The hugs goodbye always last a little longer than the hugs we share in greeting.
One a.m. finds us on a quiet, tree-lined street in the Georgetown neighborhood of Washington DC. Vandaveer has just finished a run of east coast shows with a gig at Gypsy Sally’s. Frontman Mark Charles Heidinger pulls the van — crammed full of guitars, drums, keyboard, pedals, merch, and luggage — up to the home of a longtime friend with whom the band will be spending the night.
A cab is waiting to take me to Union Station, where I will board a three a.m. train back to New York City. Too tired to find the right words, I try to convey my gratitude in the embraces we exchange. Then I conduct the requisite check: backpack, camera bag, phone, wallet, ID.
I will never quite understand how bands don’t leave a trail of items behind as they criss-cross the country. Or maybe they do. Hansel & Gretel breadcrumbs of touring, to find their way back to the start.
I get into the cab. As we pull away, I gaze back to see Mark and Tom ascending the steps. Their last night away from home for a while.
Back to the start — or to a start. This is a band I’ve adored since I first saw them several years ago as a duo of Mark and vocalist Rose Guerin. They’ve shapeshifted in and out of studio, most often joined on the road by steel guitarist J. Tom Hnatow. For the new album tour (my review of The Wild Mercury is here), the band has expanded to a six-piece, adding Justin Craig (guitars, keys), Robby Cosenza (percussion), and Blake Cox (bass).
It’s exciting to hear how your favorite bands evolve — how they push the sonic envelope. Two years ago, I would have referred to Vandaveer as an Americana trio. Today, their kaleidoscope sound places them in the folk-rock genre as they combine the danceability of pop hooks with the compelling storytelling that first drew me to the band.
And dance we did — first in Brooklyn, then in Baltimore and DC — this, despite Mark’s recent bout of pleurisy — an affliction heretofore encountered only when playing The Oregon Trail.
Here’s a glimpse of the ever-shifting landscape of a band on the run.
Friday evening // Brooklyn, NY // Union Hall. The subterranean space — the low tin ceiling and dim lights — makes for an intimate experience. Matt Duncan and his bandmates (guitarists Justin Craig and Tim Mislock, who, along with Matt, are familiar to many as Tits of Clay from the Tony-winning Hedwig and the Angry Inch; drummer Dan Sylvester) kicked off the night with Matt’s perfectly-crafted, lively songs — all the pop sensibility without any of the saccharine sweetness. Stephen Trask (music & lyrics for Hedwig) joined his fellow Lexingtonians for the set and invited Rose up to the stage for a song. The smiles say it all.
We live our lives mostly on parallel tracks — a blur of faces behind car windows and across subway platforms. But when we enter a club, the storylines of strangers converge. These are the songs that bring you and me to this place, on this night, to hear this band.
There is a physicality to live music that draws me away from home and headphones in search of that temporary but beautiful coming together. At a show, we not only hear but see how a song inhabits bodies — the body of the acoustic guitar, resonant; the roll of a drummer’s torso in flow with the strokes; the lips parted above the mic; the hand lifted upward, gesturing with the lyrics. The song inhabits the bodies of the performers and then overtakes the bodies of the listeners, making us dance, smile, and sometimes even weep.
We sing along. We trace the contours of someone else’s memories and in doing so, make new ones of our own.
And so to spend years listening to Vandaveer — in clubs, living rooms, festivals — and experience this new iteration of their live sound — a kinetic energy, propelled by a rhythm section and by narratives that rest less on allegory and more on autobiography — it’s a special thing. And it isn’t my place to say I’m proud of these guys and gal — for who am I? Yet I teared up listening to them playing “Pretty Thin Line” in Brooklyn … the promise and the melancholy of the road, literal and metaphorical, enveloped in song.
Saturday morning // I-95 to Baltimore. Vandaveer has new wheels. [The Chevy Express is in need of a name, so send your suggestions to vandaveercontest[at]gmail.com — winner gets a tee and screenprinted poster.] The van even has a custom-built cage to protect the gear from the recurring tragedy of band car smash-and-grab. The cage is courtesy of a Lexington friend — a welder and metal sculptor who runs an alternative music venue, Soulful Space.
