beat up, perfectly-out-of-tune piano sits at the end of a long corridor along the left side of the room, with the bar, kitchen, and espresso machine clumped together on the right. They have one of those raised up countertops, and the baristas appear to be some sort of royalty at first glance, though they’re as nice as can be. I spent the evening thumping on the piano in the corner, and singing folk songs to a couple that sat right up front, as well as a number of regulars who remembered me from when I'd played the café last year.
After the show, I hopped in the Civic and made my way over to Hotel Utah, where I’d be playing on Sunday. Because I was booked, they gave me a great deal on a room for a couple nights, and I checked in around midnight…
The Utah is a historic haunt located in the South of Market (or SoMa) area, which was erected in 1908 at the behest of the Deininger family. It survived prohibition in the ‘20s, only to find its patrons increasingly shady as SoMa became more populated after the Bay Bridge was built in 1938. According to the current owners, the hotel hosted “gamblers, thieves, ladies up to no good, politicians, hustlers, friends of opium, goldseekers, godseekers, charlatans, police, [and] fancy miscreants,” which to me seems like a very long-winded way of calling it a former-brothel.
By 1950, the Utah was being run by Alois Opatz, of Healdsburg. Under Opatz’s leadership, the tide turned for the better, and a number of well to-do celebrities stayed in the cozy rooms that the alleged “ladies up to no good” had frequented in the previous decades, including Marilyn Monroe, Joe DiMaggio, Bing Crosby, and yes, a number of named and unnamed beatnik poets, who’d no doubt drunkenly stumbled across town from City Lights Bookshop in hopes of a quiet room to write, or, more likely, pass out.
Alois officially bought the building in 1966, and renamed it, “Al’s Transbay Tavern” — a name that may ring a bell for those of you familiar with Francis Ford Coppola’s, “The Conversation,” which Opatz himself appeared in, according to his obituary. Evidently quite the character, Al allegedly carried a pair of scissors with him at all times in order to spare his patrons of their necktie’s, which he had a strong aversion to, and after shaking some poor soul's hand he'd declare that they’d, “shaken the hand that shook the world.” But he’d eventually get the shakedown himself, and in 1977, Paul Gaer bought the Tavern and hotel above it — two years prior to his writing the story to Sydney Pollack’s, “The Electric Horseman,” starring Robert Redford and Jane Fonda.
Gaer renamed the Tavern "The Utah," and being a writer and supporter of the arts, he built a new room with a stage to the right of the latrines, and a small balcony above it, quite literally setting the stage for what the venue is now known for. Local playwrights would try out their work on the Utah’s small stage, alongside a fresh wave of stand-up comedians, including a young Robin Williams and an even younger Whoopi Goldberg (both of whom eventually be credited with leading San Francisco’s comedy renaissance).
The history lesson gets harder to piece together after that. The Utah has become more and more a place for musicians to play, and with it’s well-lit stage and small, easy-to-fill room, it's a great launch spot for local songsmiths and traveling singers alike.
The hotel, as I learned, is probably closer to its pre-prohibition era than it is to its star-struck years in the ‘50s. The office sits behind a bulletproof glass panel on the second floor, and I waited as two grisly looking fellows were turned away by the attendant for various reasons, one of which was the lack of shoes. I felt for those guys, who ended up sleeping in the doorway to the saloon downstairs after close. Nonetheless, I told the attendant I was playing downstairs on Sunday, and they put me up in the corner on the fourth floor, room number 408, which looked out over the city — despite the power lines that distorted my view in a way I deemed romantic enough. I lay in bed thinking about who might have graced that room before, whether it had been one of the Walk of Famers mentioned above, or one of the kind souls sleeping below, and I dozed off wondering, as I’m sure they did, what the morning would bring.
As it turned out, the morning would bring loud traffic, car horns, and a noisy family dispute in a room down the hall. I woke consumed by the familiar foggy haze that's characteristic of being on the road, and made my way downstairs to check on my car, which I’d cleared out of the night before and parked on the street to avoid the steep overnight fee in the lot around the corner. Everything intact, I made my way back up to my room, made some coffee, and did a bit of work.
