A week in the California sun, surrounded by friendly faces and familiar locations might have been great for Sara Routh and Rae Davis spiritually, but from an energy standpoint, it did the Black Sheep Tour no favors. As the Prius gets back on I-5 and resumes the trip north, it's clear that nobody really wants to be in the car today. The first hour or so is relatively silent, everyone lost in some thought or another, but the scenery slowly thaws the atmosphere.
North America is a gorgeous place; there is something in just about every nook and cranny to steal your breath away. But if you have not been west of the Missouri river, you still have not seen the very best of it. And for my money, the very best of the very best resides in the long sliver of land that extends from San Francisco to Vancouver, BC. The further north you go, the greener and more lush the landscape becomes, with silent sentinels like Mt Shasta standing guard on the southern tip, and the giant triumvirate of Mts Rainier, Adams and Hood to the north. As the road twists along through Northern California and Shasta's impressive face dominates the horizon, it's difficult for everyone in the car to not gape and chatter about the landscape.
The show for the evening is sleepy Medford, Oregon, at a place called Johnny B's. But before that—the real reason why we're stopping in Medford this evening—it is time to check in at our campground, and possibly enjoy the natural hot springs ensconced within a bit before showtime. It has been a trip highlight that both Routh and Davis have been talking about since before we left Des Moines, and as we pull into the campground, the thought of taking a quick soak is on everyone's mind.
But nobody is home.
Routh goes to the clubhouse to check in, and finds the gate locked tight. She knocks, and a voice comes over the fence at her, telling her that nobody is allowed to check in until 6 p.m. It is currently 3 p.m. And Routh's email confirmation told her check-in was any time after noon. But the voice is adamant. No check ins until 6. Feel free to come back. Routh clearly contemplates telling the voice what it can do with that offer, but instead she gives a derisive chuckle. Just like that, with one sharp turn of her boot heel, Routh writes “hot springs” off the tour schedule.
We reconvene at a local cafe to find a new place to stay. Davis finds a campground a few miles away, and Routh calls to book a spot. Done. We finish our tacos and milkshakes, and head back down the road. After setting up the tent, Routh and Davis get a campfire going. S'mores are cooked while Routh showers. By the time everyone piles back into the car to head to Johnny B's, spirits are fully lifted and the night is looking pointedly up.
A quick word on the magic dichotomy of Johnny B's. The owners, the titular Johnny and his wife April, are delightful people. A couple of gregarious, middle aged rockers, Johnny and April are as welcoming and friendly as two people ever have a right to be. Johnny B's is a bit of a 50's throwback bar, with lots of kitsch on the walls, red vinyl seats and a music selection that is predominantly rockabilly, with more than a few stoner novelty songs tossed in for flavor. The venue, and Johnny and April themselves, are genuine delights. None of that changes the fact that not every good person on the planet should be running a bar.
Routh and Davis are scheduled to begin playing at 9 p.m. Routh pulls the Prius up to Johnny B's front door right at 8, only to find the doors locked up tight. No lights. Nobody home. Hmm. Davis tries giving the listed phone number a call. After four rings:
“Hey! Thanks for calling Johnny B's. We're open, so come on down and enjoy some of the best music in town!”
Despite the answering machine's enthusiastic claim, Johnny B's is not open. Everyone piles back into the car, and finds a local place that IS open, to grab a snack and a beer. After a half hour, it's back into the Prius and back to Johnny B's. Still no joy. Routh begins to circle the building in the car, looking to see if maybe there's a speakeasy-style back door to the place. Nothing. Just the one entrance, no lights, no people. I call the number again.
“Hey! Thanks for calling Johnny B's. We're open...”
Don't fuck with me, Johnny B. I'm right here and can see you're full of shit.
Another 15 minutes go by, and Routh and Davis are openly discussing exit strategies. Do we just go back to the campground? Try and walk into another place to play for tips? Finally, at 8:50, Johnny and April rock up.
Hellos are exchanged, and April chats with Davis while Johnny unlocks the joint and goes in to start opening. As Routh and Davis grab their gear, April goes in to join him. We walk to the door...locked. They went in and locked us out. Exasperated, Davis gives a long, loud knock. April comes jogging back and opens the door with a chuckle.
The pair starts unpacking their gear on the stage as April and Johnny hustle to get their bar ready to open. Johnny's PA is missing a DI unit. Routh goes to the bar and asks Johnny where it is.
“Oh, don't you have one?”
There is a dangerous pause. Routh says no.
“OK. Well, I think I've got one in the back that works still. I'll get it.”
