I went to Thailand for 48 hours to entertain some people. It was completely insane and I loved every bit of it.
It started on Twitter with a series of DM’s (direct messages) from my friend Steve Lawson that I received while standing in a gas station in Monteagle, TN asking if I could be in London Feb 21st-24th to rehearse for a gig in Phuket on March 4th.
Uh…yes please! First, a bit about Steve: renaissance madman is the phrase that comes to mind. He’s a solo bassist, journalist, documentarian, commentarian, master of all things internet, champion of all things indie, husband toLobelia, daddy to Baby Flapjack, and someone who somehow manages to be exceptionally opinionated and outspoken while simultaneously being extremely accepting and unflappably happy. Quite a remarkable feat of human beingness, just so you know who was driving this wacky bus. Long story short: we pitched the band (Steve's idea was to put together a bit of a dream band and luckily for me, I fit the singer bill), they liked us, we worked out the details, and off I headed to London to rehearse with some British dudes I’d never met, save for Steve. The guys were absolutely wonderful and welcomed my goofy American R&B ass with open arms. I got ninja points for going straight from the airport to a 6-hour rehearsal after flying to London from Memphis where I’d been at Folk Alliance all weekend. (I impressed myself with that, truthfully.) Three more intense rehearsal days followed in a groovy facility in Putney. Requisite R&B vibe was provided by the train that rumbled directly over head every few minutes, the sound of which we got used to and managed to hang a really nice groove in spite of.
The band consisted of:
Me on lead vocals and keys
Steve Lawson on bass – you met him earlier
Miles Bould on drums – utter sweetheart of a guy, married to a hot chick bass player, 3 gorgeous kids, SO funky
Mike Outram on guitar and bgv’s – lulls you into feeling safe with his gentle manner then melts your face with his guitar-playing.
Ben Castle on sax and bgv’s – brilliant saxophonist, hilarious human, fascinating life.
Ben Walker on keys & bgv’s – excruciatingly clever fellow, lovely player, quite tall.
In addition to being top notch pro musicians with a crazy list of credits between them, every one of them is a truly delightful and lovely human being. (Steve told me that “being not only awesome but also lovely” was a big factor in who he called for this gig.) It was a real joy getting to know these guys, musically and personally.
Then it was off to Thailand! We all arrived at Heathrow airport with the same giddy sense of “holy shit I can’t believe we’re pulling this off!” It was palpable and quite cute. Joining the party for the first time were Lucy Windmill (production assistant) and Trevor Learoyd (sound man/tech extraordinaire.) We got on an enormous plane and were greeted by Thai ladies in full length traditional dresses bowing and saying “Sawadee Ka” as we walked in. (Interior monologue: “Dang – this DEFINITELY ain’t Southwest Airlines...”) We left London at 11:50 am Wed March 2 and arrived in Bankgkok at 6:10am Thursday March 3, flight was about 11 ½ hours. Since that was 11:10pm Wednesday London time, we were quite confused by our compulsion to have coffee. But it was morning where we were and we didn’t know what else to do. When in Bangkok…
Flight from Bangkok to Phuket was only about an hour and a half and we were at our hotel by about 11am. They only had 4 of our 8 rooms ready so we just dumped our stuff in the available ones and went off on our merry ways. Lucy and I headed straight for the beach because it was there. I don’t know about you but I sure as hell had never heard of the Andaman Sea before - let alone swum in it - and I wasn’t about to wait. After a lovely dip, we chilled under some beach umbrellas, drank a few Tsinga beers, and tried to snooze a little. We didn’t manage to get into our rooms until 4:30. That’s a long story, primarily involving well-intentioned band members and Thai ladies who were far sweeter than they were helpful. See Ben Walker’s blog post here for variations on that theme.
