Fred Eaglesmith's Traveling Circus Hits the Mucky Duck
Fred Eaglesmith's tour bus is as rock and roll as he is.
Photos by William Michael Smith
Fred Eaglesmith McGonigel's Mucky Duck January 27, 2015
Nothing renews the faith in rock and roll like a Fred Eaglesmith show or a visit with the man himself. Just the sight of his beat-up Woodstock-ish, school-bus tour ride parked in front of the Mucky Duck is like seeing a big middle finger raised at the music business as it exists in 2015.
Eaglesmith is blissfully oblivious to industry trends. Mention Sturgill Simpson and he gives you that "Who?" look.
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With 40 years of constant touring behind him, Eaglesmith has built a franchise, a medicine show, a self-sustaining traveling circus.
"You should talk to so-and-so about such-and-such festival."
"Nah, I think we're mostly done with festivals," says Eaglesmith from the bunk in the Woodstock bus. "My fans don't want to see me on some side stage at four in the afternoon. It's usually tough to load in and out, you've got to deal with all these volunteers, the festival experience has just never really been what it is cracked up to be, for us anyway. I've kinda built a fan base that wants to see us, not us and eight other bands. It's kind of an intimate thing in a way, and I like that."
Eaglesmith informs us that of the 220 dates he worked in 2014, "about 80" were gigs at Canadian legion halls in the hinterland.
"In Canada, the legion halls are a little nicer than they tend to be in the States," he explains. "So we'll rent one, put out signs along the highway that say 'Fred Eaglesmith Thursday night,' we put out the chairs ourselves, take the ticket money ourselves, and we just have a show. No security, and sometimes we don't even have alcohol, so it's like back in the Fifties where people go out to the parking lot to their cars to have a snort if they want one."
"We did 80 of these last year on our own, promoted them ourselves, ran them ourselves, no trouble, no fights, no cops -- it's just great," continues Eaglesmith. "It takes on this old time rock and roll atmosphere."
In fact, rock and roll is a term that pops up in conversation with Eaglesmith again and again.
"I played this festival last year and this big guy with dreads, he's directing all the traffic. So these big tour buses, he's waving them in to the band area, but when I pull up there in my dirty little bus with the mud on it, he waves me to the camp-ground," he recounts. "I literally had to show this guy that we were one of the bands. Hell, I'm the one who's about rock and roll. The way we travel and do this, this is rock and roll. A lot of that stuff, it's not rock and roll."
"I'm not a huge fan of Bob Lefsetz [author of a widely read industry newsletter], but he nailed it when he says music and the music business isn't going to get any better until musicians start doing it because they want to and doing it for the crowd rather than for the money and for other musicians again."
"You ever notice in YouTube videos of bands playing at festivals how they're always looking offstage to see who's watching them?", he asks. "They're playing for other musicians, you know, not playing for the crowd. It's like, 'Is that Jack White watching us?' rather than "Are we having fun and is the crowd into it.' That's not rock and roll."
Eaglesmith recalls being on a cruise with Delbert McClinton.
"Delbert tells me he's somewhat disillusioned with the whole business," says Eaglesmith. "That's terribly sad to me. So I have to tell you, I'm not disillusioned, I like what I do and I like how we do it. I signed on over 40 years ago to be a rock and roller, and today that's where I see us, we're doing rock and roll and doing it the right way. In fact, the way we're doing it is very liberating and self-sustaining because we really are a grass roots thing, not some act manufactured to fit in say the Americana genre."
"This isn't some hobby with us," says Eaglesmith as his band members floss their teeth, adjust their costumes, apply lipstick and eyeliner in the rear of the crowded bus. "My drummer has been with me 14 years now, only one member of my band has been with us less than five years. We've built a family thing, we look after each other, we've built a community with our fans, we actually genuinely like our fans. This is rock and roll."
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Once onstage, there is a decided steampunk aura around the ensemble. Eaglesmith seems on fire with the spirit of rock and roll and just the joy of doing the job as he jokingly chides the crowd.
"You guys seem a little subdued in here tonight," Eaglesmith baits his hook. "Oh, I forgot, we're in Houston...I get it. Oil."
He roars through titles old and new -- "Codeine," ""Cigarette Machine," "Wilder Than Her," "49 Tons" -- with renewed vigor vis a vis his previous show. The SRO crowd is eating it up, even the continual jokes about the age and generation of the crowd.
"You're the generation who got naked in the mud at Woodstock, you understand how to rock and roll."
"I know I make a lot of jokes about the age of the crowd, but I'm so glad to have you guys as my crowd, I'm so glad to have a crowd that will come out on a Tuesday, that will actually be quiet and listen to my lyrics and appreciate them. I'm just so happy not to be staring out at a sea of people checking their phones. Now that's really rock and roll."
During his encore, Eaglesmith addresses the crowd again.
"I'm so happy that I get to do this every night and that you guys make it possible for me to do this. It makes me feel like an endangered species that gets to live one more day, and for that I thank you all."
Offstage, Eaglesmith mingles with the lingering crowd, pausing for pictures of his black-and-white striped boots, autographing vinyl, laughing at old memories from previous gigs, posing for pictures by his relic of a tour bus until it is time for the circus to depart.
"I'd love to stay and chat more," says Eaglesmith, "but we've got to be in Oklahoma tomorrow night. Now that's rock and roll."
Personal Bias: I'm so glad Eaglesmith is Canadian so he can never be put in that useless pigeonhole of popularity known as Americana.
The Crowd: The Woodstock generation. Polite, quiet, listening. Yeah, I know, kinda strange for Houston.
Overheard In the Crowd: By a guy wearing a new Shinyribs ballcap: "This guy is as funny as Shinyribs."
Random Notebook Dump: "He smells like horses and he chews tobacco / And he cusses and he spits."
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