Texas Troubadour Abroad: Leaving Riga
My name is Keegan McInroe, and I am a singer-songwriter from Lubbock who’s been living in Fort Worth off and on since 2001, when I began my four years of study at Texas Christian University. Over the course of my 10 years writing, performing, and recording original music, I’ve played hundreds of shows and traveled thousands of miles throughout the United States and Europe. My latest tour is taking me to New York City, London, Paris, Amsterdam, Budapest, Prague, Barcelona, and dozens of stops in between. Whether you’re an independent musician like me, a fellow budget traveler, or simply a reader who loves a good tale from the road, Texas Troubadour Abroad –– my (mostly) weekly travelogue published here on the Weekly’s website –– will have something for you.
“Writing about music is like dancing about architecture.” –– Frank Zappa
It’s just past noon, and I’ve boarded a bus to take me from Riga to Kaunas in Lithuania for my show tonight at a festival called Senamiesčio Žiogas. Men in Black III is playing on the two TVs featured in the front and center of the coach. Listening to Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones banter back and forth in Latvian is quite amusing –– at least, I believe they’re bantering in Latvian, but it could be Lithuanian, I suppose. The languages are similar, particularly to my ears.
I’m pretty certain the dialogue I’m hearing isn’t Russian, though that is what the bus driver spoke to me –– as did both cab drivers I employed during my time in Riga.
Russian is almost a necessity to find work in Riga, as I am told, due to the overwhelming number of Russian speakers here who can’t be bothered to learn Latvian, an annoyance to many locals I spoke with.
Following World War II, the Soviet Union took control of Latvia, implementing a bilingual program that imposed Russian as the predominant language in most matters of official business. It wasn’t until August of 1991 that Latvia gained full independence from the Soviet Union. Obviously, this is still a relatively fresh transition.
Anyhow, in addition to riding this bus, I am still riding a music high from last night’s gig in Riga at a funky little bar called TAKA. After two sweaty sets to a room full of thick air and new friends and kindly strangers, I chose to close the show with a performance of Warren Zevon’s “Lawyers, Guns, and Money.”
The crowd encouraged an encore with perhaps the lengthiest and most enthusiastic applause I’ve yet received in my days playing music, a response that showed no signs of waning until I picked my guitar back up and returned to the microphone. Quite a feeling to be so far from Texas and still be shown such love. I gratefully obliged with a fingerpicked take on a longtime favorite of mine, Bob Dylan’s “When I Paint My Masterpiece.”
This high will be a great boon to me as last night’s performance marked the beginning of what is to be an intense week of shows and travel. After tonight’s gig in Kaunas, I’ll go on to play consecutive days in Vilnius, Warsaw, Poznan, and Berlin –– six nights of music sprawled over four countries, totaling more than 1,400 km.
It should be a fine run, albeit an exhausting one. Prior to last night’s big boost at TAKA, I had four days off, so I am recharged and ready to embrace this musical marathon.
It has been nearly two weeks since I’ve had the opportunity and the energy to send along an update from the road, and it would be virtually impossible to detail all the incredible experiences that have come and gone since the train rides from Krakow to Berlin without delving into something more akin to a novel in length.
So, while I will delve, I will try to do so efficiently.
When I arrived in Berlin all those days ago, I was met at the train station by Benjamin Löser, a fine young German lad who was to play host to a house concert for me and former Fort Worthian now world traveler Daniel Payne two nights later. Benny had agreed to put me up for the evening, and we enjoyed a nice barbecue with some friends of his in Volkspark Friedrichshain.
As the sun set, the crowd grew, and the park took on a festival atmosphere, with plenty of drinking and laughing and mosquitoes and food and music and glowing Frisbees being tossed about. In the middle of Germany’s bustling capital, I almost felt like I was at Bonnaroo way back in the summer of 2003, minus the live Neil Young serving as the backing track.
In Germany, drinking alcohol on the streets and in parks and other public places is legal. Despite this –– and despite the fact that the drinking age is a mere 16 for beer and wine and 18 for spirits –– the country hasn’t collapsed into chaos and depravity.
