Friday, August 29, 2008

KIlling The Blues In Tahoe (Robert Plant and Allison Krauss 6.28.08)

Always a fan of Robert Plant, I eagerly picked up the Raising Sand release last year. I figured the collaboration with Allison Krauss would go under the radar and he'd get back to his work with Strange Sensation with whom he released two fine discs recently. I immediately loved Raising Sand and wondered about a tour or some one-off shows here and there. I was surprised that many others shared my interest in the album and it became somewhat of a surprise hit, getting airplay on country stations alongside the watered down rock and roll that passes for that genre these days. Have you seen a country video in the last few years? I suppose it's good that the directors of those old Poison and Dokken clips are getting work again.

I silently decided that if a tour was to happen that I'd consider taking my wife to a show if it worked out and forgot about it. Then, in February, I saw the edition of Crossroads featuring Plant and Krauss performing live on CMT. I knew that I'd enjoy the Raising Sand material but the reworked and rearranged Led Zeppelin tunes featuring Krauss amazed me. Robert Plant seemed to really enjoy himself being somewhat of a music historian if not at least a man with a passion for American music. It was a cinch now that we'd make every effort to see a live show featuring these two and as a tour was announced I eagerly awaited the announcement of the dates.

Tickets for regional shows went on sale in March.The only weekend date that worked for us was a Saturday night show in Lake Tahoe at Harvey's outdoor amphitheater and after a very brief discussion, it was decided that we could make a nice weekend out of the trip so we'd get a pair of tickets when they went on sale. That happened with no grief as I was Johnny On The Spot as usual, sitting in front of my computer hitting the refresh button on the Ticketbastard website at 9:59am on the initial on sale morning. When it's big for me, you'll find me there at the desk with my coffee and a two day's worth of stubble, having done my seating chart research and making sure no other programs are running so as not to slow the search for tickets. I've put golf tee times off until after 10:00 before because of this and when friends ask why I don't just get tickets later, I shudder and stammer something about them being completely insane.

After securing seats, I began the search for a hotel room. We prefer to stay within stumbling distance from venues whenever possible and naturally I started with Harvey's Hotel and Casino since that's where the show was. It had been years since we'd been to Tahoe and that was a whirlwind weekend for a wedding so we didn't really experience all that the area has to offer. The one thing I did remember is that Lake Tahoe is not Las Vegas: there are a handful of hotel/casinos and the atmosphere is very different. I clicked on Harvey's website and was pleased to see that the property featured a Cabo Wabo Cantina, one of Sammy Hagar's ventures and a Hard Rock Cafe which we always enjoy. I clicked on room reservations and punched up the date of the show....

Coffee almost went all over my monitor but instead went up my nose and burned the back of my throat as I came close to a classic movie style "spit take" when I saw the prices. They wanted $349 for Saturday night! What? I looked at the rest of the calendar month to see that mid-week prices ranged from $79 to $119. What a racket. Not being familiar with the area, I was now in for some intense education of the region and accommodations. I found a Best Western resort 3 1/2 blocks from Harvey's on the California side of Tahoe for a reasonable price and gave Harvey's and the other casino properties the bird.

That was back in March, so we fast forward to June here. In that time, I had started a new job that had me traveling all over central California and I was a little concerned about being home at a reasonable time that Friday to make the drive up to Lake Tahoe. As it turned out, my boss was very appreciative of the work and extensive travel I'd done for him and I was done that Friday by ten in the morning. Mary worked her week out so that she was done early too and we were ready to roll by noon.

The recent fires in California have made for some terrible conditions and we both had cold and allergy-like symptoms the week before the show. I actually felt like I was getting sick but was psyching myself out that it was just the air. We laughed in the days before the trip that we'd just drink our way through the malady that weekend and work on getting better the week after. Sitting here writing the early parts of this edition feeling like shit makes me wonder if I got what I asked for.

As I mentioned above, we hadn't been to Tahoe in some time and a friend gave us a route to take that he said shaved an hour off of the drive. I was all ears, especially as we weren't looking forward to the ugly Highway 99 Friday traffic. We took his hand written notes with the GPS as a back up just in case and hit the road on a hazy and smoky afternoon that looked like a foggy day in January through the windshield of the car with the air conditioner on full blast.

