Fred Eaglesmith and bassist Justine Fisher perform at McCabe's in… (Iris Schneider )
Every day, musicians are exploring new ways to understand -- and profit from -- a business that doesn't easily grant either any more, and on Sunday, Canadian singer-songwriter-raconteur Fred Eaglesmith rolled into Santa Monica to wrap up an intriguing grass-roots tour that has taken him and a ragtag band of fellow players and fans from Chicago to L.A. along Route 66.
Possibly best known outside his cult following as the composer of the title track for Alan Jackson’s 2010 album “Freight Train,” Eaglesmith cooked up the Tin Can Caravan with the organizers of Roots on the Rails, a Vermont-based travel agency that packages Americana artists on out-of-the-box tour excursions.
Some 50 or 60 fans signed up to join Eaglesmith for all or part of the tour, at a cost of $4,289 for the entire 18-day jaunt, or one of several segments of that journey that ran about $1,000 to $1,500. Some tagged along in their own RVs or cars, others rode along on Eaglesmith’s bus, a battered old vehicle that’s been converted to run on vegetable oil that he refills along that way at roadside fast food joints.
"It’s got no air conditioning and it smells like french fries," Eaglesmith, 55, told the sold-out crowd Sunday at McCabe’s, one of the few legitimate music venues on the tour that otherwise stopped at off-the-beaten-path venues including the Pow Wow Restaurant and Lizard Lounge in Tucumcari, N.M., the Engine House Theater at the Mine Shaft Tavern in Madrid, N.M., and the Elks Club in Needles, Calif.
"Fred likes to play Elks lodges because they don’t charge rent," said singer-songwriter Mary Gauthier over eggs and toast at a café up the street from McCabe’s earlier on Sunday. Gauthier is one of several guest artists who joined for part of the caravan.
Eaglesmith also has been known to stop overnight in KOA campgrounds and then put on impromptu shows for other campers. Speaking to the McCabe's audience, Eaglesmith touted the Tin Can Caravan as the last of the old-style rock 'n’ roll traveling shows, also noting that over his 30-plus years of constant touring across North America, he’s encountered fewer and fewer acts journeying from small town to small town this way. Gauthier, however, pointed out that the red-hot British neo-folk rock group Mumford & Sons has embraced scrappy seat-of-the-pants-style touring too.
"This is a way to stay outside the music business," said Gauthier, whose albums "Mercy Now" and "The Foundling" have received extraordinary critical acclaim. "As soon as you start working with the music business, the money goes away."
The McCabe's show might have been more energetic and celebratory than others, being the final stop on the tour. Following short sets by other caravan acts in singer-songwriters Gordie Tentrees, Roger Marin and Tif Ginn, Gauthier played for about 45 minutes. Others who joined earlier along Route 66 were Robbie Fulks, Jon Dee Graham, Audrey Auld and Jon Langford.
Often touring solo out of financial considerations, Gauthier reveled in the backing from Marin on steel guitar, as well as other members of Eaglesmith’s band, including drummer Kori Heppner, bassist Justine Fisher and guitarist Matty Simpson.
She touched on cornerstone songs from her repertoire such as "I Drink," which Blake Shelton recorded, and the title song from "Mercy Now," which has just been covered by Boy George. Her "Last of the Hobo Kings," in which she related the tale of real-life hobo Maurice W. Graham (a.k.a. Steam Train Maury) is a sterling example of Woody Guthrie-inspired songwriting-as-evocative-journalism.
Then Eaglesmith took the stage, wearing a snazzy Mad Hatter-inspired top hat decorated with Devo-like welding goggles, and high-heeled work boots he’d recently spray painted Tin Man silver.
"It's a great way to get a new pair of shoes," Eaglesmith quipped in the McCabe’s store after the show between signing autographs and greeting fans.
His songs course from lionizations of the musician's itinerant lifestyle ("Stars") to romantic retribution ("Freight Train") to scathing cultural commentary ("Johnny Cash"). The latter casts a cynical eye on the aggrandizing of the Man in Black by many who had written him off long before his death in 2003.
Where were you were in 1989?
When it looked like Johnny was on the decline
His career was fading, his shows weren't selling
You were listening to heavy metal
But you sure do like Johnny Cash now
Eaglesmith snarled out lyrics that underscore his overriding attitude that music and musicians ought to be cherished in the here-and-now and valued for the quality of their art, not the size of their bank accounts or TV ratings.
He noted his own narrow miss with broader acclaim when Alan Jackson, one of country's biggest stars of the last two decades, recorded one of his songs.
"The song is ‘Freight Train,' " he said. "And Jackson’s album was called 'Freight Train.' His tour was called 'Freight Train,' the T-shirts and baseball caps said 'Freight Train,' and the single was called 'Hard Hat and a Hammer,' " he said, then waited during a comedically well-timed pause. “So I haven’t gotten rid of that bus parked out there.”
Added Gauthier: "It's all part of the travelling show mentality: Put on your silver shoes and give the people a good time."
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