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Road Trippin' with Gringo Star (print version) 

Gringo Star's like a lot of bands that haven't signed with a label — although probably more dedicated than most. They've worked bullshit jobs at local restaurants for years, while maintaining the freedom to head off on physically brutal tours. In 2007, they played 200 shows in 44 states and four foreign countries. In April, they pinballed through the Southeast and the Midwest, then over to New York to perform 28 shows in 23 days. The group — formerly called A Fir-Ju Well — consists of Nick and Peter Furgiuele, Matt McCalvin and Pete "P.D." DeLorenzo. Nick and Peter invited me (full disclosure: I'm their neighbor) to hit the road with them this month on a relatively light four-shows-in-four-days spin through New Jersey and New York City.

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Rehearsal starts Sunday afternoon, June 1, with Peter saying he might puke. But in a tiny Inman Park basement, the band runs through the 35-minute set they'll play four times over the next four days. Barely a word's exchanged as they drip sweat and stand so close they're nearly touching. They change instruments silently after every song — a band trademark that makes each song sound different. Then they stuff Nick's and Peter's 2004 Chevy van solid with instruments and gear, and check the spare tire. Near midnight, we head north on I-85. Some play music; others sleep. The traveling crew consists of Atlanta musicians Jessica Reed aka Jessica Juggs and Anna Kramer, Chris Kaufmann, the band members and me.

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The pros sleep, but I can't. By morning, I'm a wreck. Peter fakes falling asleep at the wheel as we enter New Jersey, but we make it to the site of the first show — Maxwell's in Hoboken, N.J., just across the Hudson River from Manhattan. The band: Nick, Peter, Matt and P.D.

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Before the show, Gringo Star hangs out with Atlanta's indy darlings, the Black Lips. The Gringos have been at it as long as the Lips have, but the Lips rode their rep for spectacle to a contract with Vice Records. Gringo Star will open for them. The Black Lips talk about their own adventures: getting denied entry into Canada, playing 3,000-seat shows at Terminal 5 and hanging out at an afterparty with Hillary Duff. As they get ready for a photo shoot, one says: "I hate sticking to a schedule, but you never get anywhere just touring and playing shows."

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Matt gets his cymbals ready for the Monday show. A sold-out crowd of a couple hundred mainly came for the Black Lips but receives the Gringos happily. In one song, Nick plays bass and Peter guitar. During their headline show, the Lips' Cole Alexander spins on his top while playing.

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After the show, the Gringos party together with the Black Lips at the Charleston Bar in Brooklyn before crashing, sometime around 4 a.m., at a friend's apartment. Matt falls asleep in a puddle of rum on a hardwood floor.

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The day is spent mostly shaking off cobwebs from the ride, the show and the afterparty — and looking at MySpace. And around 6 p.m., we head to Piano's in Manhattan, site of tonight's show.

We park near a huge sign for a George Michael concert at Madison Square Garden. Inside Piano's, Matt sets up the drums. During the show — which starts just past midnight — Nick plays his guitar up close and personal. But there are only 15 people in the audience in the bar's backroom; six are friends of the band. At one point band members name almost everybody in the audience. But they perform like this is their final show -- a rawness and desperation tears from each instrument.

At midnight, it's P.D.'s 38th birthday. He's the oldest band member. But after the show, no one feels much like partying. We load up the gear in the pouring rain, get a slice of pizza and head back to Brooklyn.

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Wednesday night: Another poorly attended show. Gringo goes on at 8 p.m. in a place called the Knitting Factory. They insist they've played their best shows to tiny crowds. The first of three acts, they can't unload their stuff until after the last band's done. We party hard in a red room provided for the bands. There's a spread of food, beer, wine and hard liquor. By the end of the show, we've finished all the liquor — and put what's left into our bags.

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P.D., Nick, Matt and I go to the Snack Town diner for eggs and hash browns ($2.25). On the floor, P.D. finds a fortune: "You will soon be confronted with unlimited opportunities." "Confronted" with "opportunities?" Hmmm. Matt gets a text: Tonight's venue has changed.

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From outside, the Market Hotel looks like a condemned building. Graffiti covers the exterior. A "For Rent" sign looms overhead. Inside, exposed walls are boarded together, and insulation's showing. Activity's everywhere: Equipment's being loaded, lights set up, instruments tested.

Out front, a young man in pink socks hisses: "No standing outside. The cops might shut us down." He repeats that mantra all night. In-the-know hipsters stride down the street casually until reaching a white door spraypainted with the word "anthrax" on two lines, then quickly open it and disappear inside.

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Gringo takes the stage at 10:33 to a packed house of 500-plus. Audience members immediately start throwing their bodies at each other. I'm onstage shooting the crowd, and the energy is overwhelming. The Gringos hurl themselves at their mics and play their instruments with wild abandon. I dodge a bottle that comes flying at my head. With all his heart and soul, a guy in the front row is giving me the finger. The audience looks like a swirling ball of color. It's so hot that P.D. later says it's the closest he's ever come to passing out during a show.

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I cross the stage to shoot Peter up close as he bangs away on the piano. Suddenly his keyboards have no sound. He glares at me: "You fucking unplugged the keyboard." Oops. For what seems like hours, Peter bangs on the keys and pulls various plugs. The band goes into psychedelic jam to cover up — the audience goes nuts. And when the keyboards come back online, the Gringos match the room's edgy energy by playing their grittiest set of the whole trip.

"You lose yourself, and you cannot even recall the show," Peter later says. "It feels amazing. You lose all your bullshit thoughts and enjoy it -- like for a second you are not even worrying about anything.You are just like, 'Fuck yeah.'"

The Black Lips hit the stage, and Cole declares: "If there is a fire, we will be the first to die." Sweat covers everybody. Bodies flail above the crowd; dozens of people overtake the stage. I teeter on a 7-foot amp trying to maintain my balance. Midway through the set, so many audience members surround the Black Lips that you can't see the band members. The promoter yells for water to be brought to the front; none materializes. Then, an audience member breaks the bass of Black Lips' Jared Swilley. Punches start flying. The show is over. "That was not a show," Jared tells me later. "That was more like performance art."

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I'm ready to head back to Atlanta. But the band wants to party first at Daddy's Bar in Brooklyn. We meet the Black Lips there along with other Southern comrades. "We are all from the South and take pride in where we are from," the Lips' Ian St. Pe says. "We are just real motherfuckers having a really good time without pretense. We are all just laid-back Southerners. It's what the world needs. Plus we party like motherfuckers." Outside the bar, that comradarie comes into play: A guy punches the Black Lips' tour manager in the face, then sprints up the street, chased by members of both bands. Somebody trips the guy, who gets back up and resumes in full sprint.

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When New York's finest arrive, the cop tells the guy who laid the sucker punch to go home: "If it was my friend who you had punched, your teeth would still be on the barroom floor." The guy heads home, but we have farther to go. It's 4 a.m.; Matt has to be at work at Little 5 Points Pizza in 13 hours.

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We pass I-285 at rush hour — the first highway traffic jam of our trip. Matt is late. By the time he jumps out of the van in Little Five Points and runs for work, it's after 6 p.m. After five days, more than 30 hours and 2,000 miles in a van, we're finally home.

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