Switchback January News: Save the Last Dance
New Year’s brought about what has become an annual trek up to Michigan and Ontario, which we call the Northern Lights Tour. Now, it’s a rare occasion when either Brian’s or my wife will go along for the ride, but my wife Annie decided to travel the nine hours it takes from Chicago to northern Ontario. I was glad, too, because the Canadians were beginning to think that Annie was a figment of my imagination.
Annie is no stranger to Switchback road trips. When we first met, about 10 years ago, she used to accompany us on lots of road trips. The truth is, going out to a gig usually means getting into the already crammed and questionably hygienic minivan (“Smells like bachelors in here,” she used to say), traveling for hours on the road while we practice our vocal exercises, and arriving at the gig to help us unload equipment and watch us work. With 200 shows a year, that can put a dent in one’s personal life. But, enticed by the chance to head up to Canada, Annie said yes. Then she asked me if I would dance at least one dance with her on New Year’s Eve. “Sure,” I said, “No problem.” The fact was, it was going to be a challenge. Playing in the band means that I would have to figure a way to get someone to play bass while I dance with Annie. How was I going to figure that out?
Brian and I headed up north first, so Annie didn’t have to ride this time in the “bachelor van.” We had some great Michigan shows, including a sold-out performance to benefit the Historic Elk Rapids Town Hall. Stephanie O’Dell, a great singer and friend of the band, joined us onstage to sing several holiday songs, including “I’ll Be Home for Christmas,” which she dedicated to her Navy boyfriend, Brent. It was a tender moment in the show and everyone got a bit misty-eyed.
After another successful concert in Grayling, MI to benefit the local Rotary Club, we headed over the Mackinac Bridge and into the U.P. Finally, it was time to cross the vaunted US-Canadian border. At the border, the Canadian customs guy was friendly-like. “Where are you going?” he asked.
We have learned that to cross easily you don’t say, “I am going to see my friends and stay at their cottage on St. Joseph’s Island.” No, you have to lean slightly out the window, nod your head a bit, and say, “I’m headin’ to my friend’s camp on St. Joe.” If you have a St. Joe cap, that helps even more. Of course, I didn’t have my cap on and my long hair always gets a question or two.
“Where did you meet these friends?” he asked, leaning a bit toward me, “At a terrorist convention?” I think he was trying to throw me off a bit. He was successful.
“Um, no, uh, they’re fans,” I stammered. Should have put the hair in a ponytail.
“And why would anyone live in Iowa?” he asked, looking at our Iowa plates.
That one stopped me for a second. “Uh, he lives in Iowa,” I said and pointed at Brian, “And someone has to live there, sir?”
“Go ahead,” he said, handing me our passports and waving us out of his life.
Annie came up that night from Chicago with our fan club president Chris Pardee. Of course they had no problem at all crossing the border.
By the time they arrived, we were already set up at Central United Church for the big holiday concert. Another benefit, this concert would help finance a new roof for the church. Central United is a beautiful building. One striking feature is that it boasts one of the largest pipe organs in Canada. The organ, built in Holland, is impressive, with pipes reaching for the ceiling and bristling outwards toward the congregation like a battleship swinging all its guns to port, impressive and beautiful. The real beauty of it was the life that came out of it when Paul Dingle, the musical director, proceeded to play. Meeting Paul was like meeting a brother. He instantly understood what we were trying to do with our music and it was as if he had been part of the band for years.
A great number of our Canadian fans had arrived from different parts of the province. Over four hundred people packed into the church. And there were a lot of folks who had never seen us before. We brought Paul up to the organ to play “Love Won’t Run Away” and I got chills as the organ created the deep mood of a dark Irish sea. The audience was thrilled, including some folks who were from County Mayo, Ireland. I introduced Annie to the audience and she smiled and waved with some polite embarrassment. It was nice to finally have our Canadian friends meet her.
New Year’s Eve arrived along with the rest of the full band, Paul Russell on fiddle and mandolin and Nick Hirka on percussion. The Colonel came in with his recording equipment and we recorded a new song, “The Measure of the Master,” for a sound check. Things were looking good. It was time to head back to our rooms to get ready for the evening. Annie put on a beautiful Chinese silk gown. “You look great,” I said.
And like the other concerts, we had a great turnout for the event, another sold out evening. Folks were treated to prime rib, champagne, and of course music. I realized we were surrounded by a wonderful mix of Canadian and American fans who came up to see us play. And for me, the greatest gift was that my wife was there to share the evening with me.
We started our first set at 8 p.m. and proceeded to play as the party horns and hats were passed out in anticipation of 2011. I looked over at Annie and mentally made a note that I would have to pick a time to get out and dance with my wife.
Soon it was 11 p.m. I was getting nervous about how I was going to be able to dance with Annie. I had hit a snag. It seemed impossible to figure out how to pull it off. All the slow songs were sung by me. Perhaps if I could get another band member to take the bass? We were in the middle of the set and I turned to Paul Russell. “Can you play the bass?” I asked. “What?” he asked. At that moment, Brian’s guitar went out, leaving Paul holding the melody on the violin. Exasperated, Brian called for a break, we got off the stage, and I sat next to Annie. I could see Fitz fuming on the stage, pulling cables and trying to figure out what had happened to his guitar. It turned out to be one cable that decided not to live to see the New Year. He got it fixed and we took to the stage.
Soon, Neil Caughill, our official St. Joe timekeeper, came up to the stage and showed that it was five minutes to midnight…just one more song in 2010. It was now or never to keep my promise. So, I jumped down from the stage, bass and all, and proceeded to “dance” with Annie — that is, play my bass and hop around while she put her arms around my neck with the guitar making a wide gap between us — as we played “Jesse Taylor’s Nightmare.” Brian jumped from the stage as well and soon everyone in the hall was on the floor dancing. Annie shook her head at me and smiled. It wasn’t exactly what either of us had in mind for the last dance of the year, certainly not the romantic slow number that I had envisioned.
Our success in Switchback comes from a great deal of support (and sacrifice) from friends and family. They have helped us through every twist and turn on the trail. Our wives, especially, have been very patient and committed to our dream of being independent musicians. They have celebrated our successes and bolstered our confidence during the low times. It is difficult when we are apart, and sometimes the best we have to offer them is an awkward last minute dance when we are together. But awkward or not, it’s a great gift to be able to share your passion with someone who believes in you and sees you for who you are. I can’t ask for anything more when I am attempting to dance with my wife with a big acoustic bass between us and she is willing to put her arms around me, smile, and dance the last dance of the year with me.
Happy New Year,