We ride along with the Portland band Alameda on their fourteen-date trek to the Great White North. Writer and audio producer Alex Lewis is embedded with the group, updating this space with audio, visual and words from the road.
Wednesday, June 19th -- Portland, Oregon
Stirling Myles called me out of the blue sometime this winter. He's the frontman of Alameda and a friend of mine from when I lived here in Portland. These days I live across the country in Philadelphia where I work as a public radio producer. The two cities aren't as different as you might think. Creative people living relatively cheaply and communally. Nothing in our towns seem too far apart. But where Philly is concrete and gritty, Portland is wooded and verdurous. I miss that part of living out here. I miss waking up in the clean air, to the mountain, the Pacific Northwest at my fingertips. So when Stirling asked me if I wanted to document Alameda's Alaskan tour this summer, I could only say, "yes".
Alameda features Stirling on lead vocals and guitar, cellist Jessie Dettwiler, clarinetist Jen Woodall, guitarist Tim Grimes, and percussionist Barra Brown. Stirling writes songs that sound familiar on the surface. They sway, escalate, and rupture n a way that reminds me of an epic novel. The chamber ensemble gracefully navigates through unusual harmonic movements you're more likely to find in a modern classical composition than a Sub Pop sampler. The result is music that can feel intimate, warm, and large in one fell swoop. But don't just take my word for it:
The band will be playing fourteen shows over the next three weeks in six different places (cities? villages?). Alameda keeps a busy show schedule around town, so preparing for a tour like this is an exercise in fine-tuning well practiced songs, learning covers for marathon sets (there's one show in Anchorage where they'll play three 40 minute sets!), and getting together merch. I'll be updating this space with writing, photos, audio, and video for each city they hit in Alaska. So expect posts from Anchorage, Talkeetna, Girdwood, Seward, Fairbanks, and Healy.
Alaska's state motto is "North to the Future". It's hopeful and dreamy. Neither the band nor I have travelled there before and in a sense I think we all feel this way about this trip. None of us know what will happen at these shows or on the road in Alaska. I have little idea about what I'll be putting in this space. But writing now at the Seattle-Tacoma airport, there's an overriding sense of optimism and excitement. We're more than ready to get there. To explore a part of America we haven't yet experienced. To hear and make some new stories. To play music. North to the future.
Friday, June 21st -- Anchorage, Alaska
We landed in Anchorage at 10 PM on Wednesday. After an exhausting trip that involved driving to Seattle from Portland to catch our evening flight to Alaska, we were greeted at the baggage claim with the news that all our checked luggage had been mishandled and was going to be arriving a day late. It was a dispirting way to start the trip, but we had no choice but to move on without our belongings. And it was actually pretty easy because we were in ALASKA. Imagine if you could see one hundred Mt. Hoods from your bedroom window in Portland. That's what it's like here. Anchorage (and, seemingly, everywhere in Alaska) is surrounded by huge mountains and vast views of blue ocean water. We're also here right at the summer solstice, so there's twenty + hours of light every day. It's too mesmerizing here to be bummed out about not having a change of underwear.
Also, luckily, the band carried on all their instruments, so their first show at the Taproot in Anchorage went on as planned. These first moments in Alaska made me think about how you need to roll with the punches to stay at ease on tour. I talked to Stirling about this while standing on a beach near our cabin lodging just outside Anchorage. Some of that conversation is paired together here with photographs from our first days in Alaska:
Monday, June 24th -- Talkeetna, Alaska
Talkeetna is about 120 miles north of Anchorage. Less than a three hour drive in our scrappy, but dependable Ford Ecoline. The town has one main street that's busy with tourists who fill the expensive restaurants, coffee shops, and art galleries. There are locals too - though most I met seemed to be temporary or long-term transplants from elsewhere - and they run the shops. Some also man boats, fly small airplanes, and lead mountain climbing expeditions. For Talkeetna is the gateway to Mt. McKinley - the largest mountain in North America.
