A funny thing happened on the way to the gig. A most stressful and bizarre day yesterday left us scrambling to honour ticket holders in Ithaca.
After a grand Saturday night in Burlington, Ontario, we rolled our tour bus and trailer of equipment to the Canada US Border, as we have done hundreds of times. We stopped at Immigration and showed our work Visas with no issue as we have done hundreds of times. The trouble started when we were asked about our equipment. The same equipment we have crossed with hundreds of times.
Now, I should note that what is to follow is not a critique of US or Canada Customs. Nor is it meant to persuade anyone that I know better than anyone working or administering the borders, because I don’t. I can only imagine how complicated it must be to safely and fairly immigrate and emigrate people and import and export goods and commercial property on that scale. Much Respect to US and Canada Customs.
Easiest way I can think to describe the conversation that went on for nearly 8 hours would be like this.
ME: Hello, we’d like to enter the US and play some concerts, please. Here are our work Visas and paperwork.
THEM: Hello, I see you’ve played here many times. Good luck with it… oh wait, one second. Do you have your blue sheet of paper for the equipment?
ME: No, we were told many years back we did not need the blue sheet because this is a bunch of personal tools not commercial equipment. And we have crossed dozens of times without having the blue sheet. See, here on the passport, we crossed last Friday into Denver where we they were clearly fine with us being non blue sheet people.
THEM: Well, today, you need a blue sheet. No problem, just go get one and you’ll be on your way.
ME: Ok. But it is Sunday. All the blue sheet people are off today.
THEM: Oh. That is going to cause a problem for you. Sorry about that. Again, you are all free to enter and perform, but your equipment, bus and trailer must stay till you get the blue sheet. Have a great day.
ME: Thanks. We’ll get a blue sheet and try to figure how we can still do the concert with no gear.
THEM: How are you going to do that?
ME: I really have no idea.
THEM: Good Luck.
ME: Thank you.
So, we retreat to the parking lots of purgatory. Those are the places where you can stop and be in neither the US nor Canada. We scrambled to make some kind of plan. We tried everything we could to get a blue sheet person to work on a Sunday, but it proved impossible.
By now it was 2 in the afternoon. We’d been there for 6 hours and the first suggestions arose that we’d have to cancel the show in Ithaca. Long time readers of this blog will know my policy on cancelling shows. I wrote once about an ill fated trip to Alberta which took 24 hours instead of 7 and had me get on stage 3 hours late, to a jubilant gang who so patiently waited for me. I wrote something like this;
‘I got in the music business to play concerts. I did not get in the music business to find good excuses not to play concerts.’
So, when the suggestion came up that we might have to call the promoter in Ithaca and tell him to send people home, my response was simple (pardon my language)
‘No f—king way.’
We brainstormed how we could do it and almost every proposed solution met a road block.
We’ll get a hire car to drive us there…nope, takes three hours to get one here from TO.
We’ll rent a car in Fort Erie and drive our selves…nope, we drove the bus and trailer to the Rental Car Company, but it was closed on Sunday.
Again the suggestion that we might have to cancel.
‘No f—king way.’
It went on.
We’ll rent local gear and gut it out…nope, the rental store is closed on Sunday.
Andy, our tour manager got on the phone with the club owner and explained the predicament.
‘He can borrow an acoustic guitar and electric guitar and an amplifier.’ He said.
‘We’ll take it.’ I said.
Andy turned and explained that we’d try to make it happen in some form but we might be late getting there.
‘No f—king way.’ I was admittedly over doing at this point. ‘We’re starting on time.’
It was explained to me that it was now approaching 3pm and Ithaca was 3 hours away and our show time was 7. No problem, except we still did not have any way to get there.
Someone on the bus knew someone in St Catherine’s who had a pal in Fort Erie who owned a van. A few texts later and some gent agreed to leave his family supper for a very modest fee and drive us to Ithaca.
I won’t say too much about him because he may or may not want to be identified in this story. I can say that he showed up on time and drove us with perfect professional accuracy. I can say he was an extremely pleasant man. I will be forever grateful to him.
In truth, I was so pumped on adrenaline, that I barely looked at the guy. I shook his hand and jumped in. He did, in retrospect look a bit like the loveable ‘Shaggy’ in Scooby Doo, so lets call him Shaggy.