Seeing as how we were meeting to go see the client at 5 and hadn’t slept, eaten or showered, I was not exactly in the best of spirits. I did my best to rally as we toured the resort where the gig was (the GORGEOUS Indigo Pearl), had cocktails with lovely Tuyen who was putting the whole shindig together, and waited for dinner plans to materialize. Plan was to meet up with about 30 other people for dinner. We walked across half the resort to join them, then moseyed off to another spot to pile into vans headed for an even more spectacular resort (which I did not think was possible). By this point I was beyond exhausted, seeing stars, and my gut was telling me I did NOT need to get into a van and be stuck off on this 3-hour dinner-for-40 extravaganza. But my desire to experience as much of this place as I could in 48 hours coupled with my neurotic compulsion not to rock the boat had me climb into the van...where I promptly passed out. 20 minutes later I stumbled out to behold a breathtaking scene: water, fountains, beautiful lighting, bridges, flowers…it was stunning. But all I could think about was which direction to fall if I passed out. After walking 10 minutes to the dinner spot only to be detoured to bar to wait for cocktails on the beach I finally hit TILT. What unfolded was a meltdown that resembled that of an overtired toddler who obviously needs something but has no idea what. Steve, Lucy, and Trevor did their level best to tend to me but when I finally mumbled “I wanna go home” and burst into tears it became quickly apparent that the only solution was for me to go back to our hotel and crash. At this point, Tuyen went into triage mode. (I can only imagine her inner dialogue just then: “Great – flew this loopy American over here to sing and she’s having a meltdown – how special.”) I was golf-carted back to a van and shepherded back to my own room. I realized that I was not only in dire need of food and sleep, but also of a little space to myself. After several deep breaths in the solace of my room I went down to the beach alone for a beer and a pizza, the latter of which I shared with one of the many stray dogs I’d seen wandering about that day. Soul and stomach fed, I crashed HARD and slept for 9 hours.
Next day I met some of my fellow #Phunket (brilliant Twitter hashtag Steve came up with) folk at breakfast, apologized for my implosion, and assured them I was in much better shape for the gig that night. Then I headed off to see the massage ladies. For 900 baht (about $30) I got a massage and a pedicure as I laid on a table next to the beach. Not a bad way to spend 2 hours. The ladies were super-cute too. When they found out that I was singing at a party later, one of them said “You test now!” and motioned for me to sing something for them. I did and they giggled and applauded. Adorable moments like that redeem so much...
Since it was hotter than 40 hells outside, I decided to sneak a dip in the ocean before heading to sound check, which I did in my bikini and sarong. (That was a first.) Did I mention that our gig (and sound check) was in a tent outside? Where it was hotter than 40 hells? Right. By the end of sound check the guys had sweat so much they looked as if they’d been in the ocean too. We worked out what we needed to and then went to the restaurant for dinner. We had just finished eating and were awaiting coffee when there was a power outage. Ruh-roh… Our initial panic was calmed by sound guru Trevor informing us that all the power for the gig was on it’s own generator…but we didn't get any coffee. Eh…OK. The power was quickly restored at Indigo Pearl where the gig was, but not so at our hotel next door, where we all had to get changed and ready for the gig. I showered (rinsed?) by the light of my iPhone and dressed by the light of my MacBook. Steve Jobs FTW. Power came back on just in time for me to attempt to dry my unwashed sea & sweat-soaked hair (a mission that was quickly aborted in favor of the much-beloved ponytail), schmear on some make-up and hit the stage. This train was departing, whether any of us smelled OK or not.
The party: oh my heavens, was it extravagant! There was even a baby elephant, which I didn’t get to see because I was wrestling with my fishnet tights and new boots in the fricking dark. FAIL. The guys played a mellow set of totally improvised music – quite masterfully, I might add (listen here!) – and I came up to do two songs before we took a break. Then it was time for the main event - the dance set – which, for me, was a sweat-soaked blur. We’d done our best to craft a set of danceable and recognizable tunes with a few of my originals peppered in and the crowd seemed to like everything we did. We'd been asked to try and get the kids involved in addition to getting the adults up to dance. Well…the kids were up in a heartbeat and we had a harder time getting them off the stage than anything else. Hilarious. Before I knew it we were rocking the encore and I was playing the intro clav part of “Superstition” with one hand while trying to keep the conga line that had infiltrated the stage from overturning my water and my keyboard with the other. (Somewhere in there I also managed to split my lip when I pulled the mic out of the humidity-soaked clip straight into my face – charming.) Suddenly and remarkably we were done, sans spillage of any water, blood or keyboards.
Ben Castle then lead the party to the beach Pied Piper style on solo sax (bless him) – while the rest of the band caught their breath and I went to find ice for my rapidly swelling lip (what a goober.) We debriefed briefly (heh! sorry…) then changed clothes and made our way to the beach to finally let loose. The party was easy to find by following either the sound of the French DJ or the dozens of fire lanterns that were being sent off into the night sky – gorgeous! There were fire dancers too, but I missed them in favor of changing clothes. Worth it, trust me. I got to release a few fire lanterns myself, which look like big paper lamp shades that you light at the bottom to create a hot air balloon effect. I wished as I let the last one go that my life would always be filled with magic…hard not to have that thought while standing in the Andaman Sea in the moonlight.
