Band on the Run: Farewell from New York’s Chinatown

Ember Swift, Canadian musician and touring performer, has been keeping us up-to-date on what it’s like to tour a band throughout North America. This is her final post in this series. Having just arrived back from Beijing where she spent three months (check out her “Canadian in Beijing” series), this series offers a musician’s perspective on road life.

My final post for “Band on the Run” fittingly brings me full-circle. I started blogging for Gadling with my trip to China in April and then I came back to North America and hit the road with my band again while simultaneously starting this series, “Band on the Run.” Now that I’m planning my return to China in just under a month, it seems fitting that my last post for “Band on the Run” be about the largest Chinatown in North America: New York City’s Chinatown.

Founded in the 1970′s by Chinese immigrants, this is one of the oldest neighbourhoods in New York. It is located on the East Side of Lower Manhattan and easily accessible by car or subway. It’s full of life and colour and interesting juxtapositions of culture and architecture and smells.

I loved it!

%Gallery-7633%

We had the afternoon to wander around and the day was beautiful and sunny, like a rush of summer in September. Having been in and out of New York at least once a year over the past decade, it’s amazing how little time I’ve actually spent there. We rarely have the down time to actually hang out in the city and check out new neighbourhoods. It’s often just a quick arrival after fighting traffic, load-in, set-up, sound check, play, tear down, pack up and drive out (because accommodations are so expensive in the city.)

I had never seen New York’s Chinatown and I was eager to walk around, use my Mandarin and see if I couldn’t find some “su baozi” or steamed veggie buns like I’d enjoyed so much in Beijing. And, well, I was also looking forward to just enjoying the late summer sunshine and feeling like tourists for a moment.

Lyndell and I pulled up and found parking (with our big white van – that’s sometimes tough in New York!) just on East Broadway and Straus Square. We happened to find a broken parking meter, which is the equivalent to striking gold in a big city! That means that we had the right to park as long as we wanted — liberation from having to feed the parking meter all day!

We weaved around the streets and poked our heads into bakeries and shops. I had a few conversations with strangers about baozi and realized that I was saying it wrong when everyone thought I was asking about a newspaper. I corrected my tones and then mostly had conversations about why I was a vegetarian and how hard it is to find Chinese buns that aren’t meat or sweet-filled. In the end, I got no information about where to find them, but I did discover a great supermarket that was considered the center of Chinatown by several different people: the Hong Kong Supermarket.

Lyndell and I went in and I was rocketed back to Beijing. The smells, the action, the way the products were displayed, even. I found the entire environment reminded me of the shops I frequented in Wudaokou. The products were also very similar but also included products from Thailand and more American products than I ever saw in China. Still, it felt like I was back there somehow, and what a joy it was to introduce that experience to Lyndell who has yet to see China on her own.

We slowly walked through the store and I bought some necessary items to kick out my head cold (like ginger and sinus tea) and also some glutinous rice cakes and tofu products that I had never eaten back home until I’d been in China. (Lyndell was excited to try them as well and she has officially fallen in love with the sweet rice cakes.) What’s more is that two bags of groceries later and we only spent twenty-five dollars, which included a huge bottle of sweet chilli sauce that I normally find is overpriced in non-Asian grocery outlets.

We headed back to the van after that to put the groceries away and then ducked into a small bar for happy hour. Y’know, it’s been ages since I was at a bar during happy hour and it was great! This little bar, Bar 169, also hosts live music and had several old-fashioned games like a bowling game that required a small puck, pinball and a rickety old pool table. The graffiti on the walls in the bathroom marked years of philosophy during occupancy. I love these kinds of places, the small bars tucked away but opening you into a rush of history when you stumble into their warmth.

When we emerged back onto the sidewalk, it was my (tea-drinker) turn to do the driving (!) and I glanced up as I was about to pull away and finally noticed the beautiful park on the corner that we had been parked beside the whole time: Straus Square. Huge trees and wide gates marked the entrance and seemed like a shaded nature retreat from the bright afternoon sun sparkling off the city traffic. (As this area shares a lot of history with the Jewish population of New York, I mostly found information about this park through sites advertising Jewish history walking tours of Manhattan.)

I smiled then, at the perfection of the afternoon, the chance to see this part of the city and the chance to share this image of China, if only an off-shore reflection, with the person I love the most in the most in the world.