The morning following our night in the park, I caught an early train north to Kiel so that I could arrive in time for the beginning of a 50th birthday celebration I was to perform at. The party was being thrown for a friend and house concert host from my last tour of Europe. The venue for the occasion was Waldhaus, a wonderful little retreat in the woods where the birthday girl volunteers, which in the past has served as a therapeutic get away for kids with various health problems and now functions similarly as a center for children to get in touch with nature and escape the omnipresent technology and hustle and bustle of city living.
Daniel met me at the party, coming from a show in Denmark, and there were many other fine musicians on hand, including another American now living in Spain by the name of Smiling Jack Smith and a blueswoman from Amsterdam who I knew through entirely separate channels, Cindy Peress. A large and diverse turnout had gathered from many far-flung corners of the globe, and the party grooved into the wee hours of the morning, despite frequent, sporadic rain.
The next morning, Daniel, two other guests, and I were given a ride to the train station in an old UPS truck, which had been converted into a mobile home by the family who gave us the lift. Ideas of working out a similar mode of transport for future trips stirred within. Among other numerous benefits of such a scenario, and perhaps greatest of all in my mind, would be the ability to bring my faithful mutt and companion, Delia Skunk, with me on tour.
Daniel and I had a gig in Berlin that evening at the aforementioned Benny’s inaugural Chicken Shack House Concert. A friend and harmonica player I’d met a month or so ago at the Lindenmarkt in Bordesholm drove all the way from Hamburg to catch the night’s musical endeavors, and several others crowded into Benny’s small and cozy abode for what turned out to be a successful first run by all accounts.
Mr. Payne put on a fine performance and had the folks up dancing and clapping along to his tunes, which was nice because my opening set was apparently a little more somber in places, “devastating” even, as it was relayed to me after one of my original songs. The tune resonated. A high compliment.
After the show, a few of the die-hards, Daniel, and I went and bought some more booze –– I opted for a bottle of cheap, red Chilean wine –– and enjoyed a stroll along the streets of Berlin, settling in a small park a while before returning to Benny’s, where we crashed hard.
I was awakened in the night by an unusual barking and clucking and violent thrashing in the floor, and I am still uncertain of what it was I saw, though I had confirmation that it was no nightmare cooked up by a brain heavily addled by the fruit-of-the-lesser-vine I’d enjoyed but rather the byproduct of a disturbed outlaw violently having it out with his demons in the tender hours of the morning.
The next day Daniel split for Ireland, where he was to continue his tour, while I chose to spend my two days off in a little German town called Deulowitz near the Polish border. A fellow birthday partier from the Kiel celebration had invited me to join her and her son –– a fine young musician I will be trying to steal away from his mama in a few short years –– for a couple of days of rest and relaxation in their tiny village and the surrounding countryside.
Upon arriving at the station in the nearby town of Guben, my friend’s son quickly pointed out to me that my rolling bag had a blowout. The small rubber tire had begun separating from the plastic hub, and by the time I made it to Warsaw a few days later, the other tire had gone. I am currently rubber-less. If these plastic hubs don’t hold up, I could have a bit of a problem on my hands.
Deulowitz was a nice break in the tour, though I actually ended up performing a last-minute house concert for my hosts and some of their local friends on my last night in town. Despite the abundance of mosquitoes, a really lovely evening was had, with my future bandmate performing some numbers on his trumpet in between my tunes, as well as handling translating duties for me. I left for Warsaw the following day with some unexpected money in my pocket and a 12-year-old bottle of scotch, gifted to me by one of those in attendance at my show.
I had no particular business in Warsaw other than making up ground towards Lithuania before my overnight bus to Vilnius. When I got to the train station, I e-mailed a local college radio host from Warsaw University of Technology, Piotr Radio, to see if he wanted to meet in person and pass some time with me. Piotr had contacted me after reading a post of mine on Couch Surfing that I’d written in an effort to scrounge up a gig in Warsaw a month or two ago. We met up and enjoyed a few beers and bearded fellowship before he brought me back to the station and saw me safely on the bus. He sent me on my way with a map of Poland’s Bieszczady Mountains to deliver to a friend of his in Vilnius.
Thankfully, the seat next to me on the overnight bus remained empty the entire journey, and so I was able to sprawl out about as much as one can on a bus and get a little sleep. Upon my early morning arrival in Vilnius, I made my way to Rūdninkų knygynas, a fantastic record shop owned by the family of the friend I was delivering the map to. They were kind enough to stow my belongings while I walked about Vilnius’ Old Town, which included a visit to the Frank Zappa statue.
