A State Fair Romance
By my count, I performed six sets in 24 hours of Iowa State Fair this weekend, each more rock ‘n roll than the one prior. That said, I’ve never been one for arithmetic. And anyway, my abilities may not be the best; I am operating on one hour of sleep. And yes, a few beers are still finding their way out of my blood stream. Still.
Abbi and I arrived Des Moines late Friday, spotting the Technicolor ferris wheel as we descended through the sticky Iowa night. In the morning, we drove east across the great, flat midlands of Iowa to Waterloo, where both of my parents grew up. We visited my grandparent’s grave and sat a while looking out at the rolling cornfields as the wind rustled leaves overhead, then drove past their old house, and onward to a Wagner Family Reunion. After an afternoon of hamburgers, hot dogs and catching up, my cousin, Chicago-based singer/songwriter Andy Wagner and I performed an impromptu set (rehearsal for Sunday big Iowa State Fair performance, really) for our typically short-on-words grandparents. Screen doors slammed, toddlers screamed and somersaulted in front of us, but our grandparents sat quietly by, listening intently (if uncomfortably) and even pitching in for our “Leaving on a Jet Plane” sing-a-long encore.
Abbi and I pulled onto Highway 20 and pointed ourselves straight into the setting sun just before seven o’clock, hell bent on making The Nadas nine o’clock set — their last of six State Fair shows. I studied (crammed, really) lyrics to “Listen Through The Static” for one-hundred, wide-open, pedal-down, stormy-skied miles. We pulled into the fairground a few minutes before nine, strode hand-in-hand through the midway, and stepped up to the stage just as the boys began their set. Mike mouthed to Jason over the music, “B. Wags is here!” Moments later — some four years from the day The Nadas first yanked me onto their State Fair stage — I was pitching in a verse and harmonies for thousands of screaming fans. The set ended as the nightly fireworks lit up the fairgrounds.
We spilled out onto the midway, Jason acting as late-night culinary tour guide. (The Fair, we would come to learn, is all about eating. In all, Abbi and I sampled corn dogs, eggs on-a-stick, pork chops on-a-stick, pulled-pork sandwiches, pickle dogs, homemade ice cream, and beer — lots and lots of beer. We skipped the deep-fried cheese curds and chocolate-covered bacon, however.) We moved on a tented, Mexican-themed beer garden (where the bartender, Rhonda, a) told me I didn’t look like a Corona guy b) randomly and without solicitation offered that she’d hooked up with Tommy Lee the weekend prior and c) gave me a free round),
Sunday morning came quickly (and with the aid of my morning cocktail: coffee, Advil, Excedrin, and a multivitamin). Andy and I were scheduled to take the Anderson Erickson Stage at noon sharp to kick off Authentic Records Artists Day and the release of the label’s Nadas tribute album, “Crystalline” (which you should order at Authentic Records Online now!). The Nadas are nonplussed by deadlines, though. Little wonder, then, that Mike, Jason, Hello Dave front man Mike Himebaugh and I casually pulled onto the fairground at 11:37.
Andrew and I played a dozen songs to a scattered amphitheater crowd of friends, family and fairgoers. The scene was slightly reminiscent of the part in “This Is Spinal Tap” in which the band performs “second-billing to a puppet show” at a third-rate amusement park (though, fortunately, there was no one flipping us the bird from the third row). The amplification was good, the space was big, the sun was struggling through the clouds, and my spirits were high, though. I let my voice soar, grinned through my lyrics, and even vamped a little bit for Iowa Public Television’s multi-camera shoot.
Bonne Finken lent “Killing The Blues” some soul, then cellist Patrick Riley joined us midway through the set to tackle “How To Be Alone” from “The Invention Of Everything Else” for the first time ever, then stuck with us through the bitter end, valiantly navigating his way through unrehearsed and — in a few cases — unplanned songs. The sun finally broke through the haze as we performed “I Can See Clearly Now.” By the time Jason and Mike piled onstage to help me finish big with “Dear Elizabeth,” it was officially a bright, sunshiny day. (That Mike told me afterwords that our collective performance of “Elizabeth” gave him goosebumps made it only more so.)
My adrenaline buzz settled as Abbi and I wandered the fairground. We saw a life-size butter sculpture of a cow, oggled prize-winning fruits and vegetables, visited the state’s largest boar (a four and a half year-old 1,117 pound pig from Ames named Buddy), and walked rows upon rows of cattle, horse, pig and chicken stalls crowded with young, freckle-faced 4H kids with t-shirts that read “Rockin’ & Livestockin’.” Many were crashed out on cots, or ankle-deep in manure tapping at their iPhones. Abbi relished all of it, smiling and laughing and pulling me from the llama and elk to the blackberry jam and lemonade stand. She was my state fair romance.
Meanwhile, Authentic Artists were in full swing back at the AE Stage. Mike Himebaugh delivered a rockin’, semi-acoustic set before stage manager Skylar pulled me aside and said, “We need you to ‘tweener.”
“Yunno, as in ‘in between.’ We need you to play a few songs while we set up the next band, She Swings, She Sways.”
There I was, then, seven minutes later, back onstage for a quick run through “California,” “St. Anne” and “Radio.” Two hours (and many Miller High Lifes) later, I was tapped to perform another mini-set after in between Chicago singer/songwriter Dick Prall (who delivered an amazing full-band set) and my old pals in The Josh Davis Band.
At this point, I scarcely had time for jitters. I rocked through “Harder To Believe” (again), “St. Anne” (again, this time ad-libbing a Samples lyrics for a third verse), and the most over-the-top, solo-acoustic version “Dear Elizabeth” ever — all with reckless abandon.
Or what seemed like reckless abandon. Reckless abandon, apparently, was reserved for the Authentic Records afterparty at AK O’Connors. The place was packed and loud as we streamed in off the bus. The entire Authentic Records Family was on hand: Mike and Jason, Mike Himebaugh, Dick Prall, Tyler, Lindsey, Tony and Ben. And everyone was rowdy. Andy was on stage when I walked in. I took the mic next, somehow pulling a fairly awesome solo-acoustic version of “Rio” out of my ass, before slamming through “Wonderwall” with Mike. My favorite moment came at Andrew’s suggestion: “Play some Replacements!”
Fourteen hours, twenty-some songs, many beers and a few shots of tequila later, I was strutting, stammering, swinging and boxing my way through a version of “I Will Dare” just rowdy, raucous and ridiculous enough to make Paul Westerberg himself chuckle.
“How dumb are you!!! How dumb are you!!! How old… how old am I!?!”
When I finally yielded the mic, Mike Himebaugh took the communal guitar, strapped it over his shoulder, and asked, beaming, “Now how the f**k am I supposed to follow that?”
The last thing I remember, AK’s had kicked us out, the party had migrated to The Walsmiths, Glenn Campbell was on the record player, and the clock read 2:37 a.m. I slipped away from the crowd, and then set the alarm for eighty-three minutes of deep, dreamless, beautiful sleep with my own Iowa State Fair Queen.