Friday, August 31, 2012

Here's the Church. Where's the Steeple?

When I stepped into the cathedral of Notre Dame I felt small and insignificant. The immense walls dwarf any sense of self. The grand echoes that amplify every movement made me instinctively get still.

These attributes of the huge cathedral are not there by accident. They are there to exact an emotion of reverence and calmness in anyone who enters. The church and church designers may be the first experts in human psychology.

I'm confident that the builders knew that ANY person (atheist, agnostic, or devoutly religious) who walks into a place like Notre Dame would feel humbled and insignificant. Anyone that enters a place like that would feel an instant reflex to be still and quiet. (side note: to me singer/songwriter performances in small listening rooms have the same effect. I'd say most people feel this subconsciously. See this post ( for my description). There is a subconscious reaction that happens in these situations. No one can fight it.

Well today I walk out of the hotel room and I am in a cathedral of a different kind.

Today I am staring at the Rocky Mountains. This sight had a similar but more profound effect on me than Notre Dame did. When I look at these mountains I also feel small and insignificant and I feel a calmness and stillness fall over me but it's different. It may be my Native American heritage but the feeling I have in the presence of these mountains is more powerful than any feeling I will ever have from being in the presence of man made things (no matter how huge the man made structures are or how perfectly designed and aimed at my psychology they are). Nature wins.

The difference is the emotion I feel when looking at these mountains. The feeling is natural and uplifting. The Cathedral of Notre Dame made me feel small and insignificant, but in a contrived, man made way. It is a beautiful structure that had a powerful effect on me. I highly recommend seeing it. You will not regret it.

But as powerful and beautiful as it is , it still didn't do for me what these mountains are doing right now. it simply can't.

The cathedral is aimed at making us feel small , insignificant , and in need of something to complete us. The mountain makes us feel small , insignificant , and part of nature.

It's a subtle difference. In both scenarios I felt small and insignificant, but in one this was intended (by some men) to make me feel incomplete, broken or in need of assistance, where as in the other scenario this simply makes me appreciate my place in the universe.

Looking at mountains like the ones I am currently looking at makes me appreciate my breathing. I am an organism. I am not a god. I am simply a part of the whole. But that doesn't make me broken or incomplete. It actually makes me feel powerful and important. I am one little thread in this huge expansive fabric. But I'm on the team. We are all on the team.

And it is from this nice natural place that I feel at peace and I feel like I should help other people (because they too are part of the whole) and I should be more conscious of the enviornment (because it is part of the whole). And just as I am insignificant compared to the mountain, there are microbes and tiny organisms that are insignificant in size compared to me. However these things are also part of the whole. Therefore in my current scenario, the smallness and insignificance I feel isn't a negative thing, it makes me more conscious of how I act with regards to the tiny organisms in the air, water and soil around me.

And I don't want you thinking I smoked a bag of Colorado "medicinal" marijuana or got so caught up in the Colorado Native American culture that I let my heritage talk me into eating peyote. I'm not spacing out into hippiedom. I just love nature and I feel its power gives me more incentive to live right than any building can.

Feeling a connection with nature makes me more aware of life. It makes me focused on treating other people, plants and animals more properly. The world wasn't built for me alone. I am part of the whole.

Now I will stop rambling, go to church (meaning: climb the mountain).

I'm going to a spot with lots of wildlife.
I hope to SEE a bear. Although I'd prefer that I not become his lunch.

I like being part of nature but not quite to that extent.

Have a great day, people.

Go outside.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Deja Moo

One day a group of people were standing on a river bank. All of a sudden they hear a baby crying. They searched frantically and then saw a baby drifting down the river, gasping, crying and about to drown. One person instinctively sprang to action. He jumped in the river to rescue the infant.
As the rest of the crowd moved toward the river to help, they noticed to their horror that ANOTHER baby was coming down the river. This baby was also fighting to stay afloat, while gasping and crying. This drowning infant was followed by another and another.
The people jumped in and frantically swam to save each of the children when they notice something. One of their group wasn't jumping in. As a matter of fact, he was walking away.
Amazed and appalled, the rescuers yelled back at the man leaving and they screamed with disdain, "Where are you going? How could you leave?" To which the man responded, " I'm going upstream to stop who ever is throwing babies in the river."

This little story shows how lateral thinking and trying an unconventional way to solve the problem at hand can often meet resistance from peers, but in the end may prove to be vastly more effective.

Today I am still on the cross country trip with my mom and stepdad, Leon. We drove from Wichita up to Salina. The Kansas countrysides roll on and on. We saw cow after cow after cow. Actually it began looking like the same cow after a while.

Deja Moo

I watched the cow fields and thought that Kansas may have more boring maize fields and cows than I-65 has boring pine trees (and that is an impressive feat). The only things for hundreds of miles are fields. These fields are planted with corn, maize or soy and they virtually all have a few dozen rusty old oil wells, some pumping away, some rusted to a stand still.

