And we almost all made it. Please pour one out for Rich, our sound engineer. He died a damn hero.
But, once again, I’m ahead of myself. Here I am wallowing in the bitter release of tour’s end; drowning sorrows as I pour (again and again) one for me, and one for dear, sweet, brave Rich. While there you are, ignorant to current events. When last you heard, the outlook was rosy. The Barley brothers were dead in Bozeman, and we were through the snows and storms, and coasting our way south on Interstate 5.
Be forewarned, dear reader. There is naught but grim, brutality ahead. Such was the legacy of the Frostbite Tour.
On Friday, March 9, we were booked to return to the Tractor Tavern. It was to be the triumphant, sell-out conclusion to our first two-day run in the city that houses our favorite sandwich. We had planned a wild, slow-cooked-pork-themed gala. Cilantro, romaine and jalapeños were to be the only garments allowed. Loaves of fresh bread were to be handed out at the door. The eventuality of such a debaucherous night was sure to land most of us in jail. We cared not. Were we not the brave warriors from the West? The only stringband to survive the Rockies, the Sawtooths, the Cascades and the Sierra Nevadas? Our names were whispered in hushed tones; were intoned to bless weddings; were screamed to ward off evil. Our hubris and carelessness were growing in proportion to the raising temperatures.
Doom often portends with smoke, darkness, and fire. So it was this Friday. The cloud of crows, buzzards, and thick, evil smoke could be seen from our much-abused hotel rooms. We got in the van, a heavy stone of dread in our gullets.
The Tractor Tavern was burned.
We had left our instruments in the venue, confident that it would be safe and secure in this civilized, west coast, temperate, rainy place. We had been wrong.
The remains of guitars and banjos, my bass, the mandolin, Philip’s fiddle… all were mutilated; desecrated; abused and torn. Pieces of them had been nailed – black with flame now – to the threshold of the Tractor Tavern.
The dismembered instruments had been arranged to read: “Death Waits in Portland” and was signed in a twist of blackened, melted, meshed strings: “The Barley Brothers.”
We should have been smarter. We should have learned from their mistake, leaving us alive in their gas-soaked cellar. We should have made sure they were dead before we began to feast and frolic and forget ourselves in beer and the wild-abandon of music. We should have buried them deep beneath rock and earth and stone.
But we had slipped. And now here we were.
Rain began to fall.
The wicked fire hissed, as our clothes collected the rain, clinging to our bodies. We looked at our burned instruments, our equipment, our gear, our livelihood. Our tears were of shame, of sorrow, of rage. They mingled with the chilling rain, stinging eyes and cheeks with their frigid tracks.
It was the cold of those tears that galvanized us; that finally brought us together. We harnessing the cold; the power of the Frostbite tour. We soaked in its chill, implacable might. We absorbed the intractable cold; the merciless bite of the stinging rain as we watched our show and instruments and dreams burn. We had forgotten our brotherhood in the success of shows, and the bright lights of the stage. Each of us had taken up our own room at the hotel, and treated it like our own kingdom, with subjects, servants, and fickle laws. We had splintered. We had become a house divided, and we had fallen.
Death waited, so they claimed, in Portland.
We huddled there in the rain, arms draped over shoulders. We made a vow. Our blood was shared and we became a brotherhood once more. “No mercy,” we said with one voice, the ice of the Frostbite Tour in our veins.
We took stock of our resources. Our van, ourselves, our wet clothes, and whatever cash we had on our persons. Our wallets had been in the fire, as had the merchandise and collected monies and tributes from the tour.
Together, we had $208.00, and enough gas to get to Portland.
I needed coffee, so that left us with $205.00 and enough gas to get to Portland, minus the drive to the coffee shop.
We couldn’t afford to re-equip our band at any legitimate music store given our meager resources. We would have to turn to the streets. Luckily, from his time as the front man of What A Strangled Web We Weave, Tour Manager Joe had serious connections and reputation in the Seattle musical black market.
For $200.00 (keeping $5 for coffee, round 2) we went with the only option available. We loaded our van with our much-used gear: A drum set, enough amplification to fill a small stadium, and an array of shitty but serviceable electric guitars, basses. We would not be a stringband in Portland. We would be fucking metal. And our heaviness would decimate our enemies. Such was the decree of the Frostbite Tour’s will.
We did not speak for the 4 hour drive through blinding rain south to Portland. Each of us was making peace with the dark gods of touring, of winter, of fate. We were preparing to kill or be killed.
The bridge over the Columbia River was desolate. Our van drove alone into the city that would be our doom or our triumph.
Without phones or maps, we may not have found the venue, save that The Barley Brothers had prepared a welcome for us. Once again, we had only to follow the billowing clouds of smoke and the stench of death to find what should have been our venue for the night.