Around noon, I took off for the Haight, which of course has a history every bit as rich as the Utah, but I’ll guess you know a bit more about that, and won’t get into it. Most people who've lived here for a while will tell you about how the area has changed, but the travelers who roam on Haight street itself would say otherwise. I try to busk in the Haight as much as possible when I’m here, as the combination of friendly travelers and high rolling tourists make for a good mix of positive energy and good earnings. I played for a few hours, talking with the people who went by, and enjoying a cold glass of water with a man who runs an independent shoe store on Haight. Eventually my fingers started to get a bit raw, and I decided to pack it up before my voice decided to leave me too. I rolled back over to the Utah, stopping off at the Whole Foods nearby, and made myself an ambitiously large kale salad (why yes, I am from Portland), before meditating a while and eventually turning in for the night.
The next morning began in the same alarming way as the morning before, and I resolved to leave the Utah until my gig on Sunday. Historic, yes. Romantic, yes. Restful…not so much, and given how infrequently I’ll be in a city as long as I’m in San Francisco, I wanted something a bit quieter. Fortunately, the last time I came through the Bay Area I’d booked and then cancelled a two night stay at the Mylo Hotel in Daly City, just south of San Francisco proper. Long story short, I somehow ended up not having to pay for the rooms and getting credit for two nights in the future. I believe this happened due to a technicality, but I wasn’t about to complain, so I called them up and cashed in on those nights.
I was booked early that evening at a Hawaiian style Deli called Kawika’s along Ocean Beach, another spot I played last year that sits just north of the most western stretch of Golden Gate Park, and two blocks from…well, Ocean Beach (hell of a name they came up with there). I made my way over to the area early in the day, and stopped into the Java Beach Café on the other side of the park for some soup and a cup of coffee. This café is just a few blocks from where my parents lived in the mid ‘90s, when I was just a toddler. and I learned to walk along the beach on the other side the Great Highway. I always make a point of coming back and going for a stroll along the shoreline to show off my newfound walking skills, and I made it through without any faceplants this time around, before confidently striding back to Kawika’s in the early evening. I was greeted by David Notage III, the owner here at the deli, and nice, small group of folks who sat and listened attentively as I made my way through a quieter set. David told me he’d be happy to have me back any time, wrapped up a sandwich for me to take back out on the road, and with a hat tip, I made my way over to the Mylo Hotel.
The next morning I caught the tail end of the sunrise from a street corner, and sat there on the pavement for a couple hours writing and enjoying some of the hotel’s finest complimentary coffee. Around noon I made my way back over to the Richmond to set up for an afternoon gig I’d booked at a local record shop called NOISE Records, yet another spot from last year's tour which sits directly across the street from Simple Pleasures. The shop is run by a mother-son duo, the former of which is one of the kindest people I’ve met on the road, and the latter seems to always be working on something exciting when I’ve come through town. I played for the record aficionados who were thumbing their way through the wooden crates of albums that line the narrow corridor they’ve managed to fill every inch of, and a few regulars who recognized me from across the street ducked in and out of the shop over the course of the three-hour gig. These sorts of places, as I’m sure I’ll say a lot in this blog, are always familiar to me, whether I know the people or not, and I left feeling good about being just a small part of that community of music lovers in the Richmond.
After an hour of busking in the Haight, I spent what felt like another hour finding parking in a part of town that Google has listed as the Western Addition, though I haven’t heard it called that before. I'd booked a gig with Sofar Sounds, a volunteer-run global community of musicians and music lovers which organizes secret events worldwide. The really impressive part is that the audience for these shows has no clue who’ll be performing that night, and are just there to enjoy the music, which creates an incredibly intimate environment, and a shockingly rare case of music events that are actually tailored around the music (a truly unheard of idea, I know). I’d heard about them a while back from a dear friend of mine who does some photo work for Sofar in London (she also took the photo of me on the "About" page of this website, and does a lot of other incredible work, check that out here). I’ll admit, when she told me about it over a year ago my reaction was, “that sounds too good to be true,” and I proceeded to not believe it! Foolish me — this was one of the most engaging, and fulfilling shows I’ve had the pleasure of being a part of in recent memory, and after the show I had a great time talking to the other wonderful musicians (Nu Ethnic, and The Rare Occasions), and a host of wonderful folks from the audience. I really can’t say enough about what Sofar does, especially since I’m now hooked into their network and will hopefully be playing shows through them in a number of cities going forward. Again, it feels wonderful to be a part of communities like these, and I made my way back to the Mylo Hotel that night feeling quite accomplished indeed, and fell asleep excited for the rest of my stay in San Francisco.
