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Friday, March 18, 2011

The Back Pockets tour log: Pt. 1 (Mon., March 14)

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  • Jhoni Jackson
Drummer Billy Mitchell, who’s easily frontwoman Emily Kempf’s organizational counterpart, set a meeting time of 10 a.m. We’re all supposed to load in at Thunderbox by 11 a.m. and head to Memphis. Emily shows up closer to departure time in her folk-art-covered minivan while the rest of a stripped-down version of the band—bassist Adam Bruneau and violinist Lam Nguyen, among others—are mostly merry-making while she tries to sort through supplies, which range from instruments to empty water jugs to wigs to shiny dresses. A discarded TV is a temptation for Adam when Billy’s bats surface, and the band’s wheelchair, acquired during their winter tour, is never without a laughing occupant.

Mermaids’ Matt McCalvin stopped by the space to pick up some gear and compliments the band on their bus. It’s a Greyhound reject of sorts, now painted sky blue with clouds. Inside, there are three bunk lofts and random decorations hanging from the ceiling railings. A canvas tote with a Dalai Lama quote—the one about the true meaning of life—hangs behind the driver’s seat. A duplicate on a scroll that’s flutist Heather Buzzard’s hangs on the opposite side.
After a brief runaround getting cars parked safely for the week and a blow to a Moreland Ave. street sign, we’re finally leaving Atlanta.

Hours later, while in traffic in on 20-west near Alabama (or literally in Alabama—it’s hard to tell), Otis Redding’s version of “A Change is Gonna Come” plays on the bus boombox. Billy tells that story about how Sam Cooke wrote the song to challenge Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind,” which Cooke thought should have been written by a black man. Emily honks the horn in frustration of the snail-paced traffic—and it breaks. It starts honking sporadically, oddly in tune with a faster-paced Redding song.

“I’m panicking!” she yells.

Billy responds, “It’s just like you, an emotional horn!”

Emily doesn’t like that. But everyone’s still laughing. The horn has stopped, and Billy’s shouting “woo!” and shaking his arms to another Redding tune.

Lam peeks out of a bunk and asks with a sleepy smile, “What is this music we’re listening to? It’s magical.”

We make it to the house show around 8 p.m. An hour later, an Antoine Dodson-affected rap group plays first, warning against marriage because they’ll sleep with everyone’s wives. Quilt, a minimalist indie-pop trio from New York, plays next. Surprisingly, both are acts are similarly well-received. The house is packed with between 40 and 50 people, mostly younger kids enlightened to counterculture at an early age. They might be wearing flare jeans and awkward mall-bought T-shirts, but hey—they’re at a pretty good house show, and they’re having fun.

The Back Pockets start around 11:30 p.m., and while Emily’s having issues with her microphone, Billy and David (the second drummer) start wiggling and jumping. They shout, “Everybody get loose!” The crowd does just that. It’s kind of incredible to see the infectious nature the Back Pockets possess. In Atlanta they hardly have to suggest the audience participate for them to follow along, and it transfers so easily to another city. Granted, they played this same house in late December. But still, some of these kids haven’t seen them before, and everyone’s quick to get involved.

There are some technical mishaps throughout the set, but the crowd’s fervor never wanes. Emily’s visibly agitated by the imperfections, but they’re not noticeable to anyone except the band—and apparently, neither is her demeanor. The two theater members are down to their skivvies and they’ve moved two drums into the center of the mass of dancing people.

But at the height of the chaos, the show’s over, sort of abruptly. Right away, the band’s in a “performers only” room to analyze.

Sure, it could have been better. Adam’s bass was out of tune, and Emily’s aggravation was a gentle but present hindrance to the overall vibe. But considering the conditions (it’s a house show, after all) and the natural raucousness of the band, it was a decent show. The crowd thought so, at least.

In the morning, our host directs us to the coffee shop where she works, a teal building dubbed Otherlands. An older man asks me and Adam if we’re with the bus. We say yes, and he wants to know what kind of group we are. Adam utters an “um…” and for about 30 seconds, doesn’t say anything else. He points to Emily, who’s nearby.

“She plays the banjo,” he says.

We head to the bus. Billy conducts a successful head-count once we’re seated and the Magical Mystery Tour is off to Grapevine, Texas.

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