I've driven through Kansas a few times so its repetitive landscape no longer surprises me. Its flatness and more flatness can be mundane. Luckily for me my little warped mind loves to find complexity in the simplistic and simplicity in the complex. Therefore I haven't been bored despite having had plenty of simplistic to complexify (and now pontificate about).

Leon and I fantasized (surely to mom's dismay) about how Native American life must have been. We imagined some poor hunter being sent out by his squaw to hunt. How long would he have had to ride or walk to find any wildlife? Once he found them how was he going to sneak up on them? There is no sneaking up on anything out here. You can see 20 miles across the flat land.

Subsequently we discussed different elements of what we believe the pioneers lives to have been like. Surely it was a hard life, but how wild it must have been to be pushing the frontier. How exciting it must have been to be the first your culture to explore this vastness.

Leon and I let our imagination run free and told our stories for a couple hours, mixing fact and fantasy with humor and absolute absurdity (to see when exactly mom was tuning us out).

Once we got to Salina we were getting a little stir crazy so we decided to break up the monotony by visiting a random roadside attraction. We saw signs for Rolling Hills Wildlife Adventure so we thought we would try it. We were pleasantly surprised to find this place to be an incredible museum and zoo (I saw a multitude of animals and thankful that repetitive cow wasn't there). If you ever get to the middle of Kansas for God's sake stop there. It's great. It is great inherently and not only because it is the only thing for 4 hours in any direction. I highly recommend visiting Rolling Hills Wildlife Adventure if ya get the chance.

After we spent a couple hours in Salina we again hit the road. We were now heading West toward Colorado. A new direction meant……..same old scenery. Cows in Corn fields, maize fields, and old oil wells. Every so often we would pass a soybean field and the shorter darker green plants would alter the view by .0001%. But that is little to get excited about.

Not too far out of Salina we entered Lincoln County. For the entire trip I have used the Wiki Hood app on my iPhone to scout cities and towns before we enter them searching for ANY information that might spice up the adventure. Well Wiki Hood told me that Lincoln County had a big Wind Farm (Smoky Hills Wind Farm) that generates over 250 Mega watts of power (enough to power 88,000 Kansas homes). That's definitely something more interesting than cows, corn and oil wells.

Before I even finished telling Mom and Leon about the Wind Farm we began seeing the enormous turbines on the horizon. We had all seen wind farms on our last road trip but it was still impressive nonetheless. Hundreds of these huge 3 bladed fans spinning as far as the eye could see. Harnessing the power of the wind.

The thought of wind power replacing fossil fuel isn't new but it made me think of a time when it was. Suddenly it felt like this orchard of turbines filled my skull with all 250 MW.

My imagination went wild.

I could see the first guy in Kansas telling his neighbors he was devoting millions of dollars to farm the wind. Surely they must've thought he had lost his mind.

Potential investors must been even more skeptical.

While the potential "wind tycoon" gave his "Wind is the new fuel" spiel he must have been not only laughed at but also chastised and ridiculed by his peers. As he decided to abandon the old methods and take a fundamental change of approach, I can imagine his peers yelling, "Where are you going? How could you leave?" just like the baby rescuers at the river bank.


PS- I am not saying wind power is the answer to all the world's energy problems. Wind power has drawbacks, for instance It's rather expensive to implement. It also can't supply enough energy for all our needs. But I definitely know that thinking outside the box IS the answer. Using the old methods forever will not work. We know for a fact that burning oil is not going to work forever. I doubt wind energy will ever be the be all to end all but it may thrive and continue to be a small portion of the newer cleaner energy.

The message is: even if wind energy becomes an archaic, antiquated energy source in a decade or so, I applaud the "wind tycoon" for thinking outside the box.

Oh and I applaud him for giving me something to look at other than that same cow AGAIN.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

I Don't Have the Sense God Gave a Billy Goat. (Luckily I Am Not Alone)

An old hill farmer trudges several miles through freezing snow to his local and very remote chapel for Sunday service. No-one else is there, aside from the clergyman.

"I'm not sure it's worth proceeding with the service - might we do better to go back to our warm homes and a hot drink?.." asks the preacher, inviting a mutually helpful reaction from his audience of one.

"Well, I'm just a simple farmer," says the man, "But when I go to feed my herd, and if only one beast turns up, I sure don't leave it hungry."

So the preacher, feeling somewhat ashamed, delivers his service - all the bells and whistles, hymns and readings, lasting a good couple of hours - finishing proudly with the fresh observation that no matter how small the need, our duty remains. And he thanks the old farmer for the lesson he has learned.

"Was that okay?" asks the clergyman, as the two set off home.

"Well I'm just a simple farmer," says the man, "But when I go to feed my herd, and if only one beast turns up, I sure don't force it to eat what I brought for the whole herd..."


Or as Leon would say,

"Some people don't have the sense that God gave a billy goat." 

   This morning Mom, Leon and I got up and had the continental breakfast at the Best Western in Conway, AR. (it's right near Toad Suck Park in case you were wondering). After our biscuits and gravy ( and non brand fruit loops) we hit the highway. 