I spent the next morning in Tibourn, just north of the city across the Golden Gate Bridge, where I met my Great Aunt Bonnie and Great Uncle Bud for brunch. They’ve lived in the Bay Area since the ‘60s and never left, and just celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary, an impressive feat, especially in the eyes of someone like myself who’s surroundings change daily. Aunt Bonnie and I chatted about family, and I asked a lot about the time my folks had spent living in San Francisco. I’m incredibly fortunate to have good family and good friends sprawled across North America, and even into Europe, and one of the joys of traveling with my music is feeling getting to see those people more frequently. I left with some good advice that I won’t repeat from Uncle Bud, and made my way back to the city, and eventually back to the Utah where I’d finally be playing that night.
I loaded in around 5pm, and sat in the window with a glass of water going over my set for the night and taking as much time as they’d let me playing the piano on stage — I don’t care much for piano sounds on electric keyboards, so I don’t travel with one and only get a few chances to play my piano songs at the venues that have the instrument. The Utah’s upright piano is another perfectly-out-of-tune instrument, and I did my best to shake the rust off my playing through the early evening, until soundcheck.
On the bill with me were two other acts, a solo singer-songwriter who calls himself Alberta, named after his great-grandmother, and a kick-ass roots duo named 5J Barrow, the address to their old apartment in New York City. Alberta had left Seattle over a year prior to tour all over North America, and 5J Barrow had done the same 8-months prior from NYC, and with me now half a month into this 3-month run, we decided we were four people from nowhere, and were happy to have it that way.
Halfway through 5J Barrow’s set, two old friends of my mother’s walked in, John and Gail, neither of whom had seen me since my learning-to-walk-on-the-beach days two decades ago, and we sat in the window having a lovely talk about music, art, writing, and life for about an hour. I made my way below the balcony to catch the end of Alberta’s set, and then went through a set that I felt was a bit shaky, but held together. Getting to play the piano was a lot of fun, and afterwards I swapped stories and venues with Eryn from 5J Barrow. They’re on their way to Portland, so I tried to point them in the right direction, though I’ll admit they were already pointed that way, and I’m sure they’ll be a hit in Stumptown. Alberta and I exchanged phone numbers on my way out, as he’ll be down in LA next week, same as me. You meet a lot of musicians on the road, and I love them all, but there’s nothing like meeting people who are out there actually doing it the way these cats all are, and meeting “co-workers” like that on the road is another one of the great joys of touring.
I stepped out into SoMa with my guitar and fiddle, feeling good at the close of the night. San Francisco is a fantastic city, one I’ve always loved, and this trip was no exception. The people here are some of the most engaging, interesting, and creative folks I’ve had the pleasure of working with and meeting, and I drove into the city lights feeling warm, and ready for what’s to come.
And that was the week! Coming up, I’ll be busking around SF for the next couple days, and then I’m headed down to Los Angeles for the following week, where I’ll be spending a lot of time with Sam Small, a fantastic songwriter and dear friend from my Boston days. You can find dates and times in advance on my website calendar, or catch my daily posters on Instagram, and show recaps on Youtube! Thanks for reading, friends, hope you have a great week!
Portland, OR -- Seattle, WA -- Vancouver, BC -- Ashland, OR -- Salem, OR -- Brookings, OR
A week ago I left Portland to start a 3-month, 48-date tour, during which I’ll be covering 13,000 miles and 31 cities in my ’05 Honda Civic. I’ll be detailing the happenings of the tour and some of my thoughts along the way in this blog, which I’ll update every Monday starting today! My aim is primarily to keep people informed, but I hope that when I’m through, I’ll have provided some insight into what being on the road like this is like. This will also be a sandbox for new ideas, so make sure to check back throughout the week for surprises along the way. Thanks for reading, friends!
My departure from my hometown was a bit delayed, as some winter weather held me down in the city for an extra day or two. Portland is notoriously horrendous when it comes to dealing with snow, and a light dusting in the West hills is likely to send the city into a complete shutdown. A former Mayor once said that we count on Mother Nature to clear the roads in Portland, and that some years she does a lousy job (leave it to City Hall to find a woman to blame for the weather — and a fictional woman at that). A lousy job indeed. So I called up the venue in Vancouver, BC I’d been booked to play to let them know I wouldn’t make it. I tried to explain to the Canadians why just ONE day of snow was enough to derail the trip, and being a dual citizen myself, I tried to translate the best I could. But I was embarrassed to learn that they don’t get much snow in Vancouver either...so put one on the board for the stupid American, I guess, maybe my Canadian half will do better next time.