One day, we’ll do a full tour of China. I’m headed back there to try to put those contacts in place as well as to continue my pursuit of fluency in Mandarin. Until then, you’ll definitely hear from me while I’m there . I’m looking forward to digging up some interesting layers from the Beijing underground world. And, of course, I’ll share my stories.

Thanks so much to everyone who has supported this series. “Band on the Run” has reached its finish line.

Take care,

Ember Swift

Band on the Run: The Defiant Nature of Rte 4, Fort Lee, NJ

Ember Swift, Canadian musician and touring performer, will be keeping us up-to-date on what it’s like to tour a band throughout North America. Having just arrived back from Beijing where she spent three months (check out her “Canadian in Beijing” series), she offers a musician’s perspective on road life.


Fort Lee, NJ seemed to have the closest and most reasonable hotel we could get that was near to Manhattan without yet crossing the bridge (or tunnel). Seems to me that accommodations on the other side of the bridge go up about three hundred percent and so we decided to make our “Two Nights in New York” actually be one in New Jersey, one in Brooklyn.

We stayed at a little hotel called the Courtesy Inn in Fort Lee, NJ, just before the George Washington Bridge. It was on Route #4, a smaller highway that leads to the I-95 and holds the requisite number of hotels for travellers like us. It’s kind of an ugly service road, to be blunt, but I did find something unique about this particular roadway: its defiant nature.

%Gallery-7603%


Yeah, you wouldn’t think so, but nature has come on full force on this motorway. The center of the highway is filled with sumac and goldenrod, wild grape vines and tall grasses that have been so long neglected that they have started to form a canopy across the center meridian that cascades over the left lane.

There is an abandoned gas station here as well. It’s almost unrecognizable from the road as what it once was as a result of the overgrowth. Perhaps this is how the world will look when we’re all gone. (Yeah, that seems to be my current theme and I’m sticking with it.)

The Courtesy Inn was a trip in and of itself. Filled with mirrors on every surface, I nearly had a heart attack when I woke up and was staring at myself on the bed in the mirror on the ceiling. Strange to see yourself first thing in the morning, actually, and it rocketed me into consciousness and far from the dreams that had been so consuming just moments before. I packed up and put my stuff in the van and told Lyndell I was heading for a quick walk.

She waited in the van as I backtracked down the motorway past a car repair place and a functioning gas station until I reached the abandoned lot. Only five minutes or so from the hotel but it seemed like I was walking into another world. If I could block out the constant rush of traffic behind me, I could easily have been in a remote town that was being reclaimed by Mother Nature on all sides – but, in this case, three of the four sides.

The old gas station and auto center was boarded up and the asphalt was cracked everywhere. The weeds and trees were popping up through the cracks, lining the lot with green. Even the fences around the lot seemed camouflaged by the weeds as they grew in and out of the metal weave. I took some pictures over the fence, rusted with time, and then kept walking to the next lot, also abandoned, that wasn’t blocked by a fence.

As I approached the boarded up structure, I almost jumped out of my skin when I noticed a foot sticking out from behind a gap in the building. The foot had a shoe on it and looked like it was just resting on the sidewalk. My heart rose to my throat but I reminded myself that I was in clear view of the whole busy road and it was the middle of the day. That was enough to settle my nerves and so I stepped a little closer and saw that between this small outer building and the larger building, there was a small causeway in which a man was sitting on a lawn chair reading a newspaper. He almost jumped out of his skin when he saw me too and his paper crackled his surprise.

I just smiled and moved farther into the lot, away from his spot, but not without noticing he was wearing a garage work shirt with his name patch over the left pocket and had a lunch box open on the pavement beside him. I took a few more pictures on the other side of the lot before coming back in his direction. I asked him if he worked there and he said yes, but then pointed to the garage up the way, closer to the hotel we had stayed at. I realized that he did not speak English as a first language when I asked him if this was where he took his break and he just stared at me uncomprehending. I didn’t pursue it, just smiled and took my leave. I felt as though I was invading his quiet time. This was his spot and I was just an intruder.

I walked back to the hotel parking lot feeling moved by the redefinition of space from a commercial lot to a partial park, from a public retail space to a private hide-out, from asphalt to green in likely just a handful of years.

Remarkable.

Nature is so powerful. Doesn’t take long and our lifeless creations crack open and get replaced by the life that belongs.

Right on.

Band on the Run: It’s Not All Bluegrass in Floyd, VA

Ember Swift, Canadian musician and touring performer, will be keeping us up-to-date on what it’s like to tour a band throughout North America. Having just arrived back from Beijing where she spent three months (check out her “Canadian in Beijing” series), she offers a musician’s perspective on road life.


