"TCB" gets in the van with Grand Champeen and encores at CMJ in NYC.
The One That Brought You
The four members of Grand Champeen are gathering their strength for the long drive ahead by stuffing their faces with salad and Chicken McNuggets. It's near 8pm on Wednesday, Oct. 22, at a McDonald's on I-10 East in Houston, and in about 72 hours they'll take the stage for their CMJ showcase at New York City's Acme Underground. They left Austin around 5pm and won't see their adopted hometown again for a month.
The mood is light. Michael Crow, lead guitar and vocals, offers Alex Livingstone, bass and vocals, $5 to empty a packet of ranch dressing in his coffee. Livingstone declines as Channing Lewis, vocals and guitar, and Ned Stewart, drums, try to laugh without choking on their McNuggets. Grand Champeen have the easy, almost telepathic rapport of longtime friends who've heard one another's jokes a thousand times and still laugh anyway.
Crow, Lewis, and Stewart met in high school near Charlottesville, Va., and were in a band together before their freshman year was over. Livingstone, who met Lewis in eighth grade and kept in touch, came aboard when the band's original bassist became a card-carrying member of the Phish army and his first replacement wound up heading off to law school. One of the last new (or at least new to Austin) bands to play the Electric Lounge before it closed in 1999, Grand Champeen has since released three albums soaked in booze, sweat, and romantic yearning. The One That Brought You, released this month on Austin indie Glurp, is their strongest and the reason for this little jaunt of 27 shows in 29 days.
Out Front by the Van
Grand Champeen acquired their deluxe 1999 Ford 350 Econoline van by landing the song "Cottonmouth," which appears on their 2000 debut, Out Front by the Van, in the Austin-set 2003 Kevin Spacey clunker, The Life of David Gale. Legend has it that one of the film's producers heard the CD being played in Waterloo Records and flipped for it. Their last van had four captain's chairs, no AC, and windows that wouldn't roll down; Crow likens it to something a child molester might use to cruise the local playground. The new vehicle is much, much nicer: front and rear AC, two bench seats big enough to stretch out on, overhead reading lights, and a loft the band built in the back to stow all their nonmusical stuff.
Also greatly improving their traveling conditions is the inclusion of a TV and Xbox console between the driver and passenger seats. Before they had this, Livingstone notes, they mostly read. This they still do; among the books they've brought are the latest World Almanac and Book of Facts, Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States, and How to Draw Fast Cars, Monster Trucks, & Fighter Jets. Everyone save the bassist has also brought his iPod. In the early going, Crow's iPod seems to favor X and Prescott Curlywolf before proceeding to Wings, Van Halen, and Art Blakey.
Lewis marvels that the band once drove all the way from Austin to Oklahoma City without needing a fill-up. This time, 30 gallons goes until Sulfur, La. Shortly after heading back out on I-10, Lewis and Livingstone turn on the TV, planning to boot up a game of Ghost Recon, when someone suggests trying to find the World Series. After some fiddling with the antenna, the reception improves just in time to see the Yankees' Ruben Sierra tie the score at three in the ninth inning with a two-out, two-run triple.
The van is passing over the Atchafalaya swamp near Henderson, La., when Florida's Alex Gonzalez wins it with a lead-off home run in the bottom of the 12th. With the Series even at two games apiece, everyone realizes game six will take place the night of the CMJ show.
"Wake up, we're being pulled over."
"It's the cops."
Ten miles or so outside Mobile, at around 3:30am, an either fastidious or bored member of the Alabama State Police has decided that Stewart was swerving in and out of his lane. Everyone in the van doesn't quite see it that way; only later does it come out that they get stopped at least once per tour.
The officer informs Stewart of his "swerving," and asks him, "What's the matter? You tired? Drunk?" Tired, admits the drummer, but the officer isn't satisfied.
"You got anything in here I should know about? Marijuana, cocaine, crack, methamphetamines? Do I need to get a K-9 unit out here?"
Stewart says no, but eventually it comes out that the van belongs to a rock band on tour, which makes the young officer's eyes light up. Now everyone has to get out, and after the requisite pat down, make small talk with the other, older cop on the scene while the first one rifles through the gear. Unable to find anything, because there's nothing to find, he sends the bleary-eyed party on its way with the standard admonition to "be careful."
"He just planted the drugs so the cop that comes along in an hour can find them," jokes Lewis.
