Texas Troubadour Abroad: Rudolstadt
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.
“ ‘To give style’ to one’s character –– a great and rare art! He exercises it who surveys all that his nature presents in strength and weakness and then moulds it to an artistic plan until everything appears as art and reason, and even the weaknesses delight the eye.” –– Friedrich Nietzsche
I’m sitting at my campsite amongst a grove of trees by the Saale River in Rudolstadt, Germany, listening to Hank Williams and the back and forth in German of my friends. The talk is regarding Edward Snowden, the NSA whistleblower who has become a thorn in our curious president’s side, and the build-up of the American Police State.
It has been a recurring theme of conversation during this tour. Many Europeans are watching, shaking their heads. As goes the States, so often goes much of the Western world.
But that is not to be the pitch of this tune. Certainly not so close to Independence Day. No, this lovely place and the festival that brought me here will be my focus, and my plan is to compose this week’s report over each of the next four days of the festival, sharing my experiences here as they happen.
I arrived in Rudolstadt by train from Berlin two nights ago and was met at the station by my good friend from Kiel, Suse. Suse is the recent inductee into the 50-year-old-club whose birthday party I played a few weeks back. Upon my arrival here, we made the short walk from the station to the campsite where Suse and company have been posted up since last weekend.
The weather is perfect, the supplies are well-stocked, the toilets and showers are near at-hand, the company is warm and intelligent, and Suse brought a camper for me to share with an Australian artist, Andrea Soler, and her guitar player, James Ross, who will also be performing here. All I had to do was show up and settle in.
TFF Rudolstadt –– Dance (“Tanzen” in German) Folk Festival Rudolstadt –– is a citywide world dance, folk, and roots music festival in the small and otherwise sleepy town of Rudolstadt. I am billed as a “street performer,” but actually my two shows tomorrow are on a small stage in a beer garden and then a few hours later on the larger stage of an intimate theater.
Musicians are encouraged to busk about town, as well, and Suse just told me she has lined up another gig for me somewhere tomorrow at noon. It appears I can stay as busy as I like here.
Busy or no, after last week’s six show run, which began with that ego-inflating gig at TAKA in Riga, being in the same place for these next several days consecutively will be a great pleasure and an appreciated change of pace.
Today is Thursday, and this evening the festival kicks off with performances by Edward Sharpe & The Magnetic Zeros, The Tiger Lillies, Souad Massi, and I Liguriani. The festivities carry on through Sunday night. I had plans to leave early Sunday morning for Switzerland, but after arriving here on Tuesday evening, I quickly realized this is a place I will be in no hurry to depart from. I’ve decided I’ll be staying for the duration of the event.
The little community of campers and festival-goers surrounding me make it a point to pilgrimage to Rudolstadt every year, some of them for well over a decade or two, and reunite for a week of music and fellowship. It is easy to understand why. I’m already hooked, and the actual festival won’t get kicking for another several hours.
But the marathon from Riga to Berlin was a fine stretch of the tour, as well, so I’ll make note of those days, before getting to the heart of the matter and perhaps my new yearly tradition.
One week ago, I traveled from Riga to Kaunas for another festival, Senamiesčio Žiogas, which means “Old Town Grasshopper” in Lithuanian. When I arrived via bus, one of the organizers picked me up at the station and brought me to the venue, a large outdoor stage set in a courtyard — three of the walls belonged to a building housing some sort of communication museum, with a restaurant and long bar at the back making up the fourth wall. I was fed and sound-checked, and the weather cleared up just in time for all the attendees to begin pouring in and the music to get rolling.
The gig was booked by Gabrielė Tamutytė, a wonderful woman who is both a fellow musician and the manager for a couple of bands, including one she lends vocals in called Garbanotas Bosistas. We got in contact following a Couch Surfing post I made in a Vilnius music group several months ago. In addition to setting up the gig, Andrea had arranged for me to ride back to Vilnius the evening of Senamiesčio Žiogas with another one of the bands performing at the festival, Domanto Razausko. That plan got derailed when said band ended up having brake trouble on their way from Vilnius and had to resort to hitchhiking into Kaunas.