Floyd, Virginia was good to us. It was our first time in this region and we were greeted with open smiles and eager listeners. As I round out the last week of this feature series “Band on the Run,” I’m really glad I’m going to get a chance to tell you about this place.

The town of Floyd is really small. I mean, really small. The county of Floyd is bigger, of course, but I was asking about the town’s population specifically and I found out that not even five hundred people live in the town itself. They joked that The Sun Music Hall – where we were playing – was on the “edge” of town while the Mercantile was the center of town. I smiled but didn’t really get the joke until I went outside to get something from the van and saw that the mercantile was just a few buildings over.

I laughed late, but at least I laughed!

Hugging the famous “Blue Ridge” (Low-lying Appalachian mountains that appear to be blue from a distance and represent one of the most travelled tourist roads in the United States: the Blue Ridge Parkway), this is the namesake for the well-known Floydfest. Floydfest is not actually in Floyd, exactly, but it’s nearby and the festival name stuck. Floyd, VA is also a stop on the Crooked Road Musical Heritage trail.

%Gallery-7539%

Our wonderful hosts – two women who had seen us play at the CampOut Festival closer to Richmond in May of 2006, Miriam and Maria – told us that every Friday night there are jamborees on this Crooked Road Musical Heritage trail. Rain or shine, every Friday night people come from all over and pull out their instruments to play traditional old-time and bluegrass music in the local country store in Floyd. When the store is too full, they spill into the streets and play outdoors. All over this Crooked Road hosts these kinds of events, at various venues in various small towns and in various buildings like storefronts, cafes, community halls. Miriam described the performers as anywhere from kids to grey-haired, long-bearded seniors plucking and stomping and jangling away in their Sunday best.

Too bad we were there on a Sunday. I would have loved to be witness to this!

All was not lost, however, because the show was great fun. Seems to me that this place is open to lots of different music despite its ties to Bluegrass and Appalachian music! We did our usual swirling blend of folk and jazz and funk and pop and rock and world. . . and the audience wanted us back for an encore. I guess it’s not all about Bluegrass on the Blue Ridge!

The show took place in the Sun Music Hall which is part of a larger organization called Winter Sun Inc. In the same building there is also a café (Café del Sol), a clothing store, a gallery, a restaurant, a venue and the offices that house those who promote the shows and also manage a few regional bands. It’s all connected and, in my estimation, shows that the overall business owners are savvy; trying to be entrepreneurs in this day and age is hard enough and so diversifying what you’re doing (sort of like artistic polyculture) is a great means to ensuring the sustainability of your business. Or, in this case, businesses!

The clothing store is particularly interesting to me: Winter Sun Fashions. It sells clothes that are fair trade and manufactured in Ecuador. In fact, the company did so well that they raised enough money to have showers installed at the factory where the clothing is made. Each worker makes higher than average Ecuadorian wages and lunch is provided by the company as well. This outlet is one of several across the United States.

Our show was warmly attended (for a Sunday night and in a town we’ve never played before) and included lots of chatting and hanging out afterwards. Those are the best shows, really. I love the chance to get to know people who live in these places so that I can get a real feel for the area. Everyone was incredibly kind.

One gentleman, a tall guy probably in his fifties with a white beard and inquisitive eyes, talked to me about biodiesel and long-range versus short-range solutions to this petroleum dependency. Another woman, just a little more around my age, noticed the reference to Chinese medicine in my album title and talked with me about health and being active. Someone even greeted me in Mandarin, having read that I had been in China for three months, and though the conversation was short (consisting of only one sentence that she had memorized), I was touched that anyone had done research on us before we arrived.

We drove away today waving out the window to our hosts and feeling instantly nostalgic for the slow southern drawl and hospitality. We’ll be back to Floyd for sure. (Or nearby, at the festival — fingers crossed!)

Hopefully overlapping a Friday so that I can attend the Crooked Tree Jamboree in these parts. Now that sounds like a party! Imagine what our music brains could learn from those old-time tunes. Sign me up. The more styles the better!

Band on the Run: Rockin’ Out in Buffalo’s Allentown

Ember Swift, Canadian musician and touring performer, will be keeping us up-to-date on what it’s like to tour a band throughout North America. Having just arrived back from Beijing where she spent three months (check out her “Canadian in Beijing” series), she offers a musician’s perspective on road life.

