We drove to D.C. on a whim, twelve hours each way on 95, for Califone 's show at the Rock and Roll Hotel. Highway barbecue, coffee, a night in South Carolina where "Deluxe" still describes cheap motels. Slither on HBO. North to President Inn ('s not included) on New York Avenue near the arboretum. Capital Dome: I bare my ass to it in the window, more than they deserve, and Amy and I head out. The neighborhood is depressed, restaurants all closed or takeout Chinese or ff chain. We eat shrimp lo mein and fried rice and walk to the club.
Mannequins wearing animal skulls menace the upstairs bar, and the bartender, bright red hair, big slash of candy-red lips and green eyes and what'll you have, a pretty apocalypse. Guinness, red wine. We sip and wait for the show. Rooms of old velvet furniture, obligatory rock posters. The drinking, white, young college-age elite begin to gather along with the music nerds, order cocktails. We talk to Joe downstairs, setting up the merch, about solo projects, Jim's new film/music project, Interkosmos, and future tours, records, Yoko Ono at the Pitchfork Festival, Slint's Spiderland. Head back up for another beer and watch Jim play pool with Amy, who will guest at cello for the evening. These United States finally starts the show. Decent Americana, but we head out, where Tim is relaxing, smoking. We catch up. The band's future, other projects, etc. We talk about school, heat, humidity. Amy bums a cigarette from Tim, rolls it. A lost traveler asks for cab fare, and we give her what we can. Tim blesses her with water for dopamine, hope for light. She is big-eyed and missing and kind in that desperate way. She asks us to pray for her upcoming move. This is mine. Tim shows us pictures of his beautiful son. I talk about my two. Ben comes up, asks Tim something, leaves. Then Tim excuses himself to get ready for their set.
We hang out a little longer outside, but go in to hear Bitter Tears. Hammer-subtle irony. They're boisterous, musically random and literate and funny. (I recall Oingo Boingo in costumes marching and blaring up Telegraph Ave. in Berkeley for some reason, but this is darker.) Their instruments are horns, upright bass, drums, guitar, and Weimar irreverence mixed with country prank. They wear prom dresses or bunny ears and lipstick like the bartenders', but smeared and sweaty. The crowd laughs and cheers, but avoids, otherwise, interaction. Too bad.
Finally, Califone opens with "Golden Ass," while the defrocked Bitter Tears horn section ignites around the fuse of guitars and percussion, the pulsing vocals. After the song, Tim introduces their guests; he says he went to seminary school with them in Chicago, and he reminisces in some kind of hieratic code, a little jokey, a little edgy. That edge breaks the beginning of "Slow Right Hand" and they restart it after a few bars and it breaks out over our heads, falls in like orioles into bushes when it rains. The long flat room is a matchbox and it squeezes the music; the songs want to spread out more. This isn't a set list. I don't remember the order. I remember trying to find a place to hear better, "Orchids" with horns, "Michigan Girl" with Amy on cello, "The Eye You Lost in the Crusades." Finally I settle next to the speaker, and the room stays out of the way and the pain in my ear is maraschino masochism. "Pink and Sour" with its '40s big band harem themes begins and the floor erupts in dancing. This is the one the girls were waiting for, this spiked Shirley Temple, cologne at the nape. The song concludes and the dancers evaporate. I guess this is the one from the local college radio list, their evening apparently over. Califone's wasn't. Tim snaps a guitar string, lays it down. They reset. He comes out of the next song squeezing his head, first side and side, then hair and chin. He starts speaking about seminary school again, some Cardinal or priest, something in the woods, body of a young boy, hints of things we aren't supposed to see or know like some weird Franklin scandal action. They're almost Pentecostal now and everyone's nervous. Ben and Joe sit and look down at their skins and bones, Jim looks on concerned. Tim moves close to Alan and holds his face, starts talking about the priest, he's here in D.C. somewhere and they're failed priests and that body in the woods and they should turn him in. Alan looks like the drama mask that makes you think of Medea ripping at her breast. Real babydoll tears in Alan's eyes and the crowd on edge and time is nearly up, so Tim steps away and announces the last song. "Horoscope Amputation Honey" begins slow, keyboards, twang, a little noise, builds, breaks out into long legs of improvisation, twenty minutes or so. Alan joins in and more horns and they jam 20 minutes and end finally into a short song that's a prayer. And that's it. No encore. No one explains. The bar shuts down, kicks us out or upstairs after a few minutes.
Outside later, we say our farewells to Tim and Jim and Ben and Joe and it's warm. Some storm has passed. We walk into the DC morning. I owe Tim a whiskey.