When the band all found each other again amid the revelry on the beach there was another palpable shared feeling of excitement – but it was much rowdier this time: as we celebrated the fact that we’d done what we'd come to do and it went off spectacularly. It was at this point that I witnessed something I had never seen in all my years: the entire band…on the dance floor…actually dancing. And I don’t mean standing there kinda leaning back and forth in rhythm – this band was throwing DOWN! I can’t remember the last time I squealed with such joyous delight. After about 30 minutes Miles decided he couldn’t come all this way without jumping into the ocean at least once. Since I rarely pass up an opportunity to jump in some water (whether I’m conveniently dressed for it like I was that night or not) I offered to join him in a moonlight swim. Delicious.
Some of us used the last few hours between beach party and airport call to sleep, others decided to stay up and watch the sunrise. We were a ragged but happy bunch in the airport. Who flies to Thailand for 48 hours and does all that? “It’s completely mad!” as Steve would (and did) say. But we did it. Something was wonky about Trevor’s reservation so he was pushed to a later flight. He went straight back to the beach to join Lucy, who’d booked herself some extra days there on holiday. Lucky bastards... The rest of us saddled up for the 13-hour flight from Bangkok back to London. That was the longest flight I’ve ever endured and the broken sound system (no movies!) didn’t help. Thankfully, I made friends with the gal next to me, who’d been at the party with her husband. “Oh you’re the singer! I didn’t recognize you without your fishnet tights and boots….oops…I probably shouldn’t have said that so loud. Sorry!” Hah! We shared pictures and stories while the pretty Thai Airways people kept the free wine coming. Once we got back to Heathrow the boys and I shared one more celebratory drink before they saw me off to my hotel and they all went home.
Sunday: Heathrow to Dulles to Nashville – almost home. Had an insanely delicious breakfast with some of the best huevos rancheros ever (Heathrow – who knew??), stopped at Duty Free for extra-special whiskeys, and I was on my way back to America. I felt great and stayed awake through the bulk of the long flight but got really exhausted just as it was about to land. Total timing fail, since clearing customs at Dulles is a long, exhausting, hot, stinky process. By the time I went through all the lines, rode at least 40 escalators (WTF??) and walked the mile and a half to my last gate I was completely knackered. Only a few more hours and surely I can nap through them, right? Wrong.
Rain poured as we walked outside to board the tiny Nashville-bound plane. I climbed into my seat ready to crash, but the dude behind me had struck up a lively conversation with the gal next to him in a rather loud voice. He wasn’t saying anything offensive, he was just in networky-chatty-guy mode and he. would. NOT. SHUT! UP!!?*!I put in earplugs - still heard him. I tied my sweatshirt around my head twice – but it still didn’t drown him out. I tried headphones with music – no dice. It would have been perfectly acceptable for me to turn around, explain that I’d been traveling for two days straight and really needed to sleep, and ask if he’d mind keeping his voice down a bit. But I was approaching toddler meltdown state again: WAY too exhausted and emotionally frazzled to say anything but “waaaahhhhh.” So I just sat in my seat and cried while he jabbered happily on behind me. As soon as the seat belt sign went off (even in that state I am a serial rule follower) I moved to the empty row in front of me and put the tunes back in my ears. The existential crisis I was experiencing deserved a soundtrack. Just about then the lone flight attendant asked if I wanted anything to drink. Here’s what happened next…
Me: “I'll have water, unless you’ve got something stronger.”
Her: “What do you want?”
Me: “What do you got?”
Her: “What do you want?” OK….
Me: “Got any beer?”
Her: “Yeah, but I don’t think it’s cold.”
Me: “Got any whiskey?”
Her: “Yeah, I think so. What kind do you want?”
Me: “What kind do you got?”
Her: “Jack Daniels, Jim Beam…”
Me: “Jim Beam.”
Her: “OK. You got any cash?”
Her: “Sorry, hon. I know the other flight only took credit but we only take cash.”
Me: “I guess I’ll have water then.
She pours water.
Me: “I got about 50 Thai baht if that will buy me anything…”
Her, looking around first: “What do you want with that whiskey?”
Me: “Really? Ginger ale.”
Her, winking: “Be right back.”
Me, tearfully: “Oh bless you.”
I sat back, closed my eyes, and let Donny Hathaway, Sam Cooke & Jim Beam sooth my soul, crying all the while. My tears of despair were soon cried out and were replaced by tears of joyful gratitude. Enormously redeeming moment, existential crisis averted. Amazing how that turn can happen.
If there were a moral to this rambling, crazy story it would be this: if you’re good at what you do, are an enjoyable person to be around and not an asshole, and you stick around…opportunities like this one WILL come your way from time to time. All of us have done thousands of crap gigs in crap venues for crap money and crap people. To be properly paid for a job well done - by and for lovely people - AND to have such a magical experience in the process was a nice slice of karmic reward. Hard to argue with that combination. More please….