Because Gabrielė had also lined up accommodation for me in Vilnius that evening, I chose to leave the party in Kaunas early and catch the last train of the night. I met up with Gabrielė and her boyfriend when I arrived, and after some drinks and laughs, I helped push their bandmate’s car to a gas station in the wee hours after he ran out of fuel giving me a ride to my arranged sleeping quarters.
The following day, my friend Inese Grīnberga came in town from Riga to hang out and catch my show. Deeper Upper, one of the bands she manages, is from Vilnius, so she was taking care of a little business in town, as well. Of note, Inese and I discovered a bar one must enjoy if ever in Vilnius: Šnekutis.
While the ridiculously cheap local-brewed, country-style beer and traditional Lithuanian food are well worth the visit, the main attraction is the owner, who we were fortunate enough to meet and take photos with when we stopped in. The man’s mustache is a marvel, and he knows it. In fact, on every single page of the establishment’s menu, is a different picture of him and his shaggy lip-hair enjoying a country setting, basking, sometimes suggestively, in the sunshine.
My gig that night, also booked from a suggestion by Ms. Tamutytė, was at a small and lovely coffeeshop and used bookstore called Mint Vinetu. Gabrielė’s bandmate and boyfriend brought a small Marshall acoustic amplifier for me, and by the time I hit the first note, the little room was full to the brim with people, all there to lend their ears to my hour of crooning. Another positively received musical outing. Inese even captured one of my newer songs, “Tonight,” on video and posted it here.
As I had an early afternoon engagement the next day in Warsaw, I needed to catch an overnight bus a few hours after my show at Mint Vinetu. Inese, the singer for Deeper Upper, Daktaras Kestutis, and I paid Šnekutis one more visit for a half-liter of honeyed brew, then we parted ways, and I made the long and sleep-starved voyage southwest to meet with another character of remarkable facial decoration, Mr. Piotr Radio.
Piotr, whom I introduced a bit in last week’s writing, hosts a radio program called Radio Aktywne. The plan was to do the show together, which was to be half-an-hour of playing tracks from my three solo albums, followed by a half-hour interview, followed by a live set for about an hour — afterward we would make our way to the bar Skład Butelek, where he had organized a gig for me.
Piotr and I get along smashingly, and our senses of humor are in-tune, so the interview, one of his first to conduct in English, was very enjoyable and amusing for both of us, albeit rambling and a bit random in places. Piotr did an admirable job trying to keep us on track. It was reminiscent of my visits to KTCU’s Good Show, where Tom and Tony and I continually get sidetracked down different pig-trails and by ridiculous exchanges at the expense of playing any music whatsoever.
The show that evening at Skład Butelek turned into a big jam after my first set with one of the owners on guitar and Piotr on hand percussion and an Austin, Tex., transplant on drums. The bar itself used to be a family house, or so that was the best guesses given me, with various rooms and a stone cellar, which is where the proper stage and sound system are and where I performed my solo set before the jam upstairs in the main barroom.
The next afternoon, Piotr and I went for pierogies, a traditional Polish cuisine that thankfully doesn’t involve eating raw eggs out of a meat-bowl. Pierogies are basically just baked or steamed dumplings with a creative array of possible fillings. We ordered a mixed platter of steamed and baked pierogies full of everything from duck to blueberries, and though I could have eaten a few dozen more, and while Piotr said they didn’t hold a candle to his grandmother’s cooking, it was quite an enjoyable meal.
After our lunch, I said goodbye to my hairy brother and hopped the train west to Poznan where I was to perform at The Lizard King, a sexy rock ’n’ roll venue on one of the main squares in Poznan, complete with a giant lizard possibly constructed from an assortment of rusted metals perched above the bar.
