Take notes, take photos, repeat to yourself: assemble, testify, preserve. But it’s not possible to be a detached observer. A single show is not a standalone thing but part of an organic whole. It necessarily embraces you. You feel like you’re moving through someone else’s strange, beautiful, ambiguous dream. The present is the past devouring the future.
This is my day with Vandaveer, a music-making, life-observing, heartstring-bending group that I’ve followed since my first days in D.C. The project is spearheaded by Mark Charles Heidinger and the band tours as a trio of Mark, Rose Guerin (vocals), and J. Tom Hnatow (guitars). I’ve seen Vandaveer play a bike shop, the 9:30 Club, The Hamilton, IOTA Club, and a church. This time, I join them for a jaunt up to New York City — my old hometown, the city of concrete and steel, where dreams are swallowed whole and dreams are set free, where restlessness is the only constant.
June 25 / 11:23 p.m. Ears mark the cadence of the night. The rustle of bedsheets as a small child turns and murmurs in dream-filled sleep. Two faint clicks as the door opens, then closes. The patter of footsteps down to the basement. A soft sigh of cushions on opposite ends of the room as first one man and then another sits down.
Midnight draws closer. Tomorrow, Vandaveer will play a show at Bowery Ballroom in Manhattan. Tonight, Mark and Tom run through some songs in the guest room/rehearsal space.
Mark counts off: “One, two, three, four – ” The boys are trying out a new configuration for “Nature of Our Kind,” with Tom on electric guitar instead of dobro.
“It sounds like…is that Blue Oyster Cult?” Laughter. “Is that what’s going on here?”
They start again. Between songs, there’s intermittent banter about Werner Herzog. I sit cross-legged on the couch, observing the volley of witticisms and vaguely wondering if the story of a baron transporting a steamship over a mountain is some parable, some harbinger of what’s to come in the days ahead.
The evening glides on, half past I can’t say when. A little night music before bed.
Lay me down… fare me well… please let me rest for a minor spell… time won’t heal, but it may well tell which wounded dreams the waking hour felled…
June 26 / 10:05 a.m. The sun has burned away night’s dew. Rose, who is starting out from Massachusetts, is on her flight to New York. Mark and Tom (and yours truly, the tag-along) plan to hit the road at noon.
Tom is sending out some emails relating to his studio work (he’s producing a record for Small Batch). I’m perched on the steps hitting “refresh” on my phone browser, willing SCOTUSblog to update faster. It’s one of the last days of the Supreme Court term. And there it is — the decision in the same-sex marriage case, Obergefell v. Hodges. One page in, I’m brushing away tears.
Mark walks past and I choke out — “Gay marriage decision.” He halts. “Good?” — a tinge of urgency in the monosyllable. I nod. He smiles, then asks, “5 – 4?” — the vote split. I nod again. “Kennedy?” — referring to which Justice authored the majority opinion. I find my voice, a squeak of relief and joy: “Yes!”
Tom ambles up holding two coffee mugs. He remarks that a Lexington friend, Justin Wells (of Fifth on the Floor), just posted on Facebook: “To the next same-sex couple getting married in Kentucky — we will play your wedding for free.”
I want to skip and sing and hug everyone in sight, but I don’t want the boys to think I’m bonkers. I settle for wrapping my hands around the proffered cup of coffee and beaming up at them.
Mark cracks a lopsided smile. “Jeez, slow news week, eh?”
The lavish morning light washes every corner of the house.
I sip my coffee beneath a map of These United States of Vandaveer, with pins representing every club, festival, and living room the band has played over the years.
Our union is a little more perfect this morning.
12:14 p.m. Mark’s five-year-old, Nika, invites me upstairs to view his Lego collection. He’s a bright little fellow, brandishing his toy brick dinosaur and chattering precociously on post-Fordist flexible specialization (“It’s a T. rex — also, it can be a plane!”) and the fleeting nature of life (“But if you want to make it a plane, you have to take the T. rex apart.”).
From Legos, we move on to stuffed animals and the toy beat machine. Nika also explains that he can play a Georgian folk song on piano (referring to the country, not the state — his mom is from Tbilisi).
Meanwhile, the guys are loading the car with instruments, gear, the merch case, and overnight bags. The game of Band Tetris completed, Mark ascends the stairs, calling out to Nika. The kid’s eyes light up as he whispers conspiratorially that he’s going to hide and promptly dives under the bedcovers.
Mark enters. I dutifully query: “Where’s Nika? Is he with you?” Mark peers into the closet — “He must be in here!” — prompting Nika to emerge from the covers, giggling madly.
It’s official. Cutest kid ever.
12:35 p.m. We hit the road. Tom calls the rental car the Chevy Whatever. (“What kind of car did you pick up?” Mark had asked. The answer: “Oh, a Chevy…something…whatever.”) The car shudders and whines a bit at higher speeds in a way that does not exactly inspire confidence.