  Again mom wanted to drive (she's may be a pretend sound engineer but she's the real deal when it comes to cross country driving). So again Leon and I passed the time enjoying the scenery.

  We saw a long ridge of the Ozark mountains. We began talking all about the Ozarks when we passed a sign that said "Aux Arc". I had a crazy realization that made me feel dumber than a billy goat.

The word Ozark is OBVIOUSLY a linguistic bastardization of the French words Aux and Ark (which means of/at Ark. Where Ark is an abbreviation of Arkansas). How had I never noticed that before? I'm a Francophile and a word nerd. This type of thing is right up my alley. In retrospect it seems ridiculously elementary.

Anyway, we continued down the highway. As we did, I marveled at this revelation about the etymology of the word Ozark and I laughed at my own ignorance for not realizing it earlier.

I don't have the sense God gave a billy goat apparently.

Well after a little more travel it was time for a gas stop, leg stretch stop, a drink stop and a bathroom stop. We took care of all these needs at a Love's Truck Stop.

I grabbed a few Monster Energy drinks (I intended on getting one but the price was $2.59 for one or $2.99 for 3. I may be dumber than a billy goat but I do have a Math degree and I think I chose wisely to get 3 instead of one.)

Mom had gotten a coffee and a few diet cokes for the road. She got to the register and the girl says, "That'll be $6.49". At this point mom says, "Dang, I wanted to get one of those cookies but forgot….Don't worry about it."

 The girl was very helpful and said, "Thats no problem." She walked over and grabbed a cookie then she return to the register with it. She handed the cookie to mom and began calculating the new total.

She said, "That'll be $6.32"

I was thinking, "Damn. And I thought I got a good package deal on my energy drinks. Mom added a cookie and it subtracted 17 cents from the total."

Mom tried to correct the cashier but the girl wasn't budging. She insisted, "It's $6.32.". Well….What could mom do?
Mom eventually gave in and paid $6.32 and we headed back down the road.

Sometimes it takes some one else's stubbornness and ignorance to make us feel better about ourselves.

That cashier's insistence on being wrong made me feel so much better about my sub-billy goat I.Q.



Monday, August 27, 2012

Why don't tribute bands have tribute sound engineers?

I virtually never have the time to take a family vacation. The touring musician's  life can be lots of fun but the fun usually has to be woven into the tour schedule. I can't even remember the last time I went on a vacation the was totally unrelated to my job. The good news is my job takes me to some of the most amazing places on Earth. So I'm not complaining. I am simply saying any family vacations involve the family coming along with me to gigs and finding fun stuff to do between.

Well this week is one of those family vacation weeks.

I have three gigs with the Ugli Stick around Boulder, CO at the end of the week. The last time we played these festivals mom and Leon came along and we had a blast. Therefore, once the Ugli Stick booked the festivals again, we started planning our family vacation around the trip.

We packed up and left this morning before dawn. (Side note: It just so happened that our leaving coincided with the mandatory evacuation of both my house and my parent's house in the city's preparation of Hurricane Isaac''s arrival. I truly believe all will be well in our area due to the westerly turn it took earlier. I hope New Orleans fairs well).

Anyway, we road tripped all day. Mom insisted on driving. So Leon and I did Sudoku puzzles, discussed the different crops we passed and generally bugged mom. 

We found some cool places (my favorite was "Jehovah Java" in Lake Providence, LA. Very nice staff and good strong coffee. Even though the entire time I was there I could not stop imagining Bart Simpson repeatedly writing on a chalk board "I will not say 'This coffee is strong enough to wake the dead' at Jehovah Java' . I will not say 'This coffee is strong enough to wake the dead' at Jehovah Java' . I will not say 'This coffee is strong enough to wake the dead' at Jehovah Java' ….)

We saw a lot of fun scenery along the way but our goal destination for Day 1 was Little Rock. I knew mom and Leon had never spent much time there and I thought they would enjoy seeing the Riverwalk Market and the nice park they have along the Arkansas River. We made it to Little Rock in the evening time and the weather and sky looked like something off of a postcard.

We went into a couple cool shops, then we explored all up and down the large river front park. We saw the walking bridge, the playground, the historic plaques, the beautifully manicured foliage lining the walk ways,  I even showed them the actual little rock that the city was named for (Le Petit Roche).  We all three enjoyed our adventure and I was proud to have been able to play tour guide a little bit. 

After all the walking we began getting hungry. We were really close to a Restaurant/Music Venue I had played at multiple times a few years back, so I suggested we eat there. 

The place is called Stickyz (The Rock n Roll Chicken Shack). It has a very very House of Blues type vibe to it. The walls are covered in music themed folk art, the food is spicy but great, and they tend to have good music all week long.
If you make it to Little Rock I highly recommend it. Try the Stickyz Fingers Sammich with Voodoo sauce. Strong.

