Pennsylvania!

Seems like ages since I posted anything here. The days have been whizzing past… We’ve now made it to the 4th of our 5 destinations – Huntingdon, Pennsylvania. Chicago was full of so many great experiences, especially the sell out shows at the iconic Hideout Club so it was kinda sad to be moving on. Such a fantastic city, and for me one that perfectly captures beauty, serenity and city mayhem. But it was time to hit the road. We landed here Monday, to a contrasting landscape to Chicago but an equally beautiful one – rolling hills, wide open fields and classic American red farm barns speckled everywhere – like where Superman grew up, as Dick put it. We were met by our host Chad Herzog, the Director of Performing Arts at Juniata College, where our next show will be on Friday this week.

As in Chicago we arrived to unseasonal winter weather of blue sky sunshine, and no snow. We took a stroll over to Huntingdon for a look round – a gorgeous little town, and recently voted by Budget Travel Magazine as the 5th Coolest small town in America.

A fine feed and a few beers in the local diner rounded off a day of travel. Chad has been taking great care of us and has shown us some local sights these past couple of days including Raystown Lake, a beautiful 28 mile long man made lake – probably pinned with people in the summer but deserted this time of year so good chance for a stroll. Plenty of bears around apparently, but snoozing this time of year thankfully.

Then for a tour round Lincoln Caverns, a network of underground caves with gorgeous sparkling formations.

As I’d feared, there was a bat, but only one and he was asleep. Dick got his first Billy Connolly since we got to the States! A common occurence for him apparently in Scotland, Dick tells us his record is 20 in Glasgow, including a drive-by roar from a passing vehicle.

Thomas Fraser popped into my head when the guide was telling us the caves were discovered in 1931, the year he was diagnosed with polio, and the beginning of his 2 years confinement to bed. Not sure what he would have made of the being 30 feet underground. Good acoustics though so he might have been keen to get reel to reel down there for a few songs.

Got in another few local sights today, including lunch at Spruce Creek Tavern, famed for their ‘tray of fries’. Too much for Duncan to resist.. Och, well not quite… they were for us all. In usual ‘Lone Star Swing’ banter style, it was too good a opportunity of revenge for Dick to miss tho… (you’ll get the idea from the photos below). The Duncan & Dick Show could be a go-er…

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Teaching Chicago to yodel

Well, I am sure that Thomas Fraser would never have suspected he would be the cause of me getting up at 7am to cab it down to an excellent radio station (WBEZ) and teach Chicago how to yodel.

http://www.wbez.org/episode-segments/2012-02-03/lone-star-swing-band-resurrects-obscure-scottish-musician-96091

This was last Friday. So much happened in Chicago that it was hard to find time to mention even a quarter of it here. We have two days off in rural Pennsylvania now (aruments rage in the band if the landscape here is more reminiscent of Aviemore or Drumnadrochit) and so I hope to find time to blog a bit.

Honky Tonkin’

The Hideout Club is our venue for our Chicago shows. There could be no greater contrast to the glitzy, towering, steel, stone and glass skyscrapers that dominate downtown Chicago, and impressed us so much when we arrived. The Hideout is altogether more HUMAN.

It’s a tiny wooden building, dating back to around the time of WW2, at which point Wabansia St was a working class neighbourhood with lots of little houses and diners in a similar style. Over the decades all of those small buildings have been swept away and replaced by warehouses and big shed wholesalers. And more than a few waste lots. It reminds me of certain parts of Leith…before the gentrification.

Next door is the Chicago fleet management HQ, where all the snowploughs head out from (and usually they see a lot of work – last year this time there were feet of snow. It’s unseasonably warm and dry right now though, which makes getting around much easier – though it does make the big fleecy Chicago coat I bought, and that fills half my suitcase, completely redundant! Ah well, I will get the good of it back in Orkney…)

Across the street is the yard where they park Chicago’s garbage trucks. On the horizon, five or six miles south, is downtown…like Emerald City in the Wizard of Oz.

The Hideout has been, for 15 years or so, not a struggling pub in a neighbourhood with very few neighbours. Rather, it’s been a seven nights a week venue for any kind of edgy independent music anyone wants to put on: country, blues, jazz, punk, anything. They also stage their own pantomimes, using staff members, regular musical performers and regular customers as the cast. There’s a real feeling of community, of support.

We certainly found that putting on our show. The stage is tiny – reminiscent of the Cromarty Hall in St Margaret’s Hope, where we first did this show in October 2009 – and the hall is tiny too: 100 people have jammed into it the past two nights. It’s wood lined, studded with old posters, fishing trophies, leftover props from the pantos (a rocking horse, a fake throne made for Mavis Staples) but the acoustics are great and the atmosphere even better. Thursday’s show was good, Friday’s was one of the best ever. And last night’s audience threw themselves into the Strip the Willow with wild abandon – fantastic!

Dick and Iain have been throwing themselves into show preparations with their usually energy, as the pictures show. And Lynda was throwing in all kinds of wild, inventive solos last night – it’s great when the drive and inventiveness of the music comes together with a responsive, enthusiastic audience. Once again we thought of Thomas Fraser: he had the drive, the invention in bucketloads, but shied away from such audiences. I can’t help but think he would have felt right at home here – we certainly do.

 

Suite Home Chicago

Excuse the terrible pun…that is actually the name of the apartment block that the band and the rest of the NTS team are staying in. The comfort of the rooms and the stunning high-rise views (I’m on the 28th floor…) are appropriately mind-blowing. After 24 hours in Chicago we are still reeling from the scale and verve of architecture, the bustle of the streets, and the proliferation of neon-signed bars, diners and restaurants.

We came to love Lafayette, Indiana, during our time there at Purdue University – but that was a small town, not not much bigger than Kirkwall or Lerwick. Suddenly we are at the heart of a huge metropolis – and we’re already loving it here too.

What would Thomas have made of it? Hard to say, but Karl, Thomas’s grandson, who has come over to see the show in three of the five US venues, might be able to give us some notion when we next catch up with him: he has been researching the life of a close relation of Thomas’s, who left Shetland before Wold War Two and lived here for several decades. Supposedly she lived and worked in close proximity to some of Chicago’s more notorious characters…but I will let Karl that tale. When she returned to Shetland in her old age, she cut a colourful figure by all accounts, with salty language, fur coats, and pearl handled revolvers.

Thomas would undoubtedly have been knocked sideways by this town – the crowds, the buildings blocking out the sky, the constant sirens – but I’m equally sure he would have revelled in the music here: blues, jazz and country seem to be the thing, in that order. If we can find them, we aim to visit Chess Records studios later in the week. Today we checked out a fantastic hub called the Old Town School of Folk Music (www.oldtownschool.org) (like the Wrigley Sisters’ Reel, but ten times the size.) Last night we went to a gig at our venue, the Hideout Club by one of my all time favourite songwriters, Robbie Fulks (www.robbiefulks.com.) He did a varied and virtuosic set – I hadn’t realised what a stunning guitarist he is, as well as writing all those fine, fierce, funny songs – and also had the audience in stitches with his sardonic patter. His mix of yarns and music was actually only about two steps away from Long Gone Lonesome…

Which would be a fine place to stop, but I can’t resist including this link to a local magazine, which names us as the ‘No 1 thing to Do in Chicago in February’ http://www.chicagomag.com/Chicago-Magazine/February-2012/Five-Best-Things-to-Do-in-February-in-Chicago/

The good press is working: all four shows are already sold out… I’ll let you know how we get on.

Duncan