That night I had a show at Aula Blues Club, which during the colder months hosts shows down in their stone cellar, which was locked up during my visit. For summer shows, they have a spacious outdoor patio in the back of their restaurant and bar, and that is where I performed.
At one point in the evening, a young woman got up with me at the continual goading of her friends and beautifully accompanied me singing Dylan’s “Knocking on Heaven’s Door.” It was another successful night, and one of the waiters told me he had never seen the patio that full and attentive, with people standing at the back along the bar listening, as well as filling all the tables –– I don’t know if it was his first day or 50th, but I took the compliment happily.
The friend I’d delivered the map to and some friends of hers and I then went out for some drinks, and, after many hours, I crashed at one of their homes, which was literally across the cobbled street from the Aula Blues Club.
The next morning I took a bus to Riga, where a friend from my last tour I’d met through Couch Surfing in Lyon was awaiting my arrival. The bus station is right on the Daugava River, and across the bridge is a wonderful open-air food market. We walked along gathering ingredients for a traditional Latvian cold soup my friend would prepare for us a few hours later and enjoyed the wellspring of smells and sounds and characters we were moving amongst.
My show that night was at the Kaņepes Kultūras centrs, and I had the choice to play either inside with a proper sound system or out on the front patio without technological assistance in projection, as Kaņepes does not yet have their permit to host shows outdoors.
Seeing as how it was a lovely evening, and I didn’t want to present those in attendance with the quandary of live music or the great outdoors, I played outside and strummed and bellowed my tunes best I could for two sets over a little more than two hours. The audience was generous with their attention and applause, the bar was liberal with their goods, and I retired that evening exhausted, pleased, and blurry eyed.
At the show, and before, invitations had begun pouring in for that weekend’s big celebration and the reason for the timing of my visit: Jāņi, the Latvian Midsummer festival. Rooted in the ancient traditions of Latvian pagan peoples, the festival occurs over two days, both of which are public holidays, where people make their way to the countryside for the eating of cheese with caraway seeds in it, the drinking of beer, and the searching for a mythical fern flower.
Needless to say, there are many parties thrown about the country, resulting in a difficult decision in where to spend one’s Jāņi.
When I arrived in Riga, my friend I’d met last tour in Lyon presented me with two options for parties she’d been invited to, which I was welcome to join. The night of my gig at Kaņepes, two more party invitations were presented: one at the seaside home of an apparently well-known Latvian film director and the other in a hemp field where I was invited to perform my music for around 30 people.
I was leaning toward the hemp field when a fifth invitation came during an early morning bike tour of Riga’s Old Town following an all-nighter the day after my Kaņepes gig.
My tour guide and bicycling companion was Inese Grīnberga, a local music manager whose company Pirmā Doma works with several area bands, including indie-rock band Deeper Upper and instrumental group Omertà, both of which I had the pleasure of listening to during my time in Latvia.
Inese is currently about to wrap up her studies at Latvijas Kultūras koledža, and she and some fellow classmates of hers were journeying two hours north to one of their numbers’ family homes for a traditional Jāņi throwdown.
Nowadays, many of the Jāņi celebrations are just booze-fests, but there are still those who hold to some of the more charming traditions associated with the festival. Seeing as how I’ve had plenty of experiences with plain ’ol booze-fests, and this was my first time in Latvia for Midsummer, I accepted Inese’s kind invitation, looking forward to experiencing a more traditional take on the party.
Furthermore, it offered me the chance to drive Inese’s car the two hours to said party near a little town called Cēsis. In all my visits to Europe, I had yet to drive here.
En route to the party, we picked up two of her school chums, one in Riga, the other in the scenic town of Siguld. Driving along the road I kept seeing pairs of women sitting by the highway working with leafy branches and sticks. After a while I began to notice they were being fashioned into laurels or wreaths, but both words slipped my mind, so when discussing these matters with my traveling companions, as I was asked what the name for these holiday attirements in English would be, I responded with “nature hats,” and that is what we referred to them as from that moment on.