The rain pounded down, but could not quench the raging inferno that had been Revolution Hall. Silhouetted before the flames were 7 figures. The ridiculously tall hats of Earl and Jervis Barley, their band, their tour manager, and their sound engineer. In the flicker of fire and occasional bursts of lightening we could see their scarred and ravaged faces.
A crowd gathered around the venue; ticket holders that had come for the show, but were now transfixed by the spectacle unfolding before them.
No one spoke. No one moved.
Then Earl threw a banjo. It soared through the dark space between us, crashing at our feet, it’s neck shattering, it’s body shuddering in a last, twangy spasm. The international challenge for a Battle by Music. To the death. The proverbial gauntlet had been dropped.
With a collective nod, we accepted the challenge.
They had, once again, underestimated The Brothers Comatose. There they stood, framed in flames, cocky with their stupid hats, and their new and sparkling stringed instruments, assuming us to be string-less, song-less, and sound-less.
They took their positions, and beckoned for us to do likewise.
We threw the back doors of the van open in slow motion. Water droplets spraying out in an arc, as the light from within shone into the storming night, casting reflected rainbows into the eyes of the startled – then terrified – Barley Brothers. We began to assemble our arsenal. Amps stacked upon amps, cords lying in puddles, rain soaking into our electrical barrage. The drums stood on a platform of pallets and flaming boards salvaged from the building. The jaws of the Beer & Barley Brothers dropped when we took our positions – our low slung, low tuned pawn-shop reject instruments already screaming with feedback and rage.
The crowd of ticket holders, concerned neighbors, and curious passersby was huge and thick, and they pressed forward to watch the battle begin.
The Barley brothers – according to tradition as the instigators of the challenge – played first. They limped into their signature song: “Whiskey with my Whiskey”. It was redundant, regurgitated, un-inspired, and pathetic. It was the mediocrity that was the most painful. Waves of pain flowed through us. We doubled over at the chorus; at the clear musical theft of our musical heroes. I spewed my guts out… heaving and writhing. The perfect banality of their music was deadly. Poor Rich. Poor, poor, brave Rich. He saw that we were all near to death; saw Joe unconscious, Ben and Ryan cowering and whimpering, Philip wailing as – blinded – he flailed against the sound; myself in the fetal position, shaking and heaving. He threw himself between us and the Barley Brothers’ last triple chorus. The forgettable, imitative shit-music tore him to shreds. We screamed as we watched him be rent asunder. He turned to us, and with his last, icy breath, croaked, “No…. mercy….”. And then, he was gone.
Their song was done. We pulled ourselves to our hands and knees… and then to our feet. Rich had sacrificed himself, and we would not let his death be in vain. We wiped our mouths, ignored the searing, screaming pain. We let the frigid rain pour over our wounds. We let the icy chill numb our grief. We turned that shit all the way up.
We began to play.
We crushed them with our metal. The sonic force of our sludge-driven-vengeance tore through them, knocking them off their feet. We did not relent. The slow, churning dirge assaulted them, driving them back; back into the flames. They screamed as they were swept into the white rage of the inferno they themselves had lit. We played on. There was no mercy in our metal. We played harder and heavier. The flames roared as they feasted on their new, human fuel. Our ears and fingers bled, the pavement under our feet cracked and caved, but we would not stop. “No Mercy,” Rich had said.
And so it was.
Time passed in the thick swirl of our deafening song.
Dawn cracked the sky, and the storm abated.
And then we stopped.
We stood in the center of a smoldering crater. The Revolution hall was reduced to ashes, as were the Beer & Barley Brothers.
There was complete silence.
The crowd began to disperse.
We dropped the instruments on the ground.
We took Rich’s remains into the field beyond the hall and, with our bare hands in the rain-softened earth, we buried him.
In that same field we saw our merchandise case, finding our money within – obviously stolen by the recently deceased Barley Brothers (God rest their souls).
We had money to drive home.
We had our van.
We had our lives.
A light, gentle rain washed us clean of blood, dirt, and death. The last cold dawn of The Frostbite tour cleared its cloudy skies and, as we loaded into the van, the sun broke out on Portland Oregon.
It continued to shine on the van as it drove south, headed to the sun and warmth of California.
We have been home for two days now.
When people ask me how the tour was, I say “it was fine,” or “good.” If they ask me what happened to my right hand, noticing the missing fingers; if they ask where the scar on my cheek came from; if they ask about the bloodied strip of Rich’s T-shirt I wear around my left arm… I just look at them. And there, deep in my eyes, they see a reflection of the cold, the dark, the ice, the death, and the blood of the Frostbite Tour.
They shudder… sometimes they lay a hand gently on my shoulder. Sometimes they weep.
Always, they walk away – dazed by the lingering might of the Frostbite Tour, 2017.
It is over, but it will never be gone.