I vaguely wonder if I’ll be sitting back in lockup and quip about strapping myself to the roof, a la Romney’s dog — but the crew has made space for me in the back seat. Blake and Justin take turns at the wheel. Mark works on lining up the May tour out west. Tom handles social media for the weekend’s shows and Robby takes a catnap.
Rose and I concoct band Bitmojis, referencing the photos on my screen. “Should Mark’s eyes be bigger? Maybe a little bigger. And what’s his body type –” Rose scrolls through the options. Mark glances back at us, eyebrow quirked quizzically. “Oh, we need to make his eyebrows thicker!”
Rose then fires off a text to their friend Joe Pug — another of the contemporary greats in the folk tradition. It’s a Bitmoji strip featuring Mark, Tom, and Rose wearing pug shirts. A while later, Rose’s phone chimes. I can hear Pug’s intonation when I read the one-word response: “Goddammit!”
Saturday afternoon // Baltimore, MD // Sound Garden. It’s Record Store Day. It’s also apparently pirate appreciation day — as we pull up at The Sound Garden, we see eyepatch- and plastic-sabre-wearing folks strolling down the street.
As Vandaveer starts to play, folks pause in their vinyl gleaning and make their way up the aisles to listen. I see arms placed around loved ones and a little boy clambering onto his dad’s shoulders for a better view.
Afterward, the store staff take a portrait with the band.
Robby pulls a classic Cosenza move — he starts crawling, in sexy beast mode, toward the cameras. The rock-star-serious-portrait expressions dissolve into laughter.
Saturday evening // Baltimore, MD // Club 603. From the record store, we point the van toward Club 603 — the home of the Vieths, who are architects by day and music patrons by night. Scott and Jean have hosted a range of bands over the years, from Bottle Rockets to Wussy to John Moreland.
These folks and others like them across the country are invaluable for artists and fans. A living room show draws guests who are there for the music (ever get annoyed at fellow club-goers who talk over the entire set? that doesn’t happen at a house show). And unlike clubs, which take a portion of ticket and merch sales, the artists keep all of the proceeds. Some hosts, like the Vieths, will even put up the band for the night. Given the economics of the industry, it’s a growing and important part of making music a sustainable undertaking for the artists.
This is Vandaveer’s sixth show at Club 603. By now, the Vieths are not just venue providers but also friends, and I’m struck by the transformation in the body language of my road-warrior pals. Days in Baltimore are a pause in the otherwise unceasing, wearying movement of tour — a little respite from my worn out mind.
Robby sheds his shirt and stretches out in the sun-lit backyard. Mark and Blake toss around a football.
Tom contemplates a badminton racquet, then places it down and ambles over to the patio. He shares a cup of coffee with Scott while I pepper the latter with questions about his recent trip to Cuba with Rhett Miller of the alt-country band, Old 97’s.
As the sun sets and the guests filter in, Jean sets out a spread of snacks and drinks. The band finalizes the setlist. As I gaze out, Robby and Rose make goofy faces for the camera.
Showtime. The living room space is usually capped at 50, but record store patrons who caught Vandaveer’s set came up to the band afterward to ask about tickets. The Vieths manage to fit ten more into their home. Some perch on the staircase, others on the windowsill. Many have seen Vandaveer before as a duo and a trio. This is a treat for them to experience the music with a six-piece.
And it’s a treat for me to take in the glowing expressions, the feet tapping along to the rhythm … the hush as Mark takes to the keys, solo, for “Absolutely Over the Moon” … the rousing, soul-fortifying harmonies when the whole room joins in the refrain of “Dig Down Deep.” One line in particular rings out clarion and true to me tonight: you know a house don’t make a home if you build it all alone.
After the set, folks linger to buy merch and chat. Scott generously opens up his whiskey cabinet. After the guests depart, we move back into the living room to listen to music. That’s where we find Mark stretched out on the hardwood floor, fast asleep.
Markolepsy is a tour superpower — the ability to take advantage of any quiet moment to catch some desperately-needed zzz’s. Robby stands over him, playing air-drums. Mark doesn’t stir.
It isn’t until Robby starts brushing his curly locks up against Mark’s face that the latter rubs his eyes and looks up, seemingly unsurprised to find himself on the floor. He stands, smoothes out the wrinkles in his vest, and the conversation continues.