We drove over the border yesterday to a sunny early evening in Allentown, a Buffalo neighbourhood that was the location of our gig last night – a bar called “Nietzsche’s.”


Allentown
is cool. It’s got the vibe of a community of artists, preservationists, historians, antique-lovers, and good chefs. The latter was easy to peg via the smells of incredible cooking coming from several local restaurants and taunting our hungry selves when we really needed to be unloading equipment and setting up for sound check.

This district of Buffalo is one that we’ve been in many times. I always feel comfortable here. It’s an area of the city that borders the downtown and seems to embrace diversity. There are rainbow flags and biker bars, gourmet restaurants and late-night snack stands, funky modern galleries flanked by dusty bookstores.

One of the bookstores also sold music and had displays of their used cds and cassettes in old-fashioned kids’ wagons out on the sidewalk. Love it!

%Gallery-7466%

Historically, I learned last night that Allentown was named after the original settler to this land, Louis Allen, who bought the land in 1822 (around 29 acres) and used it to farm cattle. It is said that this very street, Allen Street, was his original cow path for transferring his herds from one edge of his property to the other. In 1832, he sold his land to the encroaching city and it was developed into both residential and commercial structures. Now, the Allentown region stretches 36 blocks or a half a mile squared.

After the gear was hauled in (thanks to some friends and Kenny, the resident and helpful sound guy), I stood on the street and just looked left and right to take it all in. I imagined a bunch of cows in place of the pedestrians and cars. I wondered how they’d react now to the pavement, the bright colours, the sounds of a nightlife hub starting to come alive in the early evening. Maybe they’d just graze the leaves of low-hanging trees and ignore us all. Maybe they’d leave their paddies expertly deposited on the sidewalks in disgust and wander away to greener parklands.

I wandered a block or so to truly appreciate the paint job on the local bar called “Boddington’s.” (At least, I think this is the name of it, although I know that’s also the name for a beer. Does anyone know?) It’s painted purple and decked out in rising flames as though it were a motorcycle or hot rod. They’re beautifully painted – must have taken forever! – and the neon beer signs in the windows were like the feather in the artist’s cap.

When I came back in a few minutes later, the gear was already half set up and I had to hustle to catch up to everyone. I unpacked my guitars and pedals plugging everything in while simultaneously chatting with Kenny about his last six months or so since we’ve been there last. He asked me about China and I asked him about some good artists he’d mixed lately.

It’s always nice to come to a place and actually know the people there. I always feel welcomed at Nietzsche’s.

This venue is definitely a rock room. The old wooden stage and banisters have the faint stench of stale beer and cigarettes (although it’s now non-smoking in there.) Maybe its name has inspired proliferation, but the bathrooms are home to so much graffiti that it takes a long time to pee, I find. I can’t help but read peoples’ philosophical outpourings. (It’s all well-placed, I’d say!) There are also great installations of paper mache artwork hanging in the room from the ceiling and a wonderful busted and slightly crooked ceiling fan that hangs right in front of the stage. I always laugh inwardly at the notion that at least there will be one fan, crooked or not, that will be in front of the stage when we play.

Kenny also has a collection of small tinker toys and dinky cars that are permanently stationed at his soundboard. I asked him if he ever finds some have disappeared after the shows he has in there. They’re fairly visible and my pessimistic self figured there’d be some drunken theft here and there. He said, “Yeah, of course. But, they all just appeared anyway so it doesn’t really make a difference.” I smiled at that idea. I liked the image of these little toys just coming and going as they were meant to, not permanently attached to his sound board or to the decorative role they are temporarily playing. Sort of like a toy liberation movement. People as pawns.

After the show, we hung out for a while in the parking lot with friends before pulling away from Allen Street and staying just a few blocks away, still in Allentown. We rarely stay over in Buffalo since it’s often just a one-off show that enables us to return to friend’s places in Toronto after we play, but the tour rolls on today into more U.S. cities.

I woke up this morning having dreamed about cows and toys taking over the city when the people have all disappeared. Buildings crumbled, trees growing out from broken windows and grass taking back the asphalt.

I guess we’ll never know.

Until that day, Allentown‘s worth a visit. In fact, a spontaneous night out to Nietzsche’s will probably introduce you to a great band you’ve never heard of. They have music every night and sometimes even a late and an early show.

When was the last time you did that?
Ignore the listings. Just take a stab.

Arrive.
Order a drink.

