Beth Bombara is one of St. Louis' most talented -- and busiest -- musicians. She sings, plays keys and guitar in Old Lights, is the entire backing band for Cassie Morgan and maintains an active outfit under her own moniker. With banjo player Karl Eggers, she recently embarked on a tour of the West that took her to Texas, Colorado and Arizona to name a few places. Kit and JJ Hamon joined her part way through the tour. We talked to Bombara, Eggers and JJ through email and asked them to share a few highlights, lowlights and insights.
Kiernan Maletsky: What did you travel in?
JJ Hamon: 100 shades of Romney's Amercian-style, courtesy of Chevy.
Beth Bombara: 2011 Chevy Suburban. Leather seats. I've never toured in a vehicle with leather seats before that.
Karl Eggers: A beautiful silver land yacht named the Bomburban. We traveled in style. That thing drove like a Cadillac. Seriously.
How did the experience of booking and playing shows at unconventional venues, such as breweries, compare with the conventional ones?
Hamon: People didn't come to the places we played specifically to see music but seemed pleasantly surprised and excited to hear what we were doing once we happened to be where they were drinking.
Bombara: Exactly. It's like we had the advantage of a "surprise attack" of sorts. And things seemed a bit more laid back. Also, I think the shows were a little easier to book because they probably don't get as many booking requests as a regular venue where a touring rock band would play. Our stripped down set up without drums also made it more appealing for these places to book us.
Eggers: Every brewery we played resulted in someone coming up and saying very encouraging things about the music, and most of the time people bought something, too. Playing to and winning over a crowd of people who aren't focused on seeing live music was a good experience.
What were some of the challenges and successes you experienced in trying to document this tour and share it with fans?
Hamon: This was the first tour I've ever done where I gained weight. It's hard to keep from looking fat on camera but I think I look pretty good in that swimsuit scene we did.
Bombara: I felt like most of the stuff that would have been good to get on camera, no one had the camera out. It would've been nice to have a person who's sole jobs was to take photos and video, because I feel like I had too much to think about already. Navigating, making a travel schedule for the next day (double checking time changes, etc), confirming load in times with venues, and trying to find last minute places for us to stay. Taking and sharing pictures was easy, but when it came to getting good video, and then getting that online in a timely fashion, it was a little more complicated than I realized it would be. But, we did end up getting a lot of videos up. And I have way more footage to go through and will possibly post more. It was a success because we never had posted video like that, and I think it helped us connect with more fans.
Eggers: The lack of consistent Internet connections (or even decent cell reception) throughout the trip was a bit of a challenge. Especially when we needed to upload giant video files.
What do you think is the ideal number of shows to squeeze into a certain period of time -- over two weeks, say, how many shows do you think a band should book and how many days off should they take?
Hamon: I like the idea of playing Wednesday through Saturday and having a few days to hang out with friends, explore, camp, etc. in between.
I love playing every night but it seems like Sunday through Tuesday shows aren't worth long drives most of the time.
Bombara: Hmm, that's tricky. Some people argue you should never schedule yourself a day off, because something will fall through and you'll get an unplanned day off anyway. JJ is right about Sunday to Tuesday shows generally being tougher to get people out, but if you get a good opportunity to play a well-known venue, or play with a good band it might be worth it. So, it depends on a lot of things. I would say it will definitely help your mental and emotional well being to take one and a half days off for every seven that you're touring. So, three days off out of fourteen. Catch up on sleep. Rest your voice. Go explore.
You had some pretty lengthy drives on this tour, as anyone heading west from St. Louis will -- how did you pass the time in the car? Hamon: Quoting Beth's lyrics back at her, creating dumb inside jokes, writing lyrics, reading, taking pictures, watching everyone else use smart phones.
Bombara: Yeah, the guys made up a game where they would see how many sentences they could string together out of my song lyrics. It was pretty impressive. I had a few books that really helped pass the time.
Eggers: JJ always did a really good job of making mix playlists (when he wasn't driving). We talked about music and listened to artists/genres that were sometimes unfamiliar to everyone in the car. Honestly, though, the scenery was so nice that I enjoyed just looking out the window at an area of the country I had never visited that much before. That and my smart phone.
What was your cheapest meal?
Hamon: Karl's brother in law made some incredibly delicious wings and home brews which we got to enjoy poolside at dusk in Tucson but that really felt more like a vacation than a tour.
Cheapest I bought was also in Tucson: Sonoran hot dogs with horchata was awesome.
Bombara: The Sonoran hot dogs were amazing. At the grand canyon we wrapped chorizo, potatoes, and onions up in tinfoil and cooked it in the fire. Delicious and cheap.
Eggers: Sonoran hot dogs, though you can't put a price on something that delicious. Too good for words.
Which venue treated you the best?
Hamon: The Grand Canyon. Nice family style meals, free drinks (of water), and the most gorgeous stage backdrop in the world. Closely followed by Ska Brewing for similar reasons (substitute delicious beer for water).
Ask me about the worst. I came off stage to get a drink at the bar during a song I don't play on. Stood at the bar through that song and part of the next without being able to get a bartender's attention. When I gave up and started heading back to the stage a seven-year-old girl saw me giving up, took my hand and dragged me back to the bar. She then went behind the bar and tugged on the bartender's sleeve. She said "that man wants a beer!" and pointed at me. That's how I had to get my beer.