Sunday morning // Studio Vieth. Scott and I are apparently the early birds. I come downstairs in time to help him unload the dishwasher. He then points me toward a nearby trail, and I set off for a run. I return to find Robby and Rose doing pushups on the patio. Justin makes an egg scramble for everyone, while Jean remarks with a smile: “The band makes us breakfast — this is a Club 603 first.”
After eating, we take advantage of the early spring light for some portraits. Club 603 becomes Studio Vieth.
Sunday // Washington DC // Gypsy Sally’s. Time to hit the road again.
The District was once home to many in the van. Mark, Robby, and Justin — friends and collaborators from their Kentucky days — all met Tom when the four joined Jesse Elliott’s These United States. Mark and Rose found each other through a DC folk collective called the Federal Reserve.
Blake, the relative newcomer to the group and the non-DCist, peers out the window as we pass by the monuments. My thoughts turn to the rift between the romance and reality of the road. The miles are logged and the pushpins are placed in the map to say, “I’ve been here.” But the unspoken bit is that you rarely see enough of “here” to know it from “there.”
Load-in is my chance to glimpse Gypsy Sally’s — a space I typically experience as part of a nocturnal narrative — bathed in sunlight. This is the first stage at which I pointed a camera. Two years feels like a very long time ago. I chase off the melancholia prowling at the edges of my consciousness. There’s work to do and friends to meet.
After sound-check, there’s just enough daylight left for some band portraits before the opener, Dead Professional, takes the stage. I take a break from photo duty for the set and sit in the back with DC friends who have come out for the show.
And then it’s time again to hear Vandaveer work their magic.
I conjure up images of ancient astronauts downtown at the arcade. I contemplate the friends we lose and rediscover and the longing to be young, to belong. I nestle into each song and try to anticipate the moments to capture. I rejoin my friends in the back for a song or two. One whispers to me that “Holding Patterns” is her favorite — “it’s the pedal steel,” she says. We both gaze at Tom as his hands move along, producing those gossamer strands of sound.
One of these days, I’ll go to a Vandaveer show just to listen.
The set over, I say goodbye to my DC posse and head to the green room to help load belongings back into the van.
Looking out over the stage, I see cases stacked against cases on top of other cases. The Tetris of tour.
The last night of a run always feels a bit different. The adrenaline of the show wears off and thoughts of home and familiar beds beckon. Load out proceeds in a half-automated, half-buzzed state. Blake finds me in the green room, gazing down at the notebook in which Mark keeps his setlists.
“What a night,” I say to him. “You sounded wonderful.” The words seem trite, coming out like that. But I mean them, and I think he understands. A smile lifts the corners of his mouth.
“Does it feel surreal to you, too?” I feel bashful as soon as I ask the question. It seems rather personal for a fellow I met just two days ago.
Blake sticks his hands in his pockets and gazes up at the vintage guitars adorning the green room wall. “It’s a blessing and a curse,” he responds after a while. “Music just gets its talons in you. And it doesn’t let go.”
I nod, grateful for his honesty. Shooting shows makes me feel both gutted and renewed. I can only begin to imagine what it feels like to be the one up on stage. Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring.
Many of Vandaveer’s friends have come out for the show. I meet Rose’s sister and Tom’s old roommates. Mark chats with Winston, a bandmate from These United States. I wonder what it feels like for them to reunite for a few moments after a show — to recount the thousands of miles traveled together and update each other on life now, hundreds of miles apart. Retracing footsteps, charting new courses. Kids then, parents now.
Two weeks later, back in New York, I’m going through photos and rediscover one of Rosie. It’s from the alleyway behind the Baltimore record store.
I text her the photo.
“I can still smell that wisteria,” she replies.
We share the road for a while — just a precious while. Our routes diverge, but it’s the coming together that we safekeep — these nights like spring rain, awakening roots. I know it’s temporary, but man, it’s so beautiful.
Vandaveer hits the road again in May, traversing both sides of the mighty Mississippi and crossing mountains out west. Check out tour dates here, and purchase and stream The Wild Mercury. Daily doses recommended as prophylactic against anodyne-pop-overdose, soul-weariness, and all other afflictions (except pleurisy).