We got off of 99 north of Modesto and headed east. We zipped along two lane roads through farmland and began our way up into rolling hills. Taking the instructed turns, we found ourselves passing through adorable foothill communities that had maintained their historic Main Streets. Then we hit some mountainous roads with hairpin turns along the American River that had us maintaining an average speed of 20mph and we wondered how we could possibly be saving an hour up here. We were especially taken with downtown Placerville and noticed signs for a Blues and Brews festival that would take place on the closed downtown Main Street that would interfere with our show Saturday, but made note of the idea to get back up here for other events. Getting onto Highway 50 out of Placerville had us on the home stretch and after all the winding roads, we were happy to get onto a road where we could open it up a bit.

Traffic was light and we made good time on 50. The air quality was also steadily improving and we were on the lookout for blue skies instead of brown. I'd forgotten how beautiful the mountains are in northern California and we made a pact to visit the area more often. We swooped down into South Lake Tahoe and pulled into the parking lot of the hotel. We parked and walked back to office to check in and nodded to many Harley-Davidson riders congregating in the parking lot. The pool area was alive with people frolicking about and laughing while a guy played sang classic rock hits and played his Casio over a P.A. with ease. "Looks like this is the place", I smiled.

We checked in and unpacked. We had stopped at a grocery store moments before to pick up some beer and bottled water. We popped open a couple of brews as we freshened up and toasted to our little getaway. The room was tiny but nice and an entirely mirrored wall lent to the illusion of a bigger dwelling. It also provided me with plenty of blue comments about the action later that night, but I'll be a gentleman here and spare my wife the embarrassment. 'Nuff said....

We made the short trek over to Harvey's and decided that we'd check out Cabo Wabo. It was fairly early still and it wasn't very busy but the waitress took good care of us. While my wife enjoys her Irish whiskey, we're mainly beer and wine folks but we figured we'd better have some of Sammy's Cabo Wabo tequila. We got some shots and beers and again toasted our weekend. Some food and a couple of rounds later, a woman came over and took one of those touristy souvenir photos that came out good enough to buy. Great, now I was stuck carrying it around all night.

After dinner, we headed to the casino floor to get a feel for the place. We have just a few rules when it comes to choosing our blackjack table; no Asian dealers (or Terminators, as we refer to them--nothing personal here but they waylay us every time), no playing alongside septuagenarians wearing golden shoes to match their golden purse to match their golden nail polish, and we do try to sit next to each other for obvious reasons. After a couple of laps around the floor, we settled in together with me at first base at a $10 table. We'd already broken in for a hundy each before I looked at the dealer and realized he had the deck in his hand.

"Shit", I whispered to Mary. "Single deck, handheld. Haven't done that in a while".

She shrugged and gave me a look that said, "what the fuck, we're here".

I hadn't played single deck blackjack in years and hadn't counted cards at a table in double those years. I was never good at it because I prefer to play the basic strategy and counting cards becomes a chore. I like the action of gambling and the inherent risk; trying to get an edge seems like a dirty job with no glory when you punch out for the day.

Right away, the rust showed from all those years of playing a multi-deck shoe. I tapped the table for a hit instead of "scratching" my cards towards me, I kept forgetting to slide my hand under my chips to stand, and even tried to double down on forbidden hands otherwise allowed because of the draw from four to six decks.

But after a few rounds, we were old pros. The drinks kept coming and we kept tipping. Our pit boss took care to get us player's club membership and the dealers kept us playing with their charm and wit. Our Economic Stimulus Package was floating us for the night so we broke in again and again when the chips got low. I call my stacks of chips "the skyline" as it looks like a cityscape at times. This night, most of the time the skyline looked like the suburbs but I didn't care one bit. Until I noticed it was 3am.

