The phrase “hurry up and wait” is a good way to describe the motions of touring; drive for six hours, perform for one hour, then off to the next destination. This is the story of The Sterling Sister’s first tour across America in support of their full length album, Hale. It’s not really a story, but bits of notes written from inside a van, at the table in a truck stop that was in a different place but always looked the same.
Baltimore, MD. Sunday, July 28th, 4:00AM– About this time last year, I found myself in search of American folklores and in an isolated community of Swiss immigrants within the Appalachian mountains of West Virginia. This morning however, I woke up with a lousy hangover and to a guitarist that’s gone MIA for a tour that’s already 26 hours behind schedule and 1,200 miles away from the first show in Minneapolis. Expecting our savage string of bad luck to be over, I turn on the van to flickering dashboard lights and a dead engine; the Gods are clearly not among us today. The van owner drives over another vehicle that’s routinely used to transport dogs; the inside is littered with the trash of junk food, pool noodles, the immediate stench of urine with seats covered in animal hair and a cigarette-tinted windshield. I always knew I was a dog. We repack the van, drive over to corner store and I buy a greyhound bus ticket that will dump me on a hellish 27 hour bus ride to be stranded in Burlington, Vermont.
11:20AM– No amount of odor spray will ever rid this van of its stench but at least we’re on the road. The Pennsylvania mountains pass by slowly, tensions among us ease and spirits lift. Our bad luck fever has broke. Small towns and suburbs string along in different shapes and colors. A train like a silver snake glide west above the rivers and into mountains. The van rocks and sways like a boat at sea while the tire springs gallop like an overloaded horse.
6:10PM– Ohio is the land of corn and I somehow feel closer to the clouds here with their overlapping hues of brilliant blue and white. We take turns drifting to sleep long enough for the road bumps to startle us awake again. Earth grows darker, the land is becoming flat, incests crush themselves to a hasty death against the windshield, illuminated signs announce gasoline and coffee prices on repeat. Mike Spyros, a natural road dog, is our driver for the time being. He’s a lighthearted spirt with an amusing supply of dry wit such as “I don’t give a fuck!” and “Does it look like I give a fuck?” and “Why even give a fuck!”. His mother would be proud but I’d expect nothing less from a New York punk guitarist.
Minneapolis, MN. Monday, July 29th, 5:00PM– We finally arrived at 7th Street Entry, the iconic venue covered in silver stars naming past performers painted on the outside walls. Pleased to be out of the van, we quickly unload the equipment and setup the instruments on stage for a rigorous soundcheck. With plenty of downtime before show doors open, we eat dinner and settle in the green room which is throughly painted black, except for the graffitied couches and a mirror blanketed with band stickers. The fridge was not as useless as the mirror as it was full of beer.
7:00PM– The band spends time listing an hour long setlist as frontman singer and guitarist George Cessna prepares his stage outfit. He slips on a clean black western suit coat over an embroidered western shirt with pearl buttons that is tucked into polyester slacks. Standing tall at six feet four inches and swaying on the back heels of his cowboy boots, he tightens his belt with a gold horse motif buckle and adjusts his western bow tie. He’s a bona fide country musician and the youthful protégé of his father Slim Cessna, singer of the iconic alt-country band, Slim Cessna’s Auto Club. Similar to his fathers band, George has co-nurtured a genre-defying sound that stumps every album review of Hale into multiple country sub-genres. Formed by art students of MICA, the Sterling Sisters are a neotraditional county band with a gothic overtone that’s influenced by both art-punk and post-punk scenes or now loosely defined as “Dark Americana”. Bass player and co-singer Scout Paré-Phillips is the gothic operatic edge to their sound. With a black leather sui generis sense of style, Scout resembles a modern-age Cleopatra; straight bangs with long black hair, vivid sunburst hazel eyes above two golden septum rings, fingers wrapped in elegant pieces of silver jewelry and a dagger rosary necklace. She’s also a renaissance woman of sorts: a photographer, model, avant neofolk musician, and a studying fashion designer and teacher.