As I was scarfing down the Fiery Voodoo drenched Chicken, I decided to check out the music calendar. It just so happens that Touch: the Grateful Dead Tribute Band is playing there later tonight. Of course we aren't staying until the band cranks up (all though I am sure they are good if they are playing Stickyz), but the thought of Grateful Dead reminded me of a story from long long ago.


When I was a very young solo artists I played at a couple of places in downtown Mobile, Al. At the time I was in college and I had a good sized "following" which basically just consisted of my friends from school. Well because a local bar owner realized I could account for an extra 20-30 warm bodies in his club he asked if I wanted to be the musical entertainment for his weekly "Drinkin with Lincoln" night. This night would be set up so the patrons would pay $5 at the door then be able to buy $.01 draft beer all night. My college buddies thought this was great. They could listen to me and drink the cheapest beer in town. Well every other drunk person in town knew a good deal when they saw it too so eventually the club was packed. Week after week. Packed. 

(NOTE: I am definitely not too proud to admit or too dumb to understand that I was there for background music. The reason for the party was cheap cheap beer. The good news is the people were very nice and supportive and a lot of my longest friendships and fanships started on those "Drinkin with Lincoln" nights.)

Well the club at which "Drinkin with Lincoln" was going on was named Southside. Well Southside (like Stickyz) was a fairly renowned music venue in the South East. I saw many serious touring acts play there over the years. 
The reason I tell you this is because I want you to understand that the bar was set up around live music. It had a nice stage, great view of the stage from most anywhere in the bar (upstairs or downstairs), and it had a full sound booth. The club had the premier sound guy in town as the house sound guy for the weekly concerts. 

"Drinkin with Lincoln" was not concerts. They were more like back yard, frat house, parties. There was no need for the sound guy on my nights. There would be a DI and a mic already run when I got there. I just had to plug in and play. The board was left covered (so drunken yahoos didn't mess with it).

Well my mother has always been my biggest fan and she has always been my best supporter. She loves to hear me play and she gets to every gig she can get to. Since I was just getting started at that time and not touring much at all, she was at virtually EVERY gig. I loved having mom there (I still do), but I'm always worried about her being in a bar and far away from me on stage (in case a fight breaks out or something like that). 

Well people tended to get more out of hand at "Drinkin with Lincoln" than normal so I was even more concerned for Mom's safety. Great news: Southside has the sound booth. It was perfect. I could get mom a Diet Coke, have her sitting in a comfortable chair behind the sound board, she would have the best view of the stage, I'd be able to easily keep my eye on her and most importantly she would be a safe distance away from the rowdy drunk folks.

I played that gig weekly for months and months and months. Mom sat in her sound booth perch and enjoyed the show every time. 

I never gave that arrangement a second thought...UNTIL...

I was playing a completely unrelated gig and venue. At this gig mom was just sitting at a table. During the middle of my show I notice mom involved in a conversation with some people I had seen at many of the "Drinkin with Lincoln" gigs. I could tell something was not quite right but I obviously couldn't hear what they were saying. I could see mom being polite but confused meanwhile the guy was seeming to get more and more frustrated. He was almost mad. At this point I began to get down from the stage and go see what the problem was but luckily the guy cooled down and he and his girl left.

I gave mom the "Are you ok?" look. She nodded and smiled as if to say, "Boy, I can't wait to tell you about this one".

I played a couple more songs but my curiosity got the better of me. I took an early break and went to interrogate mom.

What had happened was the guy mistakenly thought that mom was running sound for me at every "Drinkin with Lincoln" gig simply because she was sitting behind the soundboard all the time. 

With the idea in his mind that mom is a sound guy, at some point he misheard someone else, or totally fabricated it in a drug or alcohol induced state, that mom had run sound for the Grateful Dead years ago. 

It should be said here that although I'm sure my mom would have been a great sound engineer had she put her mind to that, she has never turned one knob or pushed one fader in her life. She is definitely in no way a sound guy.

This guy had brought his girl up to my mom and introduced her to mom thusly, "This is Eric's mom. She used to run sound for the Grateful Dead. Now she runs his sound."
At which point mom laughed and then explained to the guy and girl he must be mistaken because she has never run sound for anyone. This must have embarrassed the guy. He thought she was being modest or didn't want to toot her own horn. Therefore he got more insistent. Understandably this confused mom further as to what to do next. The guy got more emphatic and more emphatic until mom eventual just gave in and said, "Ok."

The guy took this as some what of a validation and a victory and left with his girl.

Ever since that time, my mom and I get a kick out of every time we see or hear the Grateful Dead. I'll be like, "Hey mom it's your band". Or she'll say, "Hey, Isn't this the band I used to run sound for?" 


Well tonight in Little Rock , I had an epiphany. When tribute bands tour why don't they bring tribute sound engineers also? The band playing Stickyz tonight should have asked my mom.

I mean wouldn't be cool to have someone who never mixed the original band's sound,  mix for the band that is emulating the original band's songs.

I think so.