I didn’t get on the road until a couple days later when the snow had melted away, and I zipped up I-5 to Seattle to play at the High Dive, a longstanding venue in Ballard mainly known as a hub for local and traveling punk bands. I’d played the High Dive before, first in 2013 with and old duo I was a part of called Beartown, and again as a solo act the following year. It’s a big place, and a bit too big for a rainy Tuesday, so the audience was a bit scarce. But the sound system is great, the unobstructed view made for some nice photos, and I did my best to keep them entertained, as did the other two acts on the bill — a punk-esque singer songwriter named Lauren Napier, and an Americana-blended group called Garrett & the Sheriffs.
After my set I had a drink with an old friend of my dad’s, a poet named Kevin Craft who was nice enough to come out, and who I’ve known since I was a wee one. We talked about music for a while, and listened to Garrett & the Sheriffs thank everyone for being there on a work night. In the end, my work night wasn’t too profitable, but it was great talking to Kevin and meeting the rest of the musicians. Two dates into the tour the tour and I’d already had to cancel one show, and played to a half empty room at the other, so one might have started to get discouraged with at least 47 shows still ahead on the schedule. But, as Kevin and I discussed, in music, poetry, and all forms of art, you learn to enjoy what works, and enjoy learning from what doesn’t — and there’s no use dwelling on the things that don’t. So it was a good start, I decided, and the High Dive is a fun venue, and maybe Mother Nature will be a bit more kind to me next time around…or maybe next time I just won’t book myself in the Northwest in February.
With that in mind, I left that night to head north, and booked a room at the local Days Inn in Bellingham. The next morning I woke early and set out for Vancouver, and with no weather to hold me down this time, I got through the border without issue and went straight to Café Deux Soleils to check in. The Café is a truly wonderful spot — during the day, they use the stage as a kids play area, and the room is filled with studying students, families out to lunch, and solitary locals reading the newspaper. By night, musicians take the stage, the espresso machine yields to a line of beer taps, the lights come down, and the seats are filled with a young, enthusiastic crowd of music lovers. I had the pleasure of spending my day working by the window in the corner, and chatting with the lovely staff. Later in the afternoon, I wandered up the street to a local bookstore, and the record store next door. No matter where you go, you will always find the same people in those types of shops, and I had a nice conversation with a lady wearing pink boots who was flipping through the country section.
When the evening came around, I dressed down, walked back into Café Deux Soleils, and met a singer songwriter named Collin Orchyk, who’d been booked to open for me that night. We had a great talk about the places we’d lived, and Collin played a nice set full of classic folk hits, and a few of his own musings as well. My set went over pretty well in the room too, and Collin and I chatted about Tom Waits by the water cooler with some people from the audience after the show (general consensus was Tom Waits is good).
After settling up with the venue, I said my farewells and again set out that night for the next town, Ashland, OR, about 9 hours down I-5 from Vancouver. I made it back to Portland to sleep for the night, and finished the drive the next morning. A couple episodes of my favorite podcasts later, and I’d arrived at the massive complex that is the Belle Fiore Winery. It’s a two story palace, with a full bar, restaurant, a separate wine bar where the musicians play, and a number of other massive rooms that evidently fill up during the summer months. The staff there was incredibly welcoming, and I enjoyed playing to a smaller, more intimate room for a couple hours. They made me one-helluva-hamburger for the road, and before I knew it I was back on I-5, tracking back for my gig in Salem the next night. I slept in Portland again, and had a nice brunch with my mother (who's work can be found here), before leaving town that afternoon.
The next couple nights went off without a hitch. Spent a long evening at the Triangle Inn, in Salem (go for the music, stay for the shuffleboard and pulled pork sandwiches), then rolled down to Brookings, OR the following night to play the Vista Pub (come for the bread bowl, stay for the bread bowl). The next morning, I walked down to the beach to do some work, and set up a little livestream show on the rocks in the late afternoon. Brookings is a really beautiful town, and after the grey skies of the greater Northwest, it was great to see some blue for the first time on the tour. Around nightfall, I jumped back in the Civic and carved my way across the winding road that lead me back to I-5. I landed in Medford for the night, and hauled up at the Motel 6 just in time to catch the end of the Oscars on TV, and then a little writing before bed.
And that was the week! Coming up, I’ll be in Ashland again tomorrow, and then I’m headed down to San Francisco for the following week! You can find dates and times in advance on my website calendar, or catch my daily posters on Instagram (@lightninlukemusic), and show recaps on my Youtube channel, and everything in between on my Facebook page! Thanks for reading, friends, hope you have a great week!