See what happens.

Band on the Run: Hiking & Climbing Mont Rigaud, Quebec

Ember Swift, Canadian musician and touring performer, will be keeping us up-to-date on what it’s like to tour a band throughout North America. Having just arrived back from Beijing where she spent three months (check out her “Canadian in Beijing” series), she offers a musician’s perspective on road life.

It’s easy as a musician to suffer from the “everything I do, I do for music” syndrome. (And no, that is not meant as a cheesy reference to a cheesy Bryan Adams song!) What I mean by that is that when the wheels beneath us aren’t turning towards another gig, there’s so much else to do like rehearsing, recording, music business, correspondence, etc. I’m a perfect candidate for this total immersion and I regularly need to be dragged away from the various “must dos” of being an independent artist.

So yesterday, I went hiking on Rigaud Mountain [in French = Mont Rigaud] in Rigaud, Quebec.

Rigaud Mountain is a small (ish) mountain for Quebec – and certainly for Canada in general – but one can’t underestimate the power of a good climb that yields a good view. During the winter, it’s a modest ski hill. In the summer, this mountain is used for rock climbers and hikers. I had no idea.

It was gorgeous.

%Gallery-7310%

I have tried to snow board exactly once. My tail bone decided that it would stage a full-scale revolt if I ever tried it again. It still warns me with ghost pains if I even allow my mind to imagine myself as a good snowboarder. I think I’ll leave the descent down slippery hills on equally slippery objects to all you thrill seekers who have a sense of balance.

In fact, half way down this same mountain two years ago, after several hours of unofficial (and gracious) training from my friend who is excellent at this sport, I tore off the snowboard and put it under my behind. I continued down the rest of the hill on the snowboard like it was a toboggan. That was fun, actually. My legs enjoyed the rest!

Since then, I’ve only ever seen this mountaintop from the distance en route to Montreal or to cross the border at Vermont and into New England for various touring stops. Winding through the back roads to find the mountain during the summertime seemed strangely exciting, as though I were reclaiming a space that I had only associated with pain and humiliation. (Well, that’s being harsh; really, it was where I was once again reminded that I’m not that coordinated or “jocky.” I’m okay with that!)

The grassy path up the hill is beautiful and leads you right into the forest that is mostly a bed of red pine needles cushioning every step. The jagged rocks act like an erractic staircase which leads you to the sharp face of the mountain that was entertaining two separate groups of rock climbers. I noticed all the hooks already secured in the flat rock face that jutted up over thirty feet. It’s obviously been well climbed.

I spoke briefly with some of the climbers who were from Montreal (one hour to the east). They explained that this is a great place to train starting climbers because it doesn’t often get over-crowded and it’s easy to “top rope” some of the routes. I nodded like I knew what they were talking about. I am guessing this means that instructors can rope everyone in first without needing to be secured themselves? Let me know if I’m way off the mark here. I’m not much of a rock climber either, as you can tell.

We rounded the mountain and found what appeared to have once been a rock spill. Rocks were piled and frozen as though in mid-cascade between two large sections of the mountain in what could easily have been a gushing river or a large stream. We scaled these rocks easily to the top and found ourselves staring at the horizon on three sides – the Ottawa River, farmland as far as the eye could see, both Ontario and Quebec stretching out eastward and westward.

At this point, Lyndell told me that there was a lookout on the other side worth seeing. We scrambled back down from these lookout points and crossed the centre of the mountain towards the eastern edge. About fifteen minutes later, we were perched on the wooden lookout and photographing the curving highways and waterways that lead directly to the island of Montreal.

Of course, we shared that perch with a Christian cross. It’s very common in Quebec to see lit-up crosses on hillsides or mountainsides. “Mont Rigaud” is no exception. The cross here can be seen for many kilometres. I had just never stood beside it and I am here to testify that it’s huge! Quite an edifice to the belief of a second coming – a second coming that apparently will happen by aircraft and will need this very visible beacon!

Just about an hour later, we were back on the ground at the base of the ski hill again. A short hike, but a beautiful one. During the quiet walk down, I remembered a previously abandoned melody line for a song that I haven’t yet finished. I worked it out across the many descending steps, singing quietly to myself and solving part of the riddle to finishing this song that has been unfinished for over six months. Then, I stayed up until five a.m. that night working it out on my computer.

You see, hiking is good for music!

It loosens up the memory valves in the bell of the brain.

Keeps the blood, and the melodies, flowing.