I asked mom if I could tell the band that she was in the building. I am sure they would be honored to have her guest mix tonight's show. After all she has been mistaken for running sound for the Dead.
I would think a tribute band would love a tribute sound engineer.

But again she was too modest. She said that we needed to get some rest before the drive tomorrow. 

Damn that Juanita. Too humble for her own good.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

"You Dropped the Bomb (near) Me, Baby"

All right. I have written two days in a row about events that occurred during the 2008 USO tour I made through the Middle East.

There are tons of stories from that trip but I'll make today's story the last one for now.

After playing "Pete's Place" in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan (story here: ) we flew on a C-130 to Bagram, Afghanistan.

This trip was unusual to me. I had done a ton of flying but never in a military plane before.
The C-130 is an enormous plane. It can be arranged to carry a myriad of things. For the flight we were on, the hulking machine was about half full of crated equipment and half full of troops, (and us).
On the inside a  C-130 looks like a huge commercial airplane that has had its insides torn out. Hoses, wires, and piping are all exposed. This is a vehicle for function solely. Don't look for the fasten seatbelt sign or the Sky Mall magazine.

They direct us to the VIP seating. This is a row of seats that are made of red canvas webbing that folds down from the walls. The seats were by no means comfortable, but it was such unusual boarding process than we were used to no one had time to complain. We soon realized that there was another , more important reason not to complain.......a group of about 100 troops boarded the plane after we did.
They were dressed in full battle gear. In addition to being dressed in what looked to be hot uncomfortable uniforms (helmets, fatigues, boots) they all had their machine guns and a huge huge gunnysack. These troops had all their possessions (current possessions anyway) strapped to them.
They filed into the smallest seats (I immediately understood why our seats were called VIP). These soldiers were wedged into the seats. They were squeezed, shoulder to shoulder and their gunnysacks were in their laps (no overhead bins on a C130). So each soldier was compacted between two others and they had their gunnysack and machine gun smashed between the seat back in front of them and their face. It looked miserable.

That was a 4.5-5 hour flight too.

Again......I gained a deeper appreciation for the sacrifices the military make on a day in day out basis.

We landed in Bagram, met our liaison/new friend, Sgt. Stovall, then got some sleep.

The next day we boarded a tiny tiny 8 seater mail plane and took off for Jalalabad.

I will have to say that flying in that minuscule prop plane through almost equally minuscule gaps in icy mountain passes was one of the more Indiana Jones moments I had ever experienced. (Little did I know what lie ahead)

We had been told about tactical landings but as of that time we had not experienced one.
That was about to change.

A tactical landing is a landing in which the aircraft stays very very high to avoid small arms fire and rocket fire from enemies hiding out near the airfield, then when the aircraft is directly above the runway it noses down and basically spirals straight at the ground until the last second, it pulls up and lands.

Staring out the cockpit window directly at the runway below as it spun and spun, was a much more Indiana Jones moment than the previous moment. This trip was getting cooler and cooler.

The pilots masterfully pulled out of our "death spin" and landed softly and easily.

We got off the plane and got acquainted with Jalalabad. J-Bad (as they call it) was different than all the other bases I have been on before and since. J-Bad is located very very close to Pakistan ( we could easily see Pakistan from the base). We were informed that the Pakistan-Afghanistan border was the most volatile location in the war. We were also shown the prison which is connected to our military base. This is the prison where we keep all the Taliban leaders we capture.
So we are very close to the enemy's stronghold, AND this is where their leaders are held captive.

Jalalabad sees lots of "action".

The other bases we had visited had been more strategic bases. J-Bad is in the fray.

Sgt. Stovall teamed up with our liaison on J-Bad (Sgt. Johnson) and showed us around the base and then showed us the perimeter.

Where as Manas and Bagram had lots of solid structures, J-Bad was almost exclusively tents.

They showed us to our VIP lodging. This tent was approximately 389 degrees inside. It had dirt floors (actually it had some wooden walkway over the dirt) a couple bunks and some cots. Again, none of us complained because we now knew if this was the VIP accommodations, there was some poor grunt out there sleeping on a rock with a barbed wire blanket or something.

Most of the military personnel on J-Bad were bigger, stronger, and more rugged than we had seen on other bases (where the people were actually very big, strong, and rugged). I feel like the troops on J-Bad wanted to be there. It felt like these were the warriors who planned on being career warriors if that makes any sense.

Well after meeting and becoming friends with a lot of these troops we had a visit from 3-4 young guys. These guys looked completely different than any one else on base. These guys were all around 5'10" , 160 lbs. They had floppy hair and dressed in civilian clothing.
I just assumed they must be with some civilian contractor and they were just over here to help build or maintain some structure for the base.

They said that they were looking forward to our performance and they asked if we wanted to hang with them after the show. They said, "We get more privileges than the rest of the base."

Again I took this to mean they were not under the same military rules as the rest of the troops because they were private citizens.
I said, " Sure. I'll come party with ya'll after the gig. And tell me who ya'll are with so I can give you a shout out during the show."