Alameda played two official shows in Talkeetna. Their first was outdoors at a musical festival on a farm just on the outskirts of town. The Solar Fest was poorly attended. But the perpetual daylight, the endless country rock music, the stretching fields, and friendly locals came together to make that night something mystical. Cotton from the shedding cottonwood trees swirled dense in the air. Their second show on Monday evening was at Talkeetna's historic Fairview Inn. The bar and hotel's claim to fame is that it's where President Warren Harding ate the meal that ended his life. It's filled with taxidermied animal heads and old wood. It's the real version of the bar that all those Portland bars are trying to be. The band played three forty-minute sets. People drank and danced until the bar closed down at 4 AM.
Before their Fairview Inn show, Alameda decided to busk on Main St. to build some buzz for the evening. And maybe also to make a little beer money. I threw together this music video using the one shot I took of them playing "Silver Hands". The audio is from my portlable recorder's internal mics. That's my disclaimer - it's not perfect. Sitting here in the back of the van on the way to Girdwood, still gawking at every mountain, I don't know why I'm worried.
Wednesday, June 26th -- Girdwood, Alaska
A week into the tour everyone starts falling into certain routines. Stirling and Jen have an early morning run. Jessie does a daily taro card reading. Barra writes in his journal. I yearn for my first cup of coffee and think about what I'll put in this space. Unlike other tours though, the Alaskan landscape makes it difficult to really live inside those rituals. The drives are relatively short and we spend several days in each town. And also we are greeted by something entirely new and dramatic at every stop.
Girdwood was a one street village with a post office, a coffee shop, a store, and a bar. A place you wouldn't stop if you were in the lower 48. But the difference is the mountains. It's hard to just hole up in a coffee shop all day when there are beautiful thousand foot high hills all around you. We explored an old mine that was nestled in one of the surrounding mountains before the band did a radio session and then played their show.
There's a need to rest each day to be ready for the show. That's why we're here. And travelling for so long away from home, developing some sort of template of a routine becomes important. But the scenery and people in Alaska don't make it easy to just follow suit. Even the most obscure places seem to have so much to offer.
Here's Barra's journal entry from Girdwood (click on the images if you want to zoom in):
Saturday, June 29th -- Seward, Alaska
"People are made by places." That's written in the first pages of Graham Greene's The Lawless Roads and I think about that idea all the time. I'm someone who has moved around quite a bit since leaving my parent's house in New Jersey almost seven years ago. I've lived in five different places since then for school, internships, and jobs. I feel a certain closeness to all those cities and towns. But while I know that closeness is partly a product of time, I also know there's much more to it than that. What does it mean to really know somewhere?
We've been fortunate on this tour to be able to spend several days at almost every stop. We were in the beautiful Fjord-side village of Seward for four days and three nights. The band played two marathon sets - one night they were asked to play four forty-minute sets (!) - at the town's salty Yukon Bar. With so much time to spend between shows, there was time for us to hike mountains, walk the waterfront, try most of the local fare, and meet a lot of people. Waking up the fourth day in the band's apartment, it almost felt natural, like being at home. There were people we recognized and who recognized us on the Main Street. The same people who invited us to their cookouts and bought us drinks the night before. I was reminded of a familiarty I've felt in the places I've lived.
Of course though, in the scheme of things, four days is only a snapshot. We can make no claim to the village of Seward and it will soon forget us once the dust clears from our leaving van. But I write any of this because four days in one place on tour feels like four months. And what does that say about this way of seeing places and working? My only response for now is to say that it's important to remember the people you meet on the road. Because although it's easy to recall the inlet sea and mountain canyons, it's surely also the people who live there who ultimately bring meaning to these places.