We both suddenly became aware of the fact the each of us was a genius and we'd better hit the sack so as not to be too tired on Saturday for the show. Mary had been up for almost 24 hours at this point and I was closing in on around 22. We stumbled back across the state line and down the slightly sloped road to the Best Western. We tried to count the number of drinks we had all that day and kept interrupting each other with, "no, no, you forgot the round we had in the room while we were getting dressed" and "wait, there was the 2nd round of tequila shots at Sammy's". Trying to tally up the beer alone we had while playing cards was impossible so we decided to safely underestimate our alcohol total to be around 15-20 rounds! Safe to say I'm sure the local Coors Light distributor call a call on Saturday to restock Harvey's.

Saturday came crashing in with the sounds of children's infernal playful screams and thunderous footsteps out on our second story walkway. We both grumbled something about how fucking early it must be but when I rolled over to look at the clock radio, it read almost 10am. Even knowing that we'd gone to bed so late, it's strange for us to sleep past 7 or so on a day off so I stared at the clock for a moment not knowing what time it was or day for that matter. We layed there taking inventory of headaches, sandpaper tongues, and bloodshot eyes.

We laughed when I mentioned that we'd packed our golf clubs. Fools! We were in no shape to walk across the parking lot, much less drive a electric motor vehicle across grassy hills. We took our time getting dressed and decided to just walk around Tahoe a bit, get some lunch, and maybe do some shopping. We didn't get out of the room until just after noon.

The fresh air seemed to wage battle against my second hand smoke filled lungs and the bright sunshine made quick work to help my body rid itself of the poison alcohol through the pores of my skin. Making our way up to the main road, I felt a little wobbly and lightheaded. Mary was faring better than I was so I made no mention of it. We decided that lunch was in order and saw the revolving ads for restaurants on the higher floors of Harrah's and made our way there. Up to the 18th floor, we sat at a window table and had a great view of the lake and mountains, despite the slight haze of the California fires to the west. It was about 1:30 in the afternoon by now and I decided that I'd try a beer and see how it went down.

I was so dehydrated that drinking that beer was like sucking on wet cotton. Don't get me wrong, it tasted fine and was cold as it needed to be (the mountains on the new Coors Light temperature sensitive label were a deep azure blue), but the remaining brain cells from the night before were screaming at me because they hadn't even cleared the dead from the gray matter battlefield and here I was assaulting them again.

From our perch, we could see the venue at Harvey's across the street. It was a folding chair and bleacher filled amphitheater set up in what looked like a corner of their parking lot, not what I had pictured in my mind at all. It was also breezy and I was concerned about the sound swirling around on all that blacktop. I tend to sweat the details but this time I forced myself to not care and just let the day happen. We'd also spotted what looked like a craft fair on the street below and thought it would be a nice distraction. On the elevator down, it was decided that we'd take a peek at the amphitheater too.

The craft fair sucked as most of them do but we found a booth where a guy was selling knock off prints of artist Michael Godard that were nicely framed and fairly priced. We thought about getting one as we strode over to the amphitheater. Upon closer inspection through the fence, the stage was quite large and the sound system looked quite capable of cutting though the breeze. Someone was pounding on a single drum, the haunting echoey boom of soundcheck. We went back into the craft fair and picked up the print and made our way back out onto the main street to visit some shops and then head back to the room to shower and change for the night. We popped into a local gallery that featured actual Godard works and when the shopkeeper noticed my bag, he noted that we'd already done some art buying and could he see it. I chuckled, a little embarrassed to show him this bootleg Godard but he was very polite when he asked if I realized it was a knock off. I told him of course, but it suited our needs at this time. He was very complimentary of our choice of work and then asked if we'd like to see some real stuff and we spent about a half hour in a back area of the gallery viewing limited edition prints and other pieces. Too pricey for us right now, but we vowed to one day get some good stuff.

Back in the room in the late afternoon, we opened a bottle of wine and tried to relax, maybe even sneak in a nap before the evening. We watched a meaningless baseball game and reclined on the bed but sleep would not come. We got showered and changed, finished our wine and then made that walk back to Harvey's. We decided to eat at the Hard Rock Cafe this time and it was packed with concert goers; you could tell by all the women with their boobs pushed up and out of short dresses and the pot bellied guys wearing black Tommy Bahama shirts, the standard uniforms for middle aged rockers.

