BEHIND THE SCENES: Grievous Angel flaps its wings in California

Anders Drerup (left) plays ill-starred country pioneer Gram Parsons, while Kelly Prescott (centre) stars as his collaborator and love interest Emmylou Harris. Photography courtesy David McDonald and Tom Martel

A Roadie’s Diary

In the October issue of Ottawa Magazine, we featured David McDonald’s insider’s look at the creation of Grievous Angel: The Legend of Gram Parsons, a “theatrical concert” produced by ex-Frank magazine editor and pedal steel player Michael Bate, co-written by Bate and McDonald, and starring Anders Drerup as the ill-starred alt-country pioneer and Kelly Prescott as his collaborator and love interest, Emmylou Harris.

Buoyed by the show’s enthusiastic reception in Ottawa, the Valley, Kingston, Toronto, and Montreal—the Gazette called it “a triumph from its first moment to its last”—producer Bate decided to take the show on a 19-day, 11-show tour of Northern California, Seattle, and Portland in October. McDonald went along for the ride. Here are excerpts from his Roadie’s Diary, along with photos by McDonald and Grievous Angel drummer Tom Martel.

October 7
Pearson International Airport, Toronto, Ont.

Is there a more bracing way to start the day than with a blast of international air travel? I think not. Bate arrives at U.S. Customs with a couple of boxes of Grievous Angel recordings and T-shirts. The CDs and tees are the “merch,” the souvenir merchandise sold at shows to generate a few extra bucks. Bate has slavishly followed American Federation of Musicians guidelines for its importation, but U.S. Customs dances to its own tune. Thus, with 30 minutes till takeoff, Bate finds himself adrift among the gen pop in the terminal, a voided customs declaration in hand, 50 lbs. of merch on his hip, and a faux-Nudie (a knockoff of Parsons iconic suit from Nudie Cohn’s Rodeo Tailors of Los Angeles) over his shoulder. He tracks down a shop with storage services, stashes the boxes, huffs it back to security, fills out another customs form, jumps the queue, gets the full-body grope, stumbles down the escalator while struggling to hold up his pants, and arrives at the gate just in time for fifth and final call.

Five and a half hours later, the plane touches down in San Francisco. Bate, still suffering from residual frazzle, leaves his jacket, containing his wallet and passport, on the plane. He manages to retrieve them. No such luck with his suitcase. Air Canada has lost it.

Left to right: Kelly Prescott on-stage at Don Quixote's Music Hall in Felton, California; Backstage pre-show at Silo's Wine Bar and Jazz Club in Napa, California; Injured drummer Tom Martel makes the best of a bad situation with a MacGyvered drumstick-hand

October 9
Sutter Creek Theatre, Sutter Creek, Cal.
It’s one of those show-biz things. Last thing the band does before going onstage is clasp hands, yell “Scrodio” (for the etymology and appropriate uses of “scrodio,” please contact Kelly Prescott) and fling their arms in the air. Only no one has taken into account a low-hanging lamp in the greenroom, and drummer Tom Martel’s right hand smashes through the glass. The results are both Spinal Tap- and Dexter-worthy. Blood splattered everywhere, most alarmingly on Anders’ prized Nudie.

Someone splashes some stage-prop Jack Daniels on the cut and bandages it up. The distracted band takes to the stage, Tom still leaking profusely. Anders, as Gram, kicks into the opening number, “Six Days on the Road.” Sometimes it seems a whole lot longer than that: Anders’ mic has shorted out. It’s Marcel Marceau plays the Grand Ole Opry.

In the meantime, alarmed management has summoned the medics. Half way through the first act, a fire truck and an ambulance pull up. Tom is whisked out back, where a medic removes a shard of glass from the gash and wraps the paw up again. The show, as shows must, goes on.

Afterwards, Tom repairs to the local hospital. Fortunately, having bought some insurance before leaving Canada, he doesn’t have to appear before one of those hospital death panels we’ve heard so much about on Fox News. The diagnosis: nicked tendon. They stitch and bandage him up and place his right index finger in a metal splint. Tom will spend the rest of the tour with a Canadian-size “We’re No. 1”sign at the ready.

October 10
Don Quixote’s Music Hall, Felton, Cal.

Ever wonder what happened to that wacky windmill-tilter from La Mancha? Well, at some point, he apparently emigrated to redwood-infested Santa Cruz Co., and opened up a club in the town of Felton (pop. 1,027). It seems an entirely appropriate venue for an unheralded Ottawa production with a drummer with a stick taped to his hand on a Sunday night in October with an economy that’s done a face-plant and can’t seem to get up.

But, as the good Don himself once said, “He who sings frightens away his ills,” and, amazingly, the Quixote show turns out to be perhaps the best Grievous performance ever. Anders’ dramatic performance rises to a whole other level. The band soars. The crowd is totally into it, they know every word of every song. There are standing ovations in the middle of the show. Bate, at the back of the room, finds himself next to a grizzled biker who sobs uncontrollably through the entire second act. Normally, bawling bikers wear a little thin over the course of an evening. Not tonight.