It’s also a snug fit for Tom, who can sit up straight only if we retract the sunroof.
Waze, the community-based traffic app, is our wayfinder. Tom has it set to an Elvis voice. Every so often, The King (well, a voice actor) intones: “Hazard reported ahead, baby.” Who knew navigation could sound so sultry?
Mark takes the first turn at the wheel. Tom DJs — we listen to Sam Smith, followed by Glass Animals. Hearing musicians geek out about music is pretty much the best thing ever. Hearing them joke about Justice Scalia’s dissent in Obergefell (partly my fault, as I was quoting some choice bits from the back seat) — also the best thing ever. Another best thing: tour stories and Band 101. (Rule: “If you’re a drummer, don’t sleep with another drummer’s mom.”)
3:30 p.m. Caffeine re-up time. Mark’s tour kryptonite, according to Tom: He picks the worst rest stops. Consistently, unfailingly, the worst. Apparently, they’ll stop at some sketchy gas station with paltry offerings and dingy bathrooms, only to drive three more minutes and see a well-lit, spotless, build-your-own sandwich rest area. So, Tom chooses the rest stops. (This one has a touch-screen sandwich order system.) Tom gets a veggie sub. Mark peruses the selection from the refrigerated section, but ends up with a granola bar. Not exactly “tourmet,” but it works.
Back on the road. Mark is alternately on the phone and his laptop, juggling the logistics of an upcoming move and an upcoming album release.
5:43 p.m. The first half of the drive went smoothly, but for the past hour, we’ve been in stop-and-go I-95 traffic. Re-routing through Staten Island, we find ourselves on Victory Road in bumper-to-bumper madness. Tom intones, “Nothing about this feels victorious.”
We crawl slowly over the Verrazano Bridge and into Brooklyn to face the gauntlet that is the BQE. Mark: “If you call it an expressway, you can be sure that it will be anything but.”
We’re all a bit anxious by now about getting to the venue in time for load-in and soundcheck. Mark starts singing in a comically exaggerated whispery thrum, a la Sufjan Stevens, of the travesty that is the Brooklyn-Queens (Not-) Expressway.
Rose arrived at the venue more than an hour ago, so Tom texts her the stage plot for the night. Then he glances down at the navigation app and over at Mark. “Only 1.6 miles to go. But I won’t tell you how long it’s going to take. Steady on.”
6:43 p.m. We arrive at Number 6, Delancey Street. Great Lake Swimmers’ bus is already parked out front.
We pull up behind the bus, punch the emergency lights, and jump out to unload the car. It takes a few trips back and forth.
Rose comes out and gives me a hug hello, passing along a message from the boys: “Please make sure we don’t get a ticket.” (It’s a no-parking area until 7 p.m.) I lean against the car, close my eyes for a moment, and feel the city hum around me.
When the clock reads 7:08 (nine years in the city has taught me about the margin of (parking-ticket-quota) error), I shut off the emergency blinkers and pop into the venue for the last bit of soundcheck. The Bowery guys are true professionals — it was the quickest process I’ve seen.
7:35 p.m. We wander a few blocks down to Chinatown for some veggie dumplings … with a side of duck tacos (because New York).
Doors are at 8 p.m., so there’s time to sit and eat before Rose, Mark, and Tom change into show attire. Then we head down to the bar to say hello to friends & family who have come out for the show.
Pete, the band’s manager, is here. Also in attendance are Tom’s brother and sister-in-law (the latter is a photographer with whom Tom is collaborating on an image + ambient music project). Jay Troop, a Brooklyn-based musician whose debut album Tom plays on, meets Tom in person for the first time. Elizabeth, a publicist and long-time Vandaveer supporter, greets the trio with a hug. My little brother and a few friends from school and the blogosphere join me for a pre-show drink. It’s a happy collision of worlds, of faces both familiar and fresh.
9:00 p.m. Showtime. I will never tire of hearing this band play.
I appreciate the intimacy of living room shows, but I also love the careful tweaking of sound that is possible at a club — the band sounds even better than usual tonight. You can really hear Mark’s and Rose’s voices unfurling separately and then coiling together, weaving with Tom’s pedal steel — interlacing, arabesque.
I’m often asked what Vandaveer sounds like, what kind of music they play. (Folky. Some spacey, pop soundscape-y elements.) But words in a vacuum can never do justice to the physical experience of a song — the way it inhabits a space, the way it inhabits bodies and make us move, smile, and even weep.
“Songs are like rivers,” wrote the art critic John Berger. “Each follows its own course, yet all flow to the sea, from which everything came. The fact that in many languages the place where a river enters the sea is called the river’s mouth emphasizes the comparison.”
What is folk music, if not music made by folks? What is Americana, if not the the rich, variegated history of these United States, the collection of sights and sounds, the stories of settlers and wanderers across these lands? Isn’t all of this folk and Americana, then? Each song comes from an immense elsewhere to arrive at the here and now of each performance.
