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What is it about Me and Smelly Hotel Rooms? | PJ Newman

So, what is it about smelly hotel rooms that makes me want to write about them, that so inspires me to lay down dozens of words in their honor? Dunno, but I find myself again poised over the keyboard, spilling my guts (figuratively and probably literally as well), so you, dear readers, don’t have to.
Actually, we’re back to where we began this road journal, or at least an exit or 2 away from it. We find ourselves back in Fife, Washington after working in Tacoma yet again. As you recall, last time it was the dreaded Motel 6 while working the Festival of Trees a few years ago. This year, it’s my very first Wintergrass festival, a multi-day Bluegrass gathering that’s so famous that I’ve managed to miss it for the past 19 years I’ve been in town. It’s held at the Sheraton and a few other venues around downtown Tacoma, a mere 40-some odd miles from home, and only a block away from the last place I worked. What brings us here friends? Well, let’s look backwards, always backwards…
So, I get a phone call from Tim O’Brien, who, as we all know, is a superb songwriter, musician, producer and political assassin. I’m assuming that Tim got my number from Danny Barnes, who, as history reminds us, is about the best banjo player on the planet. Besides that, he’s an amazing guitarist and fiddle player. Danny used to be in Bad Livers, a duo from Austin. He’s also played with Bill Frisell in the Willies and lots of other projects. I even managed to get Danny to play backwards banjo on “The Hand of Dog,” although, at the time, he didn’t realize it. Danny probably got my number from Garey Shelton, who must’ve gotten my number from me.
I digress, of course. Point being that I was very honored to be called by the festival headliner to mix for his group. OK, Danny’s playing with Tim, so I’m most likely the only sound guy that Danny knows by name in Seattle.
Whatever, here I am.
Friday, I show up around 1 or so. Can’t find parking anywhere. On my 3rd lap around Tacoma, I grab a spot across the street from the hotel! Score one for the home team. Get credentials (stupid sparkly wrist band) and find a stage. Well, there’s Vince from Triamp and Al Bagley from Carlson, all working for Dan Mortensen, my boss from the Backstage 17 years ago. Lots of familiar faces and tons of new ones.
For those of you who have never been to a bluegrass festival, there’s a phenomenon that only happens in acoustic environs like these. It’s called jamming. But unlike normal jamming, which has a very civilized set of rules; Bluegrass Festival Jamming (or BFJ) is a moveable feast of sorts. That means hotel corridors at 3 am are fair game. Knowing this, I brought a tazer and mace, but nobody seems to wander the halls at the Econolodge. At least they have something akin to wifi, but it’s more like 2 juice cans and string.
All in all, Day 1 was a success. Festival food (at least the free stuff they so magnanimously shovel our way) is better than most, but weird and must be fought for. Little sandwich wrap thingies, fruit, cookies (a diabetic treat!) and lots of water (it’s raining pretty heavily, so all they have to do is dumpster dive for empties and leave the open bottles outside). I mixed Tim and band twice, once and the main stage and then again in a church 2 blocks away. Midnight Mandolin Madness was that and lasted until after 2 am. Got to the room at 2:30 and wasn’t sure until I had actually opened my door that I even had a room at all. I heard horror stories Saturday morning from the monitor engineer at the church that she was told there were no more rooms, then had to wait 45 minutes to discover that there were many still available. The good news is that crack whores can find work in today’s job market. The bad news is that crack whores can find work in today’s job market. Am I to return to my room tonight to find it stripped bare of my belongings?
Day 2 started with a songwriter’s workshop with Tim, Danny, 2 brothers and somebody’s sister. After that, I pretty much hung out at the main stage unless Tim was playing elsewhere. His set at the church that afternoon was amazing. Danny performed one of his songs and had the audience in the palm of his hand. During their late night set, Tim mentioned that it was Pete Wernick’s birthday. Pete, of course, is one of the best banjo players around and he played with Tim in Hot Rize and Red Knuckles & the Trailblazers. It was Pete’s 61st birthday, so Tim got a cell phone from Vince, set it to speakerphone and called Pete’s house in Colorado, where it was already 1 am. After exchanging pleasantries with Pete’s wife, Tim asked to speak with Pete. His wife said that he was on the john.
Mind you, this is going through the PA system with about 1000 people listening. When the audience started laughing, Pete’s wife asked him where he was. He replied he was with a “few friends at Wintergrass!”
When she asked who was there, Tim said just about 1000 people and that he’d get names for her later.
Pete finally came to the phone and then it got even weirder.
Thinking that I had an early evening, I got ready to go back to the hotel when Dan asked me to go to the church and help load out the system there. OK, how could I refuse? Of course, that led to going back to the Sheraton and loading out 2 more systems. I finally made it back to the room at about 3:30, where, with the help of an hour of electroshock therapy, a painkiller, 2 muscle relaxers and bad television, I finally fell asleep.
Saturday’s only casualty was Liz, the stage manager’s laptop. She was grading science papers on a table backstage when either someone bumped into it or the legs just decided to collapse then and there, but a flower vase emptied it’s contents into her computer. Mine was on the table at the same time, but just slid to the brink of existence. Liz walked my computer to me in monitor world and mumbled something about virgin sacrifices and submitting paperwork and witnesses. She was pretty bummed out because the computer was brand new and had all of her schoolwork in it. She’s a science teacher by day, meerkat impersonator by night. Poor Liz. Poor computer.
The muscle relaxers must’ve waited until I woke up to kick in, cuz I was fighting gravity and lucidity for 2 hours. Checked out of the hotel, had very bad breakfast across the street and then back to the show. I don’t know, maybe it’s just me, but sleep deprivation, a narcotic hangover and Gospel music…. 3 taste treats that don’t go well together.
I like bluegrass music. I’m getting a little tired of the bluegrass jams that happen in every other bar every other night in Seattle, which is why I don’t hang out in bars anymore (among other reasons…)
That being stated for the record, even the mediocre bands this weekend were great and the great bands were electrifying. Mike Marshall gave 2 more incredible performances and Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver closed down the festival on a high (lonesome) note. Dan told me I could bail on load out, but I figured what was the worst that could happen. I already destroyed my back and neck last night. What’s a little insult to injury (sic)?
The load out took maybe 1.5 hours.