These wreaths are part of the Jāņi tradition. Women don nature hats made from flowers while men wear laurels of oak. Some folks even modestly clothe their vehicles with the leafy branches from birch and oak trees –– and Lord show mercy to the poor soul who finds himself moving into traffic a bit too slowly when a trailer-load of nature-hat-materials is awaiting impatiently behind on the night when they are needed most.
When we reached Cēsis, two more schoolmates of my Latvian car-load met us at a grocery store. We stocked up on beer and cheese –– I bought some vodka after spotting a moose braying on a particular bottle, which distracted me enough to decide it was significant –– and we made our way to the beautiful country home where we began celebrating all-things-John (“Jāņi” being the plural form of “Jānis,” “Jānis” being the Latvian form of “John”).
That evening there was a play put on by some of those in attendance: an amusing take on a series of Winnie the Pooh stories, which Inese was kind enough to occasionally translate for me. Shortly after the play, we gathered around a large fire, and a number of songs were sung en masse, as we awaited the flames to settle down a bit, so that another of the old traditions could be carried out: namely, the jumping over of said fire.
The wisdom of my participation in this event was questionable given the level of alcohol swimming about in my blood and guts, and I had already been told fire-leaping war stories of broken ankles and singed beard-hairs, but I undauntedly and perhaps foolishly risked beard and bone and made two running leaps over the flames.
The rest of the evening was a circus of more cheese, more beer, more songs, ping-pong, more cheese, more beer, more songs, and, finally, the communal murdering of the moose-decorated vodka, and another hard sleep, this slumber inside the carriage I had driven there.
The decision was made the following day to stay an additional night, and so another run was made into town to refurbish supplies –– this time it was a stork on a bottle that spoke to me. Upon our return, a game of beach volleyball was enjoyed on the family’s homemade pit, some more traditional songs were sung out of a thick book that no one seemed to need to know the words, I was requested to play guitar and lead the group in singing “Amazing Grace” and “He’s Got the Whole World,” more cheese and beer were consumed, and I might have even caught a fleeting glimpse of that coveted mythical fern while taking a walk amongst the trees.
In the evening, as my friends and I sat outside visiting, a stork lit nearby and began feasting on the open buffet that lay before it. We watched it strut along happily, and one of our group mentioned the rarity of such a sighting, adding that this was a sign of luck. Shortly, a second stork joined the other, and they dined together for quite a while as we looked on. Double lucky.
We left the following afternoon, with stops to take in the sights in both Cēsis and Siguld, before returning to Riga for an easy night and a much-needed break for my liver. I did, however, have the pleasure of being interviewed for the Latvian music website Alternative.lt by one of the new friends I’d made at the John Party. I also met the music manager and the four band members of the local metal group Burned In Blizzard, whom we’d listened to multiple times during our time in the country.
And, last night was the stellar show at TAKA, and my final night in Riga of the tour.
The visit to the Baltics wasn’t all sunshine and rainbows, however. There was a minor tragedy on the night before good ’ol John and I shook hands so fiercely in the countryside, a tragedy involving that 12-year-old bottle of scotch.
I had been at a wine bar for many hours helping some locals celebrate a friend’s last day of work there. After a kind gentleman who had just finished his walk on El Camino de Santiago and I polished off his bottle of Jim Beam, I offered up my Deulowitz gift as our next victim. I had the pleasure of only about two drinks when I noticed another sauced-up fellow fondling the bottle, ripping pulls lustily and unfettered at my side.
This is a movement I am familiar and quite comfortable with. I might have even joined him, but the next series of motions caught me by surprise.
Apparently the young man had been a bit sickly –– or perhaps he is just a sly genius –– and during one of his speeches he began sneezing directly into my bottle. A pause, a head-shake, continued dialogue, and again a moist seasoning of the 12 years. A shorter pause and more sneezing. Now coughing about the mouth of the bottle. A pause and the resumption of whatever was being related. Another sneeze and the bottle was handed over for my deliberation.
I declined, laughing, and informed my friend that he had just inherited a near-full bottle of fine liquor to help nurse him back to health. He smiled and took another pull. I don’t remember him sneezing again.
My liver will be seeking out the sick come cocktail hour from here on out.
June 27, 2013
En route to Kaunas