So what does a Vandaveer song sound like? It sounds like dark and light. It sounds like an ironic critique — the corner of Mark’s mouth lifts in a half-smirk. Like a benediction — Rose’s face looks heavenward, her curls in a halo of stage lights. Like a shelter from the flow of linear time — the delicate quaver and swell of Tom’s pedal steel. It sounds like journeys, like a respite from the road:
You’ve got to walk a million miles… honey, go walk them with a smile… however many takes it takes…
The forty-minute set feels far too short, but I’m so very pleased by the impression that the band made on my posse. Of the five friends who joined me for the evening, four were listening to Vandaveer for the first time. As soon as the club lights came back on, they start asking me about the names of particular songs.
The Bowery crew helps Mark and Tom with breakdown, and we all migrate back to the bar.
11:35 p.m. Where did the rest of the evening go? I caught some of the Great Lake Swimmers’ set and chatted with friends, but I can’t really account for the past two-plus hours.
Rose asks if I want to grab a slice of pizza. Mark and Tom look engrossed in their conversations with fans and friends, so I run up to the green room to grab my bag, pausing just long enough to snap a photo of the Empire State Building in its rainbow glow.
And then we’re off, Rose and I, on a mini-adventure. I start to pull out my phone for navigation, but Rose laughs and says “put that away — be spontaneous!”
We claim as playground the streets of lower Manhattan.
Crossing into Little Italy, I get caught on the other side of the light. Rose runs on ahead of me. The sight of her curls bouncing under a green beanie, cowboy boots kicking up as she skips across the street to beat the light — it was a moment of pure joy.
We end up at a karaoke bar where Rose gets twirled across the floor by a couple of charming gentlemen, one of whom takes pity on me and drags me off the bar stool for a dance.
I feel simultaneously incredibly out of place and like there’s nowhere else in the world I’d rather be. In other words, I feel like I’m in New York.
June 27 / 12:08 a.m. My phone screen lights up. It’s a text from Tom: “We need to pack up. Where are you?”
A few seconds later, another text: “Where’s Rose?”
Oh crap, I think to myself. Out loud, I say: “Rose — they’re closing down the venue — we need to get back.” She smiles impishly: “Oh, we’re in trouble with the boys, aren’t we.” I settle the tab. Onward.
1:15 a.m. Brooklyn, here we come. We’re too tired for words by this point, so it’s just Garmin, guiding us along the one-way streets.
June 27 / 10:05 a.m. We reconvene for breakfast with Elizabeth near her home in Red Hook. She chats about Ringo’s (yes, as in Ringo Starr) upcoming birthday party. After breakfast, we drop by her house to pick up bags before we hit the road. Her pup greets me at the door. Diamond is a certified snuggle monster. I can hear the others chatting inside the house before Tom doubles back to the entranceway to find that I haven’t moved because I’m too busy enjoying doggy-time.
11:15 a.m. On the road again.
We are dropping Rose off at the J train so that she can get to JFK Airport for her flight back to Massachusetts. It’s a tight squeeze in the back of the car since there’s only one seat open (the rest of the room is taken up by gear and guitars). I blurt an apology in the form of: “Sorry, my ass is in the way.” Rose responds: “It’s not your ass that’s the problem — it’s all my bags.” Tom quips: “Well, that’s a tour quote!” Mark chooses wisely not to respond.
The post-show drive back to D.C. feels a bit more relaxed, but the pouring rain makes I-95 more trying than usual. Waze keeps chirping out flood alerts. Even with the windshield wipers at full speed, it’s hard to make anything out. Mark starts speculating on what will happen when Waze becomes sentient. “Warning: Driver behind wheel lacks self-awareness.”
The moment we pull into a rest stop, there’s a thunderous crash from down the road. We trade quizzical looks before running out into the rain (none of us brought an umbrella) to grab some water and coffee. As we pull back out, we see what the problem is — a light post has fallen across the road. And the car in front of us had chosen to drive over it, tearing out the muffler in the process.
Tom starts riffing on apocalyptic predictions. “And across the grooved pavement will come flood waters. A mighty post will fall across the land. And lo, a car with no muffler — verily, I say unto thee…”
6:03 p.m. After about six hours on the road, we’re back in Alexandria, pulling up in front of Mark’s house. The rain has stopped.
We unload. Nika is waiting just inside and squeals, “I missed you, papa!” Mark sets down the guitar and puts his arms around his little boy. These moments are beyond precious.
What more can I say? Listen, feel, and treasure this all, all of this messy, maddening, melancholy, wonderful, winding journey. In a song, we find compassion and companions. A home for a while.
I’ll pick a planet, and you can choose a star… we’ll plot our points together, we can travel very far… our paths are winding… we can’t rewind, but if we move with grace and speed we can watch it all again from depths we’ve never dreamed.
2 thoughts on “On the Road with Vandaveer”
This is superb on every level.
Thanks, Greg. It’s a superb band of superb folks. ❤