Left to right: The day-to-day routines of sound checks and back-stage tuning; The cast takes a curtain call during their show at Freight & Salvage Coffeehouse in Berkeley, California

October 14
Freight & Salvage Coffeehouse, Berkeley, Cal.
Three hours before curtain time, we run into a couple outside this venerable Berkeley institution—where the likes of Country Joe and the Fish and R. Crumb and the Cheap Suit Serenaders played back in the days when Dick Nixon stalked the land. They are Fred and Dana, a couple of ageing Parsons fanatics. They have flown up to see the show from their home down near Joshua Tree, the place where Parsons failed to wake up in a cheap motel in 1973.

Fred’s in pool supplies. We discuss the state of California. Fred points to official unemployment rates in many areas of around 15 per cent. It’s hard on the performing arts—club and concert attendance is down 25-30-40 percent in some places—but apparently not too bad for pool supplies. When the California economy tanks, the first one over the side is apparently the pool boy. But you still have to buy your chlorine tablets and your leaf skimmers.

The show is a winner, the sound first-rate, a sizeable and enthusiastic audience of ageing Boomers hip to every 40-year-old pop cultural reference. For Fred and Dana, it’s a wormhole back to a day when pool supplies were the last thing on their minds.

October 15
Centre for the Arts, Grass Valley, Cal.

Something we didn’t anticipate—we’re starting to get some repeat business. In Berkeley, there was a party who’d seen the show in Felton and had come to see it again. Now, some people who had seen the first show of the tour at the Palms Playhouse in Winters have driven for hours to see it in Grass Valley, an old Gold Rush town in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada. This time they’ve brought Mom along.

Afterwards, Bate receives this email: “For my 76th birthday my son and daughter took me to [Grievous Angel]. I can’t rave enough about it. It is one of the best shows I have ever seen. I had never heard of Gram Parsons, but the story touched me and the ‘theatrical concert’ format made it an intimate experience. The band and the performers were outstanding and the musical numbers soared. I hope you return to Northern California and if you do I will be there.”

Left: Magic onstage at the Blue Room Theatre in Chico, California. Right: Post-show at Grass Valley, California

October 16
Oroville, Cal.
Rooms in Chico, our next show, are at a premium, so we bunk down at a Day’s Inn in nearby Oroville, a town on the Saskatchewan-flat floor of California’s Central Valley. There are grey clouds in the sky, the first we’ve seen since arriving in California. It begins to drizzle. We have the joint to ourselves—that is, until dusk when members of Jus Brothers M.C. begin sputtering in on their hogs, their mamas in tow. Both are ear-splitting.

What follows is a late night and early morning of chopper-revving, wall-slamming and profanity-laden common-law discord. Later, curious about the name Jus Brothers—prime rib aficionados, perhaps?—we get out the google machine and discover it’s actually short for Just Brothers. (What is it about bikers and their disdain for apostrophes?) We also learn that one of their founders, Irish Mike, has penned a history of the club, A Road without End: The Jus Brothers Motorcycle Club, 1990-2007, autographed copies of which are available on Amazon and eBay. Our Christmas shopping quandary is at an end.

Left to right: Kelly Prescott and Anders Drerup performing at Grass Valley; Bassist Chris Breitner and pedal steel player Al Bragg

October 17-18
The Blue Room Theatre, Chico, Cal.

Everybody’s in show biz. Every club in California seems to have someone on staff who’s had major experience with the peripatetic musical life, and now they’ve settled down. The woman in charge of bookings at the Centre for the Arts in Grass Valley said she was turned on to the music of Gram Parsons by none other than Beck, whose road manager she used to be. The bartender at the same venue, a transplanted New Yorker, once played sax for the likes of Billy Joel and John Lee Hooker. And here in boyish Chico—like Berkeley, a relentlessly youthful university town—the tech turns out to have been Merle Haggard’s former soundman/bus driver. There is one drawback to all this musical exposure—the Haggard alumnus is more than a little hard of hearing, and the sound in this funky theatre above a hardware store is not up to snuff. Fortunately, the rapt audience—mostly senior-faculty types—doesn’t seem to notice.

October 20
The Triple Door, Seattle, Wash.
A small, but again enthralled audience at this Union Street landmark, which started out as a vaudeville palace in the ‘20s. Bate is accosted at intermission by a greying Grampire, as the most fundamentalist among the keepers of the Parsons flame are affectionately known. The woman has a checklist of Grievous errors in the script she wishes to have redressed. Bate tries to sell her on the concept of dramatic licence, but she is having none of it. Heresy must not only be pointed out, it must be rooted out.

Left to right: Napping in Chico after being kept up all night by a motorcycle gang sharing their motel (centre) the night before; A little down time on the back stoop.

October 23
Alberta Rose Theatre, Portland, Ore.
Sixties/seventies supergroupie-turned-best-selling-memoirist Pamela (I’m with the Band) Des Barres, in Portland to conduct a writers workshop, drops by to see a show about an old friend — she is godmother to Gram’s daughter, Polly Parsons. The well-preserved Des Barres, still very much a part of the L.A. music scene, offers Grievous Angel her imprimatur. What this might mean for the long-term success of the show is beyond a simple roadie’s ken.