Band on the Run: Normal in Normal, Illinois

The musical traveller, Troubadour. Road Rat. Whatever you want to call it, this blog will hold the stories that take place when travelling musicians are not on stage. What happens between the shows? What happens behind the scenes?
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. Enjoy!

Normal, Illinois is blessed with a conversational name. I’m sure that every resident has heard this question more than once: “why is this town called ‘Normal’?” I, of course, had to ask also, but I consistently asked people who were also visitors like me. I got several shrugged shoulders, some snickers at the irony and one set of rolled eyes before I got any kind of real answer.

You see, we were in Normal, Illinois for the National Women’s Music Festival. This festival has been going strong for over thirty years and traditionally is a gathering place for women who are not considered “normal” by the status quo: strong women, independent women, bisexual women, lesbians, etc. I’m talking messing with gender roles here.

You get my point. Of all places to bring a women’s festival, I think this is the town. How to normalize non-traditional choices, identities, behaviour? Bring the gathering to a town called Normal and think nothing of it.

Just act normal.The town of Normal is relatively small with only about 50,000 inhabitants. It is called “Normal” because this was the site of a major teacher’s college, or “normal school” as such a school was called a hundred and fifty years ago. The original teacher-training school that became the town’s namesake was Illinois State Normal University, which later evolved into the general four-year university it is now and dropped the “Normal” from its name: Illinois State University. (source)

We arrived by plane into the little airport in Bloomington, Indiana (Normal and Bloomington are like “twin cities”) and, like many travel experiences via United Airlines or American Airlines (this was the latter), I received only one of my two checked bags. Thankfully, the one I received was my guitar and so I still had the means to do my job. . .

just no clean underwear or toothbrush.

Exhausted and needing a nap before the gig, I piled into the van that picked us up and lay horizontal on the bench seat as we drove the full fifteen minutes across the state line into normalcy. When I finally sat up, the van was parked outside of a university dorm where all of the attendees and the performers were being accommodated. Here we were at the famous Illinois State University and most of the students were gone for the summer.

(For those of you who have followed my writing, I just spent three months in Beijing living in a dorm room at a university there. Now that I’m back on the road with my band, I was prepared [excited?] for a hotel situation. Funny how the minute you imagine going up in the world, the world reminds you of what level you’re meant to be at.)

I hauled myself and my guitar up to the 7th floor via the clunking elevator that smelled suspiciously like sweaty gym socks, along with Lyndell Montgomery, my fellow band member who had just travelled in with me. Lyndell was still gratefully chatting with the festival rep who picked us up and who was escorting us to our dorm room. In fact, Lyndell had been carrying on a cheery conversation with her during the whole drive back. I had become monosyllabic due to lack of sleep and she was filling in the social gap extremely well. I made a mental note to thank her for that once I woke up.

We lumbered down the dark hall of the seventh floor and we were greeted by sweet notes taped to the door from our drummer (Cheryl Reid) and our two beautiful crew members (Desdemona Burgin and Julie Turner, photographer and stagehand, respectively) who had already arrived the day before. A friend greeted us in the hallway with hugs and love (and two shiny apples to snack on!) and she offered to help me find whatever I was missing from my undelivered luggage. I smiled my gratitude weakly but sincerely and everyone ushered me and my weary eyes towards the bed inside my dorm room. I must have looked terrible because there were several concerned faces bent on getting me to sleep!

When I woke three hours later, there was a toothbrush, clean underwear (brand new from the DITC vendor in the craft area) and a new t-shirt (from the same vendor) waiting for me to put on before we had to file down towards dinner and our performance. Not only did they want me to sleep, but they wanted me to smell better too! Can’t blame ’em!

I was so touched. Thank you.

The concert went well. We had two excellent guests join us on stage: Trina Hamlin on harmonica (she’s AMAZING) and Zoe Lewis (who does a killer fake trumpet sound). Both musicians expertly filled in some melodic holes for us in two of our songs. Both were a joy to share the stage with.

After the concert, we returned to the dorm and a huge pile of the festival performers all had a serious game of ping pong together. In fact, this was a full-out tournament that included six simultaneous balls in the air, four players on each side (two front players with paddles and two back “court” players to catch the stray balls using rolled up cardboard or other paddle replacements). There were mountains of screams cascading with laughter.

Scenic despite the scenery.

The concrete walls and fluorescent lighting of the basement recreation room in this dorm building had never seen such sunshine. We were recreating the space with every flying ping pong ball and yelp of fun.

Here we were on the grounds of the school that started the town – the original “normal” school. I love that this location (not just the town!) was the site of this year’s National Women’s Music festival. A place of learning and teaching hosting an event that offers the same: workshops and performances by women who have strong voices, who reach outside of traditional roles and prescribed behaviour and seek new ways to express, to be, to live.

The National Women’s Music Festival is a great experience, for all. Men can attend the musical performances as well; it is not an exclusive event. That’s what makes it revolutionary, I feel. This is what separates it from other women’s festivals and elevates it, for me, regardless of having to sleep on a campus for one more night this summer.

I eventually did get my luggage, just before pulling out of town the following day with our whole crew piled into my drummer’s van. We drove the full ten hours back to Canada sharing lively stories from the past three months of everyone’s separate adventures. It was great to be reunited again.

Back on the road.

Celebrating women’s music and women’s issues by simply being us — being normal.

In Normal, Illinois.

(Group shot above from left to right, back row: Martin Locke, Tret Fure / second row: Jane Weldon, Lyndell Montgomery, Me, Desdemona Burgin, Trina Hamlin, Julie Turner, Cheryl Red / laying on top: Jamie Anderson.)