Toward the end of the night, after my two sets of music, I found myself once again drowning with my old friend, that wonder of Polish wonders, Żubrówka Bison Grass vodka, and staring into the eyes of the strange beast hanging above me. I felt a bit like Hunter S. Thompson’s ghost might pop in for a drink or 10, high-stepping through the room in golf shoes –– and come to think of it, there was a Native American flute player performing directly outside the bar when I arrived.
Perhaps the Native notes blown and the special grass in my drink had summoned the Doctor closer than I knew. Perhaps that drunken bartender in Krakow wasn’t fooling.
I may have the chance to explore this mystery further if I come across a Native American here at Rudolstadt, as I have in my possession a full bottle of Żubrówka, purchased on the morning after my night at The Lizard King, with Polish monies exclusively from the tips collected, just awaiting the proper occasion.
After the vodka was obtained, I made my way to the train station and headed to Berlin for my show that night at Kuss Kuss, a small vegetarian eatery with a great acoustic listening room between the bar and the kitchen. The gig was booked through Lou Fai Booking, with whom I have a contact via my friends in Verona.
Also performing that evening was a solo female guitarist and singer who plays under the moniker Breaking the Bell Jar. My friend Benny of the Chicken Shack was in attendance, and he put me up one more time after another long, hard night of foolishness about the streets of Berlin.
The following morning, I mined his music library for several hours for a few gems and then made my way to Rudolstadt.
And here I sit these couple of days removed, the bottle of vodka unmolested. Let the reader not be misled regarding the depths of my self-control.
Now I’m getting ready to go and do a little busking about town, before popping into Kiedorf, a small pub whose owner –– over several pints of Guinness last evening –– invited me to play a gig there tonight.
Plans are made to be broken at Rudolstadt. So I was told, and so it seems. And so much for giving daily updates.
I am currently on a train, rolling through the picturesque Swiss countryside, making my way back to Verona tonight. I think. When I started my journey from Rudolstadt at 6 a.m. after a long and rowdy all-nighter at Kiedorf following my fifth performance there in five days, my intention was to head to Locarno for the evening.
And while this locomotive is indeed bound for Locarno, I may be hopping another train from there before the day is done. I have a show back in Fano at Bardàn Bar tomorrow night, so I’m needing to gain some ground toward that end.
Rudolstadt was incredible, and there was simply no time nor desire to break out the laptop and click away while so many beautiful things were happening around me. This train, like the others before it, will serve as a much more appropriate workspace, with only the scenic lakes and mountains of Switzerland to distract me.
The first thing I’ll mention in regard to Rudolstadt has nothing to do with the festival proper but concerns perhaps one of the sweetest, most thoughtful, and generous acts of kindness I’ve experienced.
It turns out my friend Suse didn’t actually have me a gig lined up as I mentioned above but rather had a surprise she wanted to be sure I was in attendance for. I sold out of my A Thousand Dreams CDs over a month ago and decided it would be too much of a hassle and expense to order a new batch and have them shipped to me somewhere along the road. So I’ve been without since the house concert in Duisburg.
At Suse’s birthday party in Kiel we had discussed what a shame it was that I wouldn’t have any albums for Rudolstadt.
So Suse and three other friends decided they would go ahead and take care of this for me. Friday around noon, as I rubbed the sleep from my eyes, another new friend we’d made at my first show at Kiedorf arrived to our campsite with a heavy box. I was told to open it. Inside were 500 fresh copies of my album.
In the two weeks since her birthday, they’d researched CD duplication businesses, found one that would actually allow my friends to reproduce my work without me signing off on it, and had them mailed to Rudolstadt just in time for my day of gigs. To top it all off, the art on the CD itself is a funny little name-tag I had made at Suse’s party of myself as a green stick-figure with flaming-red beard and hair, cowboy boots, Texas flag (close enough) in one hand, and guitar in the other. A perfect and special German edition of my last album.
Happily, I sold enough CDs over the past three days of busking and proper gigging to completely reimburse my friends for what they spent, which was just over 600 euros. And there was still a good deal of money leftover to help me along my continued path.