Routh nods and walks away. With nothing else to do until a DI is located, the pair content themselves with busywork. Routh wraps cables strewn on the stage, and hangs them on mic stands. It takes about 15 minutes before Johnny does, indeed, return with a DI, and Routh and Davis are able to plug in and perform the most cursory soundcheck in the history of soundchecks.
Finally, the joint is open and everyone is ready to go at 9:10. The joint is empty. Nobody expected a huge crowd—it's the Monday after Easter, after all—but playing in front of someone would be nice. So the pair decide to hang out and wait for a warm body before kicking off. They play a game of pool instead. Routh wins when Davis scratches the 8. Finally, about 9:40, a couple of locals trickle in and pay the $3 cover that April has set (Routh and Davis are playing for 90% of the door). Davis grabs her guitar, plugs in, and the first song begins just past 9:50; almost an hour after the scheduled start time.
Much like April and Johnny themselves, the locals are spectacularly friendly. By the time Davis is into her third song, the crowd has grown to 5, including a couple who sits at a table behind me, and a trio celebrating a birthday in a back booth.
As Davis goes through her set, I can hear people whisper about how good she is, and the claps get steadily louder. When she finishes with “Fix Me Up,” the small crowd is hooting along, and April is standing at the bar mouthing words to the chorus.
Davis wraps up and heads to the bar for another whiskey. Johnny brings the house music back up, and Davis steps outside for some fresh air, as Routh gets ready to play. While she's outside, she chats with the crowd's sixth member, a Californian transplant named Dick.
“So,” he asks her, “What do you think of the...service?”
Davis says that it is certainly interesting.
“Yeah,” Dick says with a tone of understatement, “this place isn't really known for it's customer service.”
A couple minutes later, Routh is standing at the mic, guitar in hand, as the PA still blares rockabilly. Routh speaks into the mic.
“Johnny, darling, I'm ready to go.”
There is nobody to be seen behind the bar. I go knock on the door leading to the backroom. Nothing. I go to the front door to see if April or Johnny is standing outside with Davis. Nada. Finally, April emerges from the backroom.
“Johnny is on a phone call, and he said to tell you he'll be just a minute. It's very important.”
Routh says she just needs the house music muted, and the guitar brought up in the PA. April knows how to turn the music down, but not how to turn up the guitar. Johnny will be just another minute, she says again.
Routh is now standing in a silent room, in front of a microphone, holding a guitar with no amplification, waiting. After 30 seconds or so of consideration, she calmly steps away from the mic to the edge of the stage, and launches into her first song completely unplugged. About midway through, her guitar suddenly jumps to life in the PA as Johnny obviously finishes his phone call, and Routh returns to the mic.
All things considered, both performers sets are solid. Routh, despite her frustrations with the day, pushes through a series of songs that manage to bring April to tears.
After a few minutes of hugs and tearful chatting with April, Davis and Routh are packed up and headed back to the campground. As Davis sits in the back on a phone call of her own, Routh contemplates the night.
“That was hard,” she admits. “About two songs in, I knew my voice just wasn't there tonight. But if you've had just a little bit of training, you know how to push through that, hopefully without hurting yourself. So you just do.”
A little while later, sitting on a bench, monitoring the progress of slowly roasting marshmallows on the open campfire, Routh talks about pushing her voice in front of a tiny crowd.
“It doesn't matter how many people are there,” she says. “If you're in a new town, those people have never heard you before. They deserve just as good of a show as anyone else.”
The logs shift, and send little fireflies of spark twirling up, up into the cold, star-lit night. She smiles.
“I think that's why I cry when I see big shows,” she says. “Even the last time I went and saw KISS play. I knew what they were going to do; they've been playing the same damn show for 40 years. But I thought about how cool that would be, being on that stage in front of all those people.”
She mentions playing Simon Estes Amphitheater last year, opening for The Nadas' Nightfall on the River performance, and cites it as a great moment, when she got to play a stage she'd always wanted to.
I didn't see that performance in Des Moines last summer. I did, however, see this evening at Johnny B's, in front of six people, not including teary-eyed April and affable Johnny. And I can promise you the former performance had no more life or energy than the latter. Because that's just how performers like Routh are. Six people or 6,000; $30 ticket or $3 cover, they paid to see you, so they've earned your best.
Routh goes to bed to rest her voice. The fire continues to burn as the night turns colder. Medford will not be considered a great success. But tomorrow is a new day, with new possibility. And when they greet it, Routh and Davis can do so knowing that they gave Johnny B's their best effort, even if it didn't deserve it.
Miles traveled: 3313