Heading down the Lost Highway to Montgomery, the band becomes embroiled in a discussion of the rock & roll merits of various Lord of the Rings races. Hobbits, Crow decides, would not make good roadies. Although a bunch of them might fit in a van, they would probably take too many food and ale breaks. Orcs might be useful to shake down club owners reluctant to pay, but also smell bad. One thing everyone can agree on is that Helm's Deep would make a badass band name. Anything Grand Champeen unanimously approves of is generally deemed badass.
Georgia on My Mind
The band hits Atlanta about 10:30 Thursday morning. After pausing to rest and clean up at their lawyer friend Wood's house, the band hits the Deep Ellum-like Little Five Points to kill time before their gig that night at the Star Bar. Since the club has hosted Honky, Dixie Witch, and the Pink Swords in the previous week, it becomes known as "the Room 710 of Atlanta."
After browsing for Halloween costumes at one-stop hipster emporium the Junkman's Daughter, and grabbing a quick dinner with Wood, the band begins to twitch. They all agree that while on the road, the last hour or two before hitting the stage is the worst. Helping take the edge off is the sizable contingent of friends and family who've arrived, including Livingstone's sister, who drove down from Asheville, N.C., and Lewis' mother, who, naturally, brought cookies.
Though they later complain of feeling rusty, the show goes over great. It had to, because anything less would've been upstaged by opening act Sasparilla the Singing Gorilla, a guy in a blue gorilla suit with a stand-up bass accompanying himself on songs like "Mack the Knife," "Mexican Radio," and "I Wanna Be Sedated." Grand Champeen, for their part, finds a modest but enthusiastic crowd and lots of extra time, which they fill by trotting out covers of their own: Stones, Misfits, Soul Asylum, and Smokey Robinson's "Tears of a Clown," which Lewis says they haven't done in 10 years. Afterward, Livingstone remarks, "It feels like we're on tour now." Crow says his microphone tasted like a "vomited-up microwave burrito."
Carry on Wayward Sons
The next day's drive to Philadelphia is marked by the lush golden cast of North Carolina and Virginia's mountain forests, and an increasingly scatological bent to the conversation. Curious readers should ask the band what "taking the Browns to the Super Bowl" means sometime, but rest assured it has nothing to do with football.
After dinner in Roanoke, Va., the band finally decides to test out the van's PA, which Crow wired into the stereo shortly before they left Austin. He also set up a number of drum triggers so that Champeen could effectively rehearse while driving. After a few glitches are ironed out, it turns out to work better than anyone could have hoped, and the van speeds into Pennsylvania to the strains of everything from Wilco's "Casino Queen" to Kansas' "Carry on Wayward Son."
New York State of Mind
After the startling sight of a van completely engulfed in flames on the New Jersey Turnpike just outside Philadelphia, the rest of the Garden State whizzes by until the inevitable traffic stack-up at the Lincoln Tunnel. Everyone grows anxious about arriving at the CMJ hotel before the 2pm cutoff, but comic relief arrives when a car pulls up alongside blasting "We Are the World" at top volume.
Once on the island of Manhattan, the soft-spoken, mild-mannered Stewart -- who has spent much of the trip asleep on the rear bench seat -- becomes a demon at the wheel, yelling, cussing, gesturing, and driving like an authentic New Yorker. This comes in handy because New York traffic is its typical congested, manic, schizophrenic self. After picking up the band's friend Bardo, who leads a quest for pizza all the way from Little Italy to the West Village, hopes of loading into the Acme are dashed twice -- it's apparently too early -- before someone at the club relents. Then comes the waiting, which, like Tom Petty said, is the hardest part. Besides finding a place to park.
But it's worth it. Grand Champeen, who say they lose money every time they play NYC, have to be the best deal in town tonight. Starting strong with new ass-kicker "The Good Slot," the band steadily increases their energy level until practically foaming at the mouth on a cover of Guns n' Roses "It's So Easy" and their own shredder "Fakin' It."
Lewis is sweating so profusely it's a wonder he doesn't electrocute himself. Stewart's as calm and assured behind the drums as he was aggressive behind the wheel earlier. Livingstone's face just keeps getting redder and redder as the veins on his neck bulge out like licorice sticks, and Crow coaxes every ounce of rage and squall out of his Marshall amp.
On TV, hard-throwing Spring, Texas, native Josh Beckett blanks the Yankees 2-0 to hand the World Series to the Marlins. He'll hardly be the only Texan celebrating a victory in the Big Apple tonight.