10:00PM– George throws on his ragged cowboy hat and the band takes the stage to a packed venue. Cory Hughes begins drumming a prelude and the first song ‘Hale’ erupts at the crowd like a sudden freak thunderstorm. George sings “My father told me stories that I tried to believe” as Scout’s operatic harmony reinforces his sermon-like tone. The song ends on a high rush and the crowd is enthralled by their introduction–I don’t think ol’ Hank ever done it this way. Cory thumps and taps at a precise rodeo-styled tempo as ‘Raised You in the West’ unravels into a gloomy Erskine Caldwell story declaring “I taught you how to love, I tried my very best, to purify your blood”. Andrew Haas’s banjo song ‘Dead Dogs’ shines as he poetically sings “Dead dogs don’t walk at night, I know”. Next up, George and Scout untangle a love letter-like plea in duet on ‘Country Love’ singing “And I won’t give it up, cause your the one I want, and are you still happy there?”. The closing song ‘Heaven‘ is a fierce spaghetti western with George singing “Heaven makes me tremble when I sing” and then barks “Ah goddamn!” as their instruments turn rabid and uproar into feverish climax of sounds. The crowd wildly applaud and cheer as the four withdraw behind stage curtains.
New Buffalo, MN. Wednesday, July 31st, 1:38AM– The band played their second show in Chicago and we’re now at a dumpy motel with the bible missing from its typical nightstand drawer. The next misplaced room item will be the kicked-in bathroom door and the shower curtain riddled with cigarette holes. At least the pastel painting of lighthouses are screwed to the wall and TV remote lassoed to the table.
Toledo, Ohio. 4:39PM– Change of plans. I’m being dropped off a day early in Toledo instead of Detroit as the band crosses into Canada to perform in London, Toronto and Ottawa. I don’t have a passport so I’ll meet back up with them at their sixth show in Burlington, Vermont. My ticket routes me nonstop from Toledo to New York City, then to Boston and finally to Burlington, Vermont. With $53 to my name, I’ve become nauseous at the ill-prepared thought of being stranded in America. I’ve done this before but not like this.
Burlington, Vermont. Thursday, August 1st, 9:03PM– After 26 hours covering nearly 1,100 miles inside a greyhound bus, I’m finally in Burlington. The sun is quickly setting and a heavy storm is over the horizon. All six of my Couchsurfing requests fell through including the one I was walking to. The feeling of doom hits me. My arrival, was badly timed.
Friday, August 2nd, 12:45PM– Last night was a brutal introduction to my four day transient situation. It began with an angry skunk chasing me off a bench and across a parking lot. Then a hectic storm drenched me along with everything dry for me to sleep on and I still don’t know a damn person here. I walked into an empty parking garage and up to the top flight of stairs, which afforded me an hour of sleep before a security guard blinded me with his flashlight and escorted me out. I knew it wouldn’t be that simple. As a stray dog would, I found myself in the secluded area of a park, leaning against a wall on a steep hill, overlooking the rolling thunder that violently illuminates Lake Champlain. The tall grass was soaked and I began to shiver as my bones ached and my eyelids become heavy with fatigue. Despite being exhausted, I was unable to sleep and again found myself wandering along the soggy streets to a bus stop were I sat for long time gazing at a map of Vermont. On the brink of feeling defeated, I noticed on the map that Burlington International Airport was about four miles West of me. So my choices were to shiver ‘til sunrise or trudge over to the airport: I looked at my wrist compass and headed West. Four miles later and inside the bathroom at the airport, I changed into a gray button-up shirt and began my role as sleepy passenger waiting for flight. For an international airport, it’s strangely empty and without a security camera or guard in sight. A long row of white-painted porch rocking chairs faced the windows that overlook the runway. I sat in the middle chair and slept without disturbance for nine hours. I woke up to the sight and sound of airplanes landing as warm sunlight beamed onto my face and across the carpet. There is a calmness, even a numbness inside here; empty couches that run down empty hallways to areal photos that decorate the walls of large, empty rooms. This place is as tranquil as a cemetery and rivals a roomy stay at a Hilton hotel.