Our plan was to take me, Cory and Kendel, along with our sound guy Johnny and bolt for the club. I would use the acoustic guitar for the whole show, (I usually use three, as well as bouzouki, mandolin, and electric guitar). Cory would use the borrowed electric guitar and amp, (he ususally uses two electrics, a very specific modified amp, acoustic guitar and mandolin). Kendel would play her own fiddle (which we would beg exception for at the border as it is a very fragile antique that cannot be left in a warehouse overnight to wait for the blue sheet.)
We rolled back to the border and were held for a brief incarceration. I honestly think they admired our tenacity. A few of them even joked they bet it would be an excellent gig if we got there as we seemed so determined to put it off. It was unsettling, but it seemed to be going well enough.
I do confess however to having a moment at Customs as we sat there in the holding area while they searched Shaggy’s car. And it was not a pleasant moment. I looked across at Shaggy as he smiled nonchalantly and I realized something quite unsettling.
I have absolutely no idea who this person is.
I am crossing an international border with someone who does not have, to my knowledge, a professional limo or taxi license, so we are with him personally. And I have no idea who he is, where he comes from, what he does for a living.
He did have a NEXUS card as trusted traveller, so that was reassuring. But I wondered if I was the unknowing patsy in a grand plot in a 1980’s Bruce Willis movie, and soon SWAT teams would blast through the window arms raised, shouting, “Agent Orange, please surrender!!” or something like that.
After searching the cart and finding nothing untoward, other than the aforementioned fiddle, they agreed to let us proceed. I remain grateful to them. But just as we were leaving they stopped us short.
‘One moment. Ah…Mr Shaggy. What do you do for a living?’
I literally froze in my steps and involuntarily clenched my bum. What had they found? Who was this mystery man?
Mr Shaggy turned without a skipped breath.
‘I work for a food bank in Fort Erie.’
The customs officers all smiled and almost said ‘Ahh’
I could have kissed Shaggy on the spot. A food bank?!?! Who says no to a fella who works for a food bank. Spectacular.
So, we were in.
It was now almost 4pm and Ithaca was at least 2 ½ hours drive away, so we’d have to bolt to make the 7 pm start.
‘Won’t matter if we are a few minutes late.’ Someone suggested.
‘No f—king way’. I was being overzealous now, but I wanted to gun for on time for some latent professional reason.
It was a beautiful drive through what I believe is called the Finger Lakes. The Fall colours made the stress of the day a bit more bearable, for sure.
We pulled into the parking lot of The Dock in Ithaca at 6:35. We were greeted by the local promoter who could not believe we’d made it. We opened the side door and walked right onto the stage to thunderous applause of the audience who’s been following us on Twitter the whole day.
Kendel plugged in her fiddle. I plugged in the borrowed acoustic. Cory plugged in the borrowed electric guitar and amp. It was awkward, but they all worked.
At 6:50, we ran offstage and changed into our stage clothes.
‘You need a few extra minutes?’ the promoter stuck his head into the wee side stage dressing room.
‘No f—king…ah…no, sir. We don’t.’ I smiled at Cory and Kendel.
At 6:59 Cory kissed mine and Kendel’s faces.
At 7 pm the Alan Doyle and the Beautiful Gypsies show started on schedule.
We were supposed to take a break at 8, but we played straight for about 2 ½ hours and left to a standing ovation.
The promoter said it was the best show he’s ever seen in there.
I cannot tell you how grateful I am to the people at the club for letting us play with whatever we had. I cannot tell you how grateful I am to Shaggy for his efforts. I could never tell you how grateful I am to Kendel and Cory and Johnny for performing at the highest standards no matter what obstacles the day threw at them. They are serious professionals, all of them. And I’m lucky to have them with me, for sure.
Happy to announce that the Blue Sheet office opened yesterday and we got the documents to satisfy all hands. The bus carrying the rest of the band and crew rolled into the US yesterday without incident. We be celebrating the reunion and drummer Kris MacFarlane’s birthday tonight at the gig in Wilkes Barre.
All together again. Thankfully.
Tonight, and onwards, it is business as usual.
Or as usual as it gets in the music business.