Stirling and I also made some time to shoot a quick takeway video on the harbor in Seward. Barra helped me record audio out there:
Wednesday, July 3rd -- Homer, Alaska
The band has been having late nights this past week. Almost every show requires them to play up to four sets. We're at the bars and venues sometimes until 2 AM or later. It's grueling, but that's the deal up here. Sometimes it can feel like they're "the entertainment" for the night, as opposed to a featured touring band. But at every show there is a siliving lining. Their music connects with at least a few people. They get paid well. The view from the bar window is breathtaking. Regardless, I think everyone was ready for some downtime.
Days off are precious and a little dangerous on tour. They're good for getting some rest, catching up on emails, taking time for yourself. But especially here in Alaska, (again) so far away, you can find yourself sinking into these existential dilemmas: what am I doing here?, what is the value of my work?, what will it be like when I get home? Tour can be strange like this. Is the point to see places or to present your music? What's the balance? Alameda and I spent our couple days off unwinding in a small cabin in Ninilchik, AK near beautiful seaside Homer, AK. Tour booker Evan Phillips opened up his family's home away from home to us. It was the perfect place to sit by the fire and think about it all.
I've been moved by the band's ability to adapt and roll forward on this tour. Some audiences here aren't exactly expecting to see a band with a bass clarinet and cello at 1 AM at the bar. And the landscape is beautiful, but also rugged and unfamiliar. Yet I hear something new in their music every night. They bring themselves wholly as they can to every set they perform. They're a professional band. Watching them every night, I'm learning more about what that means. And here in Alaska, I think even they are too.
Friday, July 5th -- Denali, Alaska
We were at the entrance to Denail National Park. The home of Mt. McKinley - the tallest mountain in North America.
We didn't go in. We didn't really have the chance. Alameda played two night shows at Denail's Salmon Bake and a day gig down the road at the Black Bear Coffee House. Members of the band made time for a short day hike and we wandered the kitschy, mlie-long stretch of the George Parks Highway. But their shows were late and long (the highlight: July 4th, a very late night mob rendition of the "Star Spangled Banner" followed by chants of "U-S-A", U-S-A"), so the time between was spent resting, despite the surrounding mountains inviting us in.
We're nearing the end of the tour. Worn out after more than two weeks on the road, it doesn't seem unreasonable that we didn't summit a mountain. There are two more shows left to go 120 miles north in Fairbanks. The band and I just need to conserve what's left in the tank to make the most of these last days before heading home. Even through tired eyes, it still feels like Alameda has some unfinished business up here. (And there's much more to say in this space... I'm a little fatigued too. Check out more photos from Denali on Flickr.)
Monday, July 8th -- Fairbanks, Alaska
Fairbanks, located over 350 miles north of Anchorage, was the last tour stop. It's a spread out, sparse city with an army base and a university. Alameda played two shows there in two days. We stayed in a beautiful old house with a deck that viewed out into the woods. One morning I sat out there with the members of the band and asked them about their experiences in Alaska. I put their answers together with photos from those two days in Fairbanks.
(yes, that's Alameda covering M83's "Midnight City")
Wednesday, July 10th -- Portland, Oregon
This was the last shot of the band I took in Alaska. We were about to take our final ride in the van to the Anchorage airport to catch our 1 AM flight to Seattle. We would arrive in Portland, more or less sleepless, at eight in the morning on Tuesday. The tour hangover is just beginning to ease up now.
While standing in the security line at the airport, I said to Stirling, "This is the weird part of the trip where you go home and it feels like nothing has changed." I usually call it post-trip depression. You run around the world, having amazing new experiences, and then all of a sudden you're back to normal routines. Those same routines that all your friends and family have been pressing on with in your absence. Real life.
"But we've definitely changed a little." he said in response. "We won't be able to see it now, but things have definitely changed."
And I think he's right. Of course there are some instantly tangible outcomes of a tour: new fans, money, photos. But the sum of the whole experience is much harder to put your finger on. It will take time to learn some hardened lesson, or even to etch memories from the expanses of our trip to Alaska. But for now, resting my eyes every chance I get, I just see the mountains stretching from Anchorage all the way down to Homer.
And you can keep in touch with Alex on his website.