One of the guys calmly but sternly just said, "Don't do that."

Then he said, "See you tonight" and they left.

After that odd exchange, I looked to Sgt., Stovall and Sgt. Johnson to get some clarification as to who those guys were.

Sgt., Johnson said, "Special Forces. .......they aren't "officially" here."

This blew my mind. I had been meeting and hanging out with guys that looked like Brock Lesnar but way meaner. And yet the most dangerous people I met looked harmless and almost weak.
In retrospect I understand that it makes way more sense for the special forces to LOOK harmless and nonthreatening but at the time I was shocked.

Well after touring the base some more we went and set up for the performance.
We were playing one of the only solid structures on the base, the cafeteria.
The show went very well. The troops obviously enjoyed it. It was funny to note how much more stoic these people were as opposed to the dancing , wild crowd at Manas. On J-Bad there wasn't a lot of dancing. They were a very responsive crowd that clapped loudly after every song, but career warriors don't dance.

When the show was finished we gave out free CDs and signed them until all the troops had one. While we were signing and packing I hoped that the special forces guys hadn't forgotten us because I had been looking forward to seeing their barracks and also hoping they would tell us some crazy, combat stories. Once the signing and load out was done and the gear was secured, I looked up and .....there was the special forces guys from earlier. They loaded me and our sound guy, Bobby Harvey, in an old 4Runner and drove off across base. An interesting attribute about J-Bad is the lack of any light at night. Due to the high number of enemy attacks on the base, the U.S. chooses not to light up the base and give the enemy's a better view of our structures.

So in complete darkness we drove slowly passed our tent and a few of the other spots we had seen on our earlier tour. Then we drove passed some more. Then we drove for a while longer.

I started thinking, "Where are we going? This base isn't THAT big. We have to be reaching the perimeter"

We were.

It is at this point a gate (and two armed Afghan soldiers) comes into view.

I try to be cool but my brain realizes what is about to happen.

Me and Bobby exchange a somewhat worried look.

Our driver waves at the Afghan soldiers and the soldiers raise the gate.
We drove through.

We drove through.

We drove through the gate and enter unprotected off base roads in one of the most violent places in Afghanistan!

I had not anticipated this.

I understood that I was apparently in the hands of the military's finest. If something bad was to happen, THESE are the guys you wanna be with. However, up until that point I had been exclusively ON U.S. military installations under full military protection.

At THAT moment in that 4Runner, I was most definitely no longer ON a U.S. military installation, nor was I really under military protection.

Me and Bobby were riding in a 4Runner down the streets of Afghanistan.

Let me reiterate, I am sure these special forces guys weren't going to let harm befall us and I am sure they knew the roads we were traveling were safe. But I kept thinking........The plane we flew in on had to do a tactical landing because we are unable to fully police enemy efforts surrounding the base.

How is this 4Runner more protected than that plane?

Luckily for my sanity, this open road trip didn't last more than 5 minutes or so.

We pulled up to another gate. Again our driver waved and again armed soldiers raise the gate and waved us through.

We had arrived at the special forces compound.

I'm not sure exactly what I expected but it wasn't what I found.
We entered to find an almost perfect replica of a fraternity house. It was identical.
The hallways looked like a frat house, the rooms looked like a frat house.
They directed us to the hangout room, It looked just like a frat house.

In this room they had couches arranged in tiers so it resembled theater seating. There was about a 150" screen upon which a few of the guys were playing XBOX (They were playing Halo and then Modern Warfare. .......They were REALLLLLLLLY good.)
Behind the tiered seating there was the obligatory "frat house" bar. We gathered around and the special forces guys broke out the beers.

We had a lot of fun with them. I played a couple songs, me and one of the guys traded magic tricks, (as I had hoped) they told us some crazy combat stories, and then they invited us to see their weaponry room. Of course we jumped at the opportunity.

The weaponry room was a small 20'x10' room filled with all sorts of implements of death. There were 50 cal rifles, a bracket one of the guys had made that allows two 50 cal rifles to be fired by pulling one trigger, grenades , rockets, and somethings I had never seen.

They continued telling stories. We looked around at the arsenal and listened intently.

One of the guys began telling a story about an ambush he had encountered earlier that week. As he talked he used his hands to describe the ambush.
He got more animated and with one of his arm movements he accidentally hit the 5-6 RPGs that were to his right.

My eyes were already wide from being enthralled with his story, when I realized 5 rockets were headed to the ground I'm sure my eyes got as big as plates. I held my breath and watched these RPGs plummet.
I'm not sure how long it takes rockets to fall 4 feet, but I assure you it felt like a month. I watched with shear terror as they fell inch by inch. My mind had time to evaluate the size of the crater that would be left if these RPG's exploded inside the tinder box we were in.

Each inch in slow motion..closer...closer..closer


The sound of metal forcefully CLANGing off the concrete floor was jarring. The sound echoed a few times, then there was silence.

If I was concerned for my life on the ride TO the special forces compound, I was DEFINITELY scared for my life as I watched those rockets drop.

