The Ames: Tales From Alaska

I don’t think we’re a superstitious band, but when our lead singer’s voice was filled with voice crackling canker sores as we loaded our van, luck didn’t really seem on our side. The sound of Sam’s speaking voice sounded more like a growling Tom Waits than himself – and not for the better.  So, with a giant bottle of apple cider vinegar in one hand and a gallon of water in the other, we prayed his constant gargling would take.

Dan (bass player) and I (Mike the drummer) are very loud people. So though we knew Sam was attempting to refrain from speaking to conserve his voice, we felt it appropriate to scream at him as loud as we possibly could. As we waited in line to board the ferry to Wrangell, Alaska, Dan and I would turn to Sam, who silently massaged his throat in the back seat with piles of gear all around him, and yell, “Shut the hell up, Sam!”  Yet, in the array of our verbal abuse, Sam maintained a facial expression that was a hybrid of suppressed laughter and anxiety riddled doom.

Outside of screaming our heads off in our van while we waited for our ferry, and with nothing better to do, we decided to throw a football around. You see, when you’re repeatedly forced to stop at rest areas and gas stations (or in our case ferry lines), a band’s sport throwing apparatus is like a mobile psychologist and a gym all in one. Needless to say, our one football was important to us. But after an errant throw rolled under the tire of an RV, our one and only football was gone.  Not even duct-tape could save it this time.

However, after we dried our tears and boarded the ferry, we realized how incredible this trip would be. The venue we were set to play splurged and actually got us a room on the boat (personal bathroom, yeah!). There also was a movie theater, video arcade (Buck Hunter!), and perhaps most importantly, a bar! However, this wasn’t any bar. The boat’s watering hole was a well-preserved snap shot of 1970s slime.

The lounge was equipped with a dance floor, sequined lined walls, low ceilings, wrap around leather-buttoned-booths, a chained and bolted down baby grand piano, and best of all, the room was illuminated by rows of hundreds of vanity-mirror bulbs. It was the sexiest thing on water.

As we surveyed our beautiful surroundings and long before we reached Alaskan soil, we ran into what turned out to be the spit and shine to our trip – a man named Don! Don noticed us stumbling through the main cabin of the ship with our bags and suitcases flopping around.

“You guys, musicians?” he asked.

“Yeah! We’re on our way to play a handful of shows up in Wrangell,” answered Dan.

Don could hardly contain his excitement.

“Oh, you should get in touch with Tonie Tangs! He runs all things music related on the boat,” instructed Don.

So as we stood there drenched with luggage, we waited while Don wrote something on a yellow Post-it note. With a smile, he instructed us to give the note to Tonie. The note read: “To Tonie Tangs. These Gyes are Good!”

But as we searched around the boat, we never found Tonie Tangs. We think he’s of a mythical nature.  With all the intrigue and absurdity that was attached to that yellow post-it note, we can’t tell you how many times we tribally yelled (and Sam whispered) “TONIE TANGS!”

As three days of ferry riding passed, we anxiously awaited our arrival to the island of Wrangell.  Our friend Jill who was scheduled to pick us up had described the town of Wrangell in such a way that made us expect nothing short of dirt roads, and an outhouse. Yet as we stepped foot upon the streets of Wrangell, Alaska, we immediately realized what a wonderful town we were about to visit – as we were met by Jill saying with the upmost of excitement, “Hey guys, you want to go check out the Crisco competition?”

As we approached the local docks, we saw that most of the 2,000 people in Wrangell must have been in attendance. Huddled around a giant dock, we cheered for guys and gals as they shimmied up a Crisco covered log. The object was to grab the bandana that was hung on the end of a log and out over the water – all to win $100. Yet, it looked like the real goal was to get half way up, cling for dear life, and eventually fall into the freezing water with a huge smile and small town immortality.The whole crowd, from toddlers to grandparents, wildly cheered as the contestants warmed themselves with a towel and a can of Rainier – and we knew it was one of the more beautiful things we’ve ever seen.

The venue we were scheduled to play two nights was called Remy’s Bar.  Hanging out before the show, we noticed the crowd was a hodgepodge of middle-aged bar flies, hardened fisherman, and 20-somethings ready to dance or fight (either outcome accepted just the same).  And although we are a confident band, we must admit that there was a bit of nerves running through our veins on that first evening. Perhaps the nerves were of our own natural tendencies, or maybe they stemmed from being told just before we went on that the ‘other band in town’ was promptly booed off the stage! Whatever or wherever the nerves came from, we were scheduled for three hours of music, so we learned some covers to keep the night rolling and prayed that the locals would accept our musical ways.

Although the crowd was apprehensive at first, we knew a connection was made after the crowd sang in chorus to Dylan’s song “Rainy Day Women #12 and #35,” “Everybody must get stoned!”

As soon as we finished, a small elderly man, who was all of 80 pounds, waddled onto the front of the stage. Before we knew it, Sam’s banjo kicked into hoedown mode. The little old man shuffled his arms and started a frenzy. Everyone that was seated shot out of their chair to join what looked like an Alaskan barn raising ritual. In Wrangell Alaska, it takes the oldest man in town to start a dance party. And trust us, it’s worth it!

Surprisingly, Sam’s voice held up for the first night’s show. The first night’s show.

We saved a few cover songs for the second night. As it turns out, we saved those particular songs because we didn’t really know how to play them. But we persevered. The town began to flood into the bar, my kick drum pedal was pounding, the bass was thumping, and things were clicking.

Then Sam started to sing.

I remember the song. It was one of our ballads called “Dirty Britches.” It sounded like Sam was being tortured. His voice sounded like a dead person lost a bet to a guy who punched him in the neck, then put a broken muffler over his lungs—then sang.

I yelled, “Dan! Dan! Back him up!”

“What?” he replied with confusion.“SING LOUDER THAN HIM!” I screamed.

Hours later, with the early morning sun, we said our goodbyes to Alaska and renewed our search for Tonie Tangs. We were drunk with a lack of sleep and a joy for Wrangell – and we were all the better for it!

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