Later, the little girl made off with my C harmonica.
Bombara: That's a hard one, most of the venues treated us great. I'd have to say it's a tie between Auntie Mae's in Manhattan, Kansas and Ska Brewing in Durango, Colorado.
Eggers: Auntie Mae's Parlor in Manhattan was a highlight, but pretty much everywhere was nice. Ska Brewing was pretty rad, too. Where did you sleep?
Hamon: On my brand new self-inflating sleeping pad and couches.
Bombara: We only had to stay in a hotel one night, spent two nights camping and then slept on couches and spare beds of friends and friends of friends.
Who was the most interesting person you met?
Hamon: Either the harmonica thieving little girl or Dave Baker of IWTAS fame.
There was a guy who kept asking me hard music preference questions in Oklahoma and berated me loudly for choosing the Beatles over the Stones. I stumped him bringing up Ann Peebles in a soul singer debate though and he bought me a delicious local hard cider.
Bombara: Seismologist Tim, who worked at the University of Arizona. Well, there was also a girl we stayed with who loves to bake. Apparently it runs in her family. She makes mini-pies and sells them at the farmers market. She made us an amazing breakfast, and taught us how to make white syrup for pancakes.
Eggers: Yes, Denali in Manhattan with the white syrup... so kind to us and she didn't know us other than her friend said we were nice. And she made us rhubarb pies to take with us for the road. Seismologist / Geologist Tim was a close second. Anyone who gets Lasik surgery after dropping (and losing) their glasses too many times while working in Antarctica is definitely full of some good stories.
What was your best show?
Hamon: In terms of playing I felt the best about two: at Plush, Tucson our set felt really good because Kit met up with us there and brought some new energy.
We also killed it in Norman, Oklahoma.
Bombara: I agree with JJ. Denver was a really good show, there was a ton of people there, but the sound was a little off so I don't think we performed our best.
Eggers: Plush Tucson and Norman, Oklahoma, were both super rad. Auntie Mae's was cool because the crowd's response was so unexpected. It was a Sunday night and people were calling their friends to come and see Beth and me (JJ & Kit hadn't joined us yet).
What was your worst show?
Hamon: Least favorite: a coffee shop in Albequrquee, New Mexico that double booked the show. I hoofed it two miles after washing the Grand Canyon off me (first shower in a week) to find we were only allotted 25 minutes.
Bombara: My least favorite was Dallas. The venue wasn't what I expected it to be, and the turnout wasn't great. However, we had the best time hanging out in Dallas the next day, in the Deep Ellum district.
Eggers: Dallas. Ten hour drive to play a coffee shop in the basement of some loft building for the other bands and two of their spouses. Oh, I think one of their moms was there, too. And there was a banjitarbomination run through distortion and wah by one of the other acts. It was pretty creepy. Beth's right, though. We had a really awesome time hanging out in Dallas the next day, so it made up for the dorky evening the night before.
What did you bring with you in the way of merch and music, and what sold best? Hamon: I brought an iPod that probably got more than its fair share of use.
Bombara: CDs, records, tshirts, and stickers. We sold the most CDs out of anything.
Eggers: I sold the good times and pleasant weather that follows the sweet sounds of the banjo.
What was the best band you played with?
Hamon: There was a singer-songwriter in Denver that was an awesome lyricist. I found out she gave Karl and Beth copies of her cd but made me pay $3. I guess she didn't like me as much.
Bombara: Yeah, she was really good. Betsy Lay. The Memphis Dawls in Memphis were totally awesome. They recently played some shows with Jack White, and are playing in St. Louis at Foam on August 4th for my birthday party.
Eggers: Plus-one for the Memphis Dawls. Seriously impressive musicianship and nice songs. Betsy Lay was quite clever and super nice, too.
What piece of advice do you have for other bands heading out on tour?
Hamon: Sleeping pads, plenty of books to read, and rectangular luggage. Anything that goes wrong without serious injury is going to be the best (i.e. what you'll remember).
Bombara: Plan well ahead of time, for booking the shows as well as finding places to stay. Be considerate house guests if someone lets you stay with them. keggers: Pack a third to a quarter of the amount of clothes you think you will need. Be sure to bring paper maps; that saved our ass in New Mexico.
What did you give up in order to go on this tour?
Hamon: Having to find a good swimming hole near STL, getting a few plants into my garden "on time," a second month of El Leñadency with Demonlover.
Bombara: A few weeks of work (nannying). A lot of sleep. It's hard to get good sleep on the road.
Eggers: Good quality sleep, work, time with my lady.
What did you gain on this tour?
Hamon: I learned to play a bunch of Beth Bombara songs.
The chance to go to the Grand Canyon, new friends and fans in the Southwest, knowledge of the best breakfast burrito joint in Dallas, and experience driving dirt roads in the mountains of New Mexico.
Bombara: All of what JJ said. Plus, inspiration to do more touring. I got to see the Southwest for the first time and loved it. I also learned how to put together a successful tour (first time I've done that).
Eggers: The chance to go to the Grand Canyon, to play shows in lots of places I've never visited before, eat good cheap food, meet new people. It was also cool to see how folks reacted to Beth's tunes after hearing them for the first time. JJ's dirt road escapade was pretty badass, too, though a bit bumpy since I was sitting in the back seat.