After the immediate terror and subsequent silence, me and Bobby nervously laughed, "Do you mind not bouncing the rockets off the floor?"

They all laughed. The guy that had been telling the story picked up 3 hand grenades and said, "Man, I'm sorry. I forget sometimes. We are around these weapons so much we don't even think about it. When we drive down the road we just throw these things across the dashboard." He then threw the grenades a couple feet and they banged and bounced all over the place. He gave us a mischievous grin.
Again they all laughed at our discomfort.

They grabbed a few more beers and we headed back to the party room.

We had a great time for the remainder of the night. Once the shock of the bouncing rockets and grenades had faded from my mind, I really felt like I was back home. It was just a typical thursday night with the guys at a frat house.
We laughed and drank until way late.

We eventually decided to call it a night.
That's when it hit me.......the only way back to our tent is back through the unprotected open roads of Afghanistan. Was there no end to the night of terror/excitement/terror/excitement.....?

However after the first trip and the experience in the weaponry room, the trip back to base was a lot less stressful.

We made it back safely.

We thanked the special forces guys for the hospitality then we went inside our tent.

I laid down on my dusty cot and tried to go to sleep.  Thoughts of the amazing night I had just lived energized and re energized me and I realized it was pointless to try and sleep tonight.

I laid there and awaited the "J-Bad alarm clock" (that's what we called the eerie sound of the 1000-2000 nearby people chanting/singing the Muslim pre-dawn call to prayer everyday about 20 minutes before sunrise ).

I heard the call to prayer, got up, and walked over to watch the sunrise over Pakistan.

It was gonna be hard for this day to compete with the last one.
Implements of scaring the bejeezus out of musicians
(Just Drop)

 Us Performing for the troops in Jalalabad

What the road out side the base looked like

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Music Matters.... I Found Out

Perhaps it is because my Istanbul story from yesterday ( got me thinking about my experiences on my USO tour, or perhaps it is because I get to see my good friend Brandon Lloyd (Medal of Valor recipient, Purple Heart Recipient, Wounded War Veteran) tonight. But either way, I want to write about another very memorable moment that occurred during my trip through the Middle East in 2008. These stories may be a few years old but I've actually rarely (if ever) told them so I wanted to tell them now.

I may even make it a trifecta and tell another tomorrow. We shall see.

Here's the one for today:

Me and the rest of my band, The Ugli Stick, were extremely excited to be playing for the military, we were extremely excited to be seeing parts of the world we may never get the chance to see again, and we were excited to be interacting with so many different cultures in such a short time. (as I said yesterday, we love to ramble. And for a rambler, the trip we were embarking on was like 10 trips to Disneyland, 2 Super Bowls, and a State Fair all rolled into one).

So we were electrified with excitement and anticipation.

After traveling a day and a half straight, we land in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan. Let it be noted that when we left Atlanta it was 70 degrees and when we landed in Bishkek it was -17 degrees.

The unbelievable temperature difference and the sleep deprivation only escalated the dream like state we in.

I am from Alabama. I have never been in anything remotely close to -17. My body was in shock. The buildings were all old Russian buildings. Every sensation  that was entering my very tired brain (and there was a flood of them) was letting me know I was in an unusual and unfamiliar place.

We got scammed at the gate (they insisted we pay for visas that the US government had already procured on our behalf), we weren't allowed to pass through to baggage claim (where we were hoping our entire PA , all our instruments, and luggage was. This was in question due to some mix ups in Turkey), Once we paid our way through and found our luggage, we were basically attacked by children who wanted to help load so they could earn tips, our military liaison met us, brought us to the gate where the Kyrgyz soldiers tried to scam our liaison (to make a little under the table money). It felt like a lifetime happened during those 40-50 minutes.

These are all stories that each need to be told in their entirety, just not today. But rest assured I will recount these complete stories at some point.

I want to tell a specific story today. This story occurred after we made our way through the airport of corruption and got to Manas Air Force Base.

We loaded our gear into "Pete's Place". Pete's Place is a cool "bar" on ManasAFB. It's a huge tent structure that has pool tables, a bar, a stage. Pete's Place feels somewhat like home. I guess it feels as much like home as you can get while in Kyrgyzstan.

Seeing Pete's made me more excited than ever. However, we were obliterated from all the travel so we slept.

Even though I slept HARD the rest only partially dealt with the sleep deprivation, and the exotic places and temperatures hadn't done anything but get more intense and add to the excitement.
While walking from the barracks to Pete's Place we saw the Himalayas. I had seen the Smokies, the Rockies, the Alps, but I had never seen mountains as impressive. Obviously I understood that the Himalayas were enormous but seeing them with my own eyes gave me a new perspective.

In addition to being in a geographically different place than I was used to, I was also on a military base far from home. The drab browns and faded greens that covered every structure helped to heighten my awareness of the fact I was in a drastically different situation than I am used to.