4:00PM– The lands edge of Vermont slowly diminishes from the back of a Lake Champlain ferry boat, I feed the binocular machine a quarter and watch the seagulls drift around the sky. The sun glisters across Prussian blue water full of sailboats as the wind turns my cheeks rosy red and breezes through the holes of my boots. I ask the man next to me if he would help me find the loch ness monster and he laughs for a long time. “I don’t know where to begin looking” he chuckles through his windy beard. “When I catch that monster, you’ll be the first one invited to the cookout.” I respond. John is wearing the traditional Mennonite attire; a black vest over a dark blue button-up shirt and a straw hat. His wife and baby daughter are dressed alike in a simple black dress and bonnet. We talk a bit about the “amish computer” I read about online and ask him where he’s headed, “Back to my home” he says softly. An hour later, the ferry docks at Port Kent, I thank him for the sandwich and we exchange our goodbyes. There is nothing here but a house and a road surrounded by trees and so, I head back to Burlington.
6:30PM– In a twist of fate, I met Bruno who has already spent over a month stranded in Burlington. From France, he only intended a short summer in Quebec, Canada, but that was before a metal glam band noticed his technical guitar skills and recruited him on a midwest tour of America. On his way back into Canada and unbeknownst to Bruno, the Canadian government required work permits to re-enter and the the band was forced to ditch him in Burlington, Vermont. Since then, he has been working odd jobs around the city to purchase a ticket back to France and fears that Canada might ban him for two years. With long dark brown hair you’d expect from a metalhead, a Def Leopard shirt and a thick french-english accent, Bruno is a trustworthy and eccentric kind of guy.
We head over to a party where gallon jugs of wine flow like water and we drink as much as the cheap taste of wine will allow us to gulp down. Instead of the airport, I sleep at Bruno’s place; a silver painted concrete room within a garage stockpiled with objects that’s sold at a treasure junk store down the street. Think Goodwill on steroids. On a tiny mattress under a makeshift bunk-bed, my feet lay squashed against a large gold-framed painting of Napoleon on a horse.
Saturday, August 3rd– It’s fitting that I’d be stranded in Burlington during the Festival of Fools, an event hosting offbeat street performers and musicians from around the country. Large knives and fiery batons fill the air as elaborately dressed aliens roam the street with a megaphone inviting bystanders to live on their spaceship. I found out later that they planned on turning their new tenants into dog food. At the grocery store, I gobble down apples and scribbled out Sterling Sister posters on notebook paper to tape onto coffee shop windows. Nighttime arrives and the all of street performers have relocated to a small bar. A live band performing New Orleans style music can barely keep up with the energy of the people inside. Women dance on tables and men spend their hard-earned street donations on alcohol. Conversations are unfiltered and there’s nowhere else I’d rather be right now, Burlington is truly the land of easy going.
Sunday, August 4th– I stick out a hitchhiking thumb as the Sterling Sisters dog van passes by me howling and waving with joy to see me alive. I appear a bit wild-eyed to them but I’m thrilled to be back with a camera slung over my shoulder and my hands carrying guitar cases.
Pittsburgh, PA. Saturday, August 10th– The next five shows come and go like clockwork and we find ourselves at the last performance at the Rex Theater. Not too far from the venue, George grew up in a house that sits on a steep hill with a winding road. He’s in the kitchen holding his cowboy hat over a boiling pot of water, bending it back into shape after being crushed by a backpack. With the tour over, we trade old family stories and drink a few beers before heading upstairs to sleep. The next morning, we pack up the van and head back to Baltimore.