Once done with our dinner and drinks (Mary opting for whiskey this time), we decided we could squeeze in a little more blackjack before the show and we sat down at a table right outside the Hard Rock. The dealer was a very nice woman that we'd noticed the night before due to her very butchy haircut and she was very chatty and personable. She asked if we were going to the show and mentioned that she knew the names but not the music. She started to tell us a story about her son-in-law driving through the mountains the day before. I looked at Mary and wondered where this tangent came from, but continued to listen. Apparently, her son-in-law came upon and straggly looking old hippie broken down on the side of the road and stopped to see if he needed help. It was just a flat tire, so he was able to change it for the old guy quickly an easily. It was a rental car, the hippie explained, and he had no idea of what to do up there in the middle of nowhere. The conversation as explained to us is paraphrased here:

"You don't know who I am, do you?", said the hippie.

The young man said, "no, sorry". The old man asked him if he had plans for Saturday night. This surprised the young man and when the hippie sensed that it was an odd question, he identified himself.

"My name is Robert Plant and I'm playing a concert in Lake Tahoe tomorrow night and I'd like to give you some tickets as a thank you for stopping."

So, the son-in-law gave Plant his name and he now had excellent seats and backstage passes to the show. The blackjack dealer said her son-in-law is just like that to stop and help and many others from the area are as well. I mentioned that I don't honestly know if I would have stopped and she told me not to feel bad because that's probably not an indication of who I am but how the world's made us out to be. Interesting.

I bottomed out fairly quickly but Mary was actually doing well. We knew we wanted to get to the show early and people watch, but I told her to ride out the cards for a while and see how it goes. She eventually took a turn for the worse and we ducked out to walk across the parking lot to the amphitheater. There was a pretty good line formed but was moving quickly. I listened to a lot of chatter in line and it seemed that many people thought this was a Robert Plant solo show and that "some chick named Allison Krauss" was the opening act. Now I anxiously awaited crowd reaction to what they would experience. Our tickets were scanned and we immediately bumped into a Coors Light vendor carrying my life's blood in a cooler styled like one of those old "cigarette girl" trays. What, not wait in line for a beer? I love Nevada.

Opening act Sharon Little had started and sounded good from the concourse as we looked at the t-shirts and got another beer. We strolled around a bit and decided to check out the opener from our seats and also have our bearings in case we were caught in the dash to seats after intermission. I can't stand looking for my seats with all the other drunken sheep during the first song or two. It's loud, dark, and inevitably some drunken mook is in my seat and I have to tap him on the shoulder, explain the situation and receive a "fuck you" glare when it's him that's made the error. Every. Single. Concert. Ever.

Sharon Little was very good and we vowed to buy her CD. What seemed to be folksy, acoustic tinged pop morphed later in her set into a loose and groovy jam. The breeze came in off the lake at dusk and Mary and I smiled at each other, knowing that each of us was glad to be there. She was fading a bit though after the wine, Jameson's, and beer so I decided to get her some water and something to munch on. A soft pretzel did the trick and she was back in the game shortly thereafter. We walked around the concourse a little bit longer and hit the port-a-pottys before returning to our seats. Note to Harvey's: let's look into putting some lights in the area where the bathrooms are. Once entombed in the pitch black plastic piss booth, you're on your own to get out of there dry.

The lights went down and the crowd roared while Mary was still in her Tupperware coffin. People waiting in line for the bathroom, food, beer, and t-shirts bolted for their seats as the opening notes of Rich Woman drifted to the back of the amphitheater. Mary exited and we calmly made our way through the drunk and confused to our seats. A tiny miracle provided me with no tank top wearing mouth breather in my seat and we settled in about halfway through the first song. The crowd erupted a few songs later when the retooled Black Dog chugged it's way into the set. I was very pleased that the crowd was responding positively to the stripped down and laid back Zeppelin tunes and the Raising Sand material. Apparently, most of us knew what we were getting into and the others I surmised were being very patient waiting for Plant to scream the opening to Immigrant Song. They would probably walk back to their cars wondering what the hell happened.