After all this strangeness, it was time to do something we were comfortable with and accustomed to, namely , performing music. We went to Pete's and prepared for our first USO show. As I've been describing, the surroundings were about as foreign as they could be, but the act of performing music never changes. XLR cables still plug into the Microphones the same way. The amps still plug into the speakers the same way. So even in Kyrgyzstan, the act of setting up was almost a subconscious motion.
And once we were set up, the show began almost equally as subconsciously.

That's not completely true. As I said before we were all honored to be performing for these men and women of our military. These were our country's heroes and we planned on giving them a good time. And that's what we did.
We hit them with everything we had. And they were probably the most responsive crowd I ever remember playing for. They sang and danced and yelled and clapped. This just fueled us on.
The band was in rare form that night. We were bringing the house down and it felt great.
The excitement I had built up on the way to ManasAFB was amplified by the reaction of these service men and women to our music and performance.

We were pushing Pete's Place to the limit of its ability and it eventually let us know. We were pulling so much power that we tripped the breaker.
The party was going full tilt but we had been killing it for about 90 minutes anyway so we thought this would be a great time for a break. I yelled, sans mic, to the crowd, "HEY! WE ARE GOING TO FIX THE P.A. AND TAKE A QUICK BREAK. THEN WE ARE GONNA COME RIGHT BACK AND GIVE YA SOME MORE!" The crowd erupted with obvious excitement for the next set.

I jumped down off the stage with the biggest smile on my face. I don't remember when I have felt so proud, happy and a part of a group of people. I began talking to everyone and making new friends. It was a party. I was having fun. But before I made it more than about 10ft my military liaison tapped me and said, "Eric, Come Here. The Captain wants to speak to you"

I could tell by the looks on my new friends faces and I could tell by the fact that no one attempted to continue the conversation that the summoning I was just a part of was serious business.

I approached with the rest of the band. I was still beaming from ear to ear.

The Captain said, "My name is Captain Knudsen. We are very thankful that you would take the time and come play for these men and women. ...."
I now had an even bigger smile and my chest filled with American pride as she continued, "...but I want to thank you personally. You see, Manas is like a staging platform. These platoons all come here for a few days before they head down range. They will be in the fight for 6 months, 8 months, sometimes longer. And when their tour is up the same platoons will pass back through here for a few days before being sent home. Well I am stationed here. I have been here for years. So I see these groups of brave men and women pass through....(she takes a moment to point at the group of soldiers and airmen waiting for our next set)...and I see them pass back through.
But they all won't be here on the trip back. ......"
My happiness and pride were deflated instantaneously. I felt all the blood rush from my face as I stared at the Captain.
She continued, "......You see these men and women? Well this is the last show some of them will ever see in their lives. So the point of me bringing you over here was to say, Thank you. I have thanked you for showing up and doing an honorable thing by playing for the troops. But I want to give you a special thanks. I want to thank you not simply for playing but for doing an exemplary job. You have gone above and beyond to provide a remarkable show. You've given these troops something very special and I personally thank you for it."
At this point, I absolutely have no idea what to say and I'm not sure I could've said it if I had the words. I just stood there in stunned silence.
She reached in her pocket and pulled out ManasAFB 376th Expeditionary Squadron coins.
She said, "Giving you these coins is the highest honor I can bestow upon you. We have never given these to civilians before, but your outstanding performance definitely merits it."
Handed each of us a coin.

Tears welled up in my eyes as I said, "Thank you".

I looked to my left and right. The rest of the band was equally moved.

We were trying to let the power of that moment fully soak in when the technicians run up..., "Hey. The power's back on. You guys ready to play another set?"

The Captain looked at me with a smile of encouragement.

I can't lie I had a moment where I was thinking, "How in the Hell can I go back up there and dance and be happy now? All I can think about is the fact that some of these heroes, some of my new friends weren't gonna make it through the next few months"

But I looked down at the coin in my hand and it shook me back to reality.

I wasn't just going to go up there and play. I was about to go up there and play like this was MY last show.

I have made music my entire life. I no it can have profound effects on people. But never has music been more powerful to me than at that moment. If I had ever doubted my choice to be a professional musician, if I had ever thought that maybe I should have chosen another career .....that moment.....that single moment erased all that.

In that moment every hour of practice was made worthwhile, every decision to continue to struggle was validated. In that moment, I knew I had made the right choice with my life. In that moment I knew music matters and MY music matters.

Me and the guys took the stage and we gave it Hell like we never have before or since. The troops were out of control and into every single song.

That set of music was a rush and an experience that I'll never forget.

Played for hours, then we got off stage and hung out with all the troops. It was a great great time.

Then I began pondering the events of the evening. I've pondered them many times since.

The Men and Women of the military have sacrificed so much for me to have the freedoms I enjoy and the lifestyle I love.

That night Capt. Knudsen let me know that I gave back. That night my music mattered.

I have always loved music and always valued music's importance, but that night Capt. Knudsen showed me a level of value to music that I had overlooked.

I'll never overlook it again.