By Eli Winter
10.22.2021: Milwaukee, WI @ Sugar Maple duo set with Tyler Damon
10.23.2021: Chicago, IL @ Clown Town
10.24.2021: Evanston, IL @ SPACE solo and duo with Yasmin Williams
11.1.2021: Charlotte, NC @ Tabor solo and duo with Josh Kimbrough
11.2.2021: Durham, NC @ Shadowbox Studios with Elephant Micah, Magic Tuber String Band
11.4.2021: Washington, DC @ Rhizome with LEYA, TALsounds | solo and duo with David Sexton
11.5.2021: Baltimore, MD @ Peabody Heights Brewery with Dominique Diglio, Mole Suit Choir | solo and duo with David Sexton
11.7.2021: Portland, ME @ The Apohadion with Wendy Eisenberg, Isa Burke | solo and duo with Isa Burke
11.11.2021: Museum of Making Music: MoMM@Home: Acoustic Guitar Roundtable with Cameron Knowler & Yasmin Williams online event
11.12.2021: New York, NY @ City Winery solo and duo with Yasmin Williams
This would be a travelogue were it possible to write one exhaustively. Instead, it’s something other than a travelogue. I’m hesitant to write about myself in first-person, and I’m grateful to WHPK for giving me the chance to write in spite of that hesitancy. But let me open with a quote from the artist Michael Hafftka:
Artists are always asking me how to succeed since I am older and seem to have done it. I always try to share that we all have the opportunity to succeed no matter what the obstacles are. I believe that most artists are stuck with the wrong assumption of what consists of success. If you define success as wealth and fame you just might not achieve it. In fact you probably will wind up bitter. If you define success as working with integrity then you can achieve it no matter what the obstacles are.
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I was lucky to be able to tour this fall for the first time in two years. Months of strategizing routing, accommodations, travel logistics (I neither have a car nor drive), compressed into nine concerts and an online roundtable within three weeks. Little of this makes sense. How do you go on tour to begin with? If you should tour, shouldn’t you play as many shows as possible? Shouldn’t you have a car? If you don’t do either of those things, doesn’t that make touring prohibitively expensive, difficult? Not to mention, with the pandemic, why travel at all?
Much of my pandemic experience has involved reckoning with these questions in private. I mainly play instrumental guitar music in various settings — solo, duo, trio — which has heretofore often been categorized as ‘folk' music. Almost without exception, the musicians from whom I’ve drawn the most inspiration are those who have put out records and toured, put out records and toured, somehow managing burnout or at least not publicly mentioning it, seemingly without making any compromises of the music. When I was a full-time student this was all I wanted to do, until — and even as — the pandemic hit. What drives a musician like myself to want to tour would likely not resonate for most. With some songs and a spreadsheet, anyone can do it. The upshot to all these questions is that maybe anything is possible if you want it badly enough.
Many people don’t. That’s okay. Music is — as the Paradise of Bachelors record label’s t-shirts say — “a shit biz.” The simple fact is that most musicians will not be famous, make a stable income off tour (even on it), or have health insurance. Nor will most musicians work as musicians. It doesn’t take long for a working musician to run up against the apparent futility of performing niche music (everything is niche) to small crowds in small rooms, the nature of that impact near-impossible to discern outside of connections that threaten to fade into the ephemeral; the manifold ways in which touring threatens to undo the very endeavor; the risk of exposing oneself to COVID, or — worse — being a vector. This was my deepest fear at the start of the pandemic, and I went to great lengths to justify holding it, which kept me from exploring how to safely lead some kind of life, i.e. — in the sense of harm reduction — reduce harm, if only to myself.
Given that the pandemic makes touring — the only way working musicians can sustain their work with some regularity — contingent, if not impossible, it’s difficult not to stare over the yawning precipice of despair: addiction, poverty, homelessness, depression. The possibilities for exploitation boggle the mind. You could open for a famous British folk rocker and make 75 Euro a gig. Or play to five people and make ten bucks and a McDonald’s gift certificate. Or, because of the nature of touring — quasi-seasonal work with schedules that don’t neatly align with those of the corporate workforce (which is part of the point) — narrowly avoid eviction (in one day I saw two musicians in different parts of the country post fundraisers to this effect). Even from my position, for over a year and a half I felt like I was losing my mind, flumping or writhing on an oblong beige blanket, bursts of anxiety in texts and the failure to respond, my face locking into a frown, conversations like stones skipped on water, much of this derived from the contingency of this thing I can’t bear to go without, and then every night, on tour, I felt myself coming back into myself, even more incredibly, not as a charlatan, I started to believe it; and what helped me believe was the concerts organized, with pandemic precautions, by working artists. Without these one’s so-called career, the nature of one’s life’s work, seems a house of cards. In Chicago, working artists at Experimental Sound Studios organized long-running online concerts through their Quarantine Concerts series; working artists at Constellation found ways to make live performances and online concerts happen safely, and at the same time; musicians of all shapes and sizes played them. No matter how great the prestige of corporate entities can seem, they will not save you, nor us, nor music.
As far as I can tell I tour a bit differently from most musicians, but only by necessity. Because I neither have a car (expensive) nor drive (tedious), I tour by plane, train, bus and carpool; as a result I have to streamline my packing so that I take as many LPs (in terms of space, really the only merchandise I can afford to pack) and as little of everything else as possible. Usually I make money not from guarantees, but by scrimping and saving, and by selling records. I either use public transit or rides from the kindness of friends — friends who are often functionally strangers until I get in the car.
Maybe this puts too much trust in the endeavor. I welcome it. It can be easy to aestheticize touring, playing music, being a band or so-called artist. This sidesteps the fact that all of those things are work. Not that one should be an ascetic for the sake of working in music (despite the fact that it more or less requires this). But it runs the risk of atomizing you in the process of trying to make music. What if the whole thing creates a feedback loop circling back onto oneself? On occasion this is the very thing I want to deemphasize, if not expunge, from the work, namely myself. If you should play a song exactly as I would, take my place; put me in a black box and pipe the sound out; leave no trace that I was onstage or on anything resembling one. If only this were possible. But in playing and performing and touring music you make the choice to confront the endeavor with every appearance and release. And if you’re lucky it welcomes you even when it turns away.