The set cruised along like a pleasant dream; much of Raising Sand was played and Krauss sprinkled in some solo tunes that I didn't recognize except for those from the O Brother Where Art Thou soundtrack. The Zeppelin tunes were given a different, if not new, life by Plant's subdued reworking and Krauss' touches here and there. She sang the lead on When The Levee Breaks to a great ovation and sang the Sandy Denny parts in Battle of Evermore with an eerie pitch that gave me chills (something that happened over and over by the way--the most times ever at a concert for me). For me, her most triumphant turn was a take on a tune I didn't recognize at first for some reason but turned out to be Trampled Rose, a Tom Waits song from Raising Sand. The slow, haunting dirge featured her voice soaring into the night air and hypnotized the entire audience.

The Raising Sand Travelling Revue (as Plant referred to the show) lasted almost two full hours and never lulled or swayed too far so as to lose any steam. Guitarist Buddy Miller was a highlight for me, subtle at times and bold at others. I made a note to pick up some of his work as well.

After the show, the masses filtered into the casino to keep partying but we were out of gas. I asked if Mary wanted to play some cards before bed but she sneered slightly and as I re-evaluated my own condition, I thought better of it as well. We walked like ghosts across the casino floor and out the front door, down the main drag and off into wooded street to our hotel. In the room, I decided a night cap was in order but Mary was already breathing deeply and softly, curled up in bed. I shrugged and poured myself a generous glass of red wine and turned on the tube. George Carlin had recently passed away and Saturday Night Live replaying the first ever episode which he hosted. I climbed in bed and reclined against a pile of pillows with my glass resting on my chest.

The next morning, we ran through the identical routine of checking hangover symptoms and reliving moments from the night before, laughing and smiling. Then I noticed the red stain on my pillow. A moment of panic had me thinking I was bleeding and I sat up in a flash. Mary looked horrified for a second until we both saw the wine glass on it's side next to my pillow. We busted up, relieved that it was just a little wine. Then she covered her mouth laughing and pointed at my shoulder. Glancing down, the entire right side of my chest and my right shoulder were stained pink. What the fuck? I then moved my pillow and we both gasped, "oh shit". Suffice it's doubtful that I even took one drink from that glass and passed out, dumping the entire thing across my chest and down onto the bed. A three foot stain looking not unlike the map of Idaho now adorned the sheets, and the mattress, while having the sheets take most of the drink, now could never be sold at a garage sale. How I didn't feel it, I can only blame Mary for forcing me to drink so much and I was lucky neither of us rolled over on that glass.

We both sat there silently and wondered what to tell the desk. We've all left hotel rooms in some imperfect condition but this was very noticable and I didn't want the maid to have a heart attack thinking she'd stumbled upon the scene of a murder. It was decided that we'd fess up and take our lumps if necessary. We packed up after showering and looked back in horror at that bed as we shut the door.

Upon check out, the lady at the desk was very cheery and asked us about our stay and did we have fun, etc. We both half-heartedly said that we did but I took a breath and looked her in the eye. She seemed a little startled by our somber demeanor.

"Uh, I feel like I should tell you that it appears that we spilled some wine last nig---"

"You spilled some wine last night", Mary blurted.

I cleared my throat, chuckling a little. "Yeah, I spilled some wine last night and wanted your staff to be aware of it."

"Okay, I see. Well that happens from time to time. We have some stuff that takes out stains. Is it on the carpet?", she asked calmly.

"No, it's, uh, on the bed", I mumbled.

"Oh...well I'm sure it's not that bad", she assured me.

I looked at Mary and she raised her eyebrows. I looked back at the clerk, "No, it looks like a crime scene in there". Her eyes widened a little. I continued, "So yeah, you might want to notify them before they walk in there...."

She made a note of it and when I asked if we would have to make any kind of restitution, she said the hotel assumes losses all the time unless it were something like throwing a TV out the window. I smiled at that notion, thinking I'd pulled a minor rock star move passing out with a drink but I don't have the balls for the TV move. We never did hear from the hotel so it's assumed we aren't on the hook for the mattress. None the less, I'm drinking white wine from a Dixie cup next time...