And that fact helps relay just how successful my time in Rudolstadt was. As I mentioned, busking is encouraged around the entire city, and I did my fair share of it. There is a pedestrian bridge over the Saale very near where we were camped, which is one of the two predominant ways for festival-goers to get from the city and the varied shows and activities there to the beautiful park, where several more stages and vendors and workshops and so forth were located.
The bridge is complete with four semi-circular perches, extended out from the walkway, ideal for busking, and this became my favorite and most lucrative spot to stand and play.
Last night, before I went to perform at Kiedorf, I set up and hollered for an hour or so on the bridge, with a real nice crowd of people sitting and standing around me, clapping along, dancing, singing, contributing on harmonica, buying CDs, and throwing euros –– and two American greenbacks –– into my guitar case. Several faces from the bridge joined me late into the evening at the pub.
This pub was another highlight. Kiedorf is named after a local artist who, after several drinks too many one evening, was forcibly and angrily removed from the pub now bearing his name, then called Bogart’s, I believe, by Carl, a man of substantial size who is the barman and owner. Following this incident Kiedorf the artist began sending Carl these hand-drawn “angry barman” –– “der böse wirt” in German –– cartoons in the mail. The walls and ceiling are now completely covered with these special gifts to Carl, and he and Mr. Kiedorf are now close friends. Close enough to rename the bar in the artist’s honor.
Carl loves the States and, particularly, Texas. One night he had me play the same Stevie Ray Vaughn song, “Life by the Drop,” at least four times. And if it wasn’t Stevie, it was the insistence of any Townes van Zandt song I knew.
Save for the night of my arrival, my Guinness or Irish whiskey was on the house as compensation for my continued performances. Needless to say, this bar became the hand and I the boomerang during my time in Rudolstadt.
Rudolstadt was closed to the world during the East Germany years, but since the wall came down, Carl has been taking advantage of his freedom to travel and has enjoyed America several times. In addition to the cartoons, there are 20 or more U.S. license plates lining the top of the bar.
On one particularly long-evening-to-early-morning transition, an Irish lad and I were thirsting for a pint of the black stuff around 7 a.m., so we made our way with a young lovely to Kiedorf. The bar’s door was wide-open, and it looked as if the entire room had left of-a-sudden, mid-party, with glasses half-full on tables, cigarettes half-smoked in ashtrays, a money-pouch laying open and overflowing on the bar, and not a soul in sight.
My friend put 20 euros on the bartop and started pouring drinks. Carl emerged from his slumber in the kitchen, I guess, though I don’t actually know where he came from, and joined us behind the bar, where he promptly fell back asleep. For the next hour or two, I had the great pleasure of joyfully pouring my own pints of Guinness for the first time in my life. Sláinte.
Additionally, the music was fantastic every show I saw –– The Blind Boys of Alabama doing “Amazing Grace” to the “House of the Rising Sun” melody being one highlight for me –– the food was great, the people were greater. I got to jam with some amazing and diverse musicians, including Florian Betz, who accompanied me on a sun-drum, I believe he called it, for a performance of Townes’ “Waiting Around to Die” while busking in the park, and a fantastic harmonica player named Florian Escherlor from the band Electric Hoodoo for my last show at Kiedorf, and that perfect weather endured all week. Quite an experience. Best festival I’ve been to, hands down.
Imagine South By Southwest in a tiny German village of about 25,000 people, with no real traffic and no heat and no prescription-free eye-wear –– and, unfortunately, no Tito’s vodka trolly, which I would argue every town needs, festival or no.
But I am happy to report I still have about a third of my loving Żubrówka in-tow, and as long as I do, every trolly has the potential to become a vodka trolly, as well as a chance to communicate with the great beyond.
Perhaps I’ll check in on Juliet when I arrive in Verona. Surely she is of age by now.
July 8, 2013
En route to … somewhere