Southbound: RSB & The Letters load it up
by Thomas Deakin
Robert Sarazin Blake is a man of respect. He respects his craft, respects his comrades (David Pender Lofgren and myself), he respects the history of places, the quality of things, and by extension respects his hanging clothes. He’s got a garment bag from years ago with gardenias embroidered all over it in mauve and the scars of endlessly demanding miles being bumped by bass amplifiers and crumpled by crusty band mates at the end of a long load out. Robert’s garment bag is armor, a layer between the world and what the man cares about. It is a response to a hostile environment, and it performs admirably. It is never to be laid under anything at all, there is an industrial hook for hanging and hanging is the only acceptable way for it to be handled. On this he is vocal, he is adamant, he is vociferously specific, and all too happy to let you know. Inside lay any number of selections from Robert’s walk in closet of dignity, a repository of masculine style and a collection of the choicest second hand garments. “Nice suit” is a daily utterance from all manner of strangers when you tour with Mr. Blake.
Blake’s guitar is hand-shaped, one of a kind, strung with the hopes of a generation and tuned to the key of the American Dream. All six strings are flat wound harmony wrapped around heavy metal monologue. Bobby Blue Blazer can play a chord on it that has seven notes. He can weave a snare out of words and vapor, brewing magic out of breath and vocabulary. I was there when he played one-handed while fending off a drunken woman convinced she deserved his microphone, I congratulated him when he came close to getting lucky with Natalie Merchant, and sang alongside him on stage with Pete Seeger at Mr. Seeger’s last show before he died.
Robert tours in a black luxury sedan left to him by his benevolent Grandpa Phil. There’s a bumper sticker saying, “Ride the Train” and a license plate border reading, “I’d rather be driving a Titleist.”
It was almost left for dead in Eugene over a leaking brake line, supposedly ‘impossible’ to fix. Patience, persistence, perspicacity, three different shops and $250 later, Robert picked us up and we eased 18 feet of jet black nickel trimmed Mercury Grand Marquis out of Eugene, with the lights pointed east to Hood River and the three of us looking like the Bureau’s most slovenly special agents.
After our set we met a group of very friendly folks from Wisconsin out to visit their daughter who works the bar. They needed us to know the history of their wayward eldest, the boy she fell in love with, how he was the reason she never came home, he just bought investment property, everyone loves him. The story was repeated again and again for the three of us, occasionally peppered with a quick, “What was your name again?” The alcohol had short circuited something upstairs so the story was on a strange kind of perfect repetition. Eventually I retreated to the hotel room and was soothed by Patrick Swayze’s opus Roadhouse on late night hotel television.
Robert and David, being made of stronger stuff, left for another bar and wouldn’t return until 4:30 in the morning, having finally been released by the well-meaning Midwestern circular conversationalists who had shanghaied the boys, driven them to a remote location, and fed them mango vodka before turning them loose into the bird chirp grey of a Hood River Sunday morning.
After a blessedly late checkout, we stacked and packed the gear and set our sights for downtown, with breakfast on the brain. After cruising five blocks of Hood River’s !Cha-Ching-a-Ling! District we fled to the hills, hoping the outer reaches would be where the plebeians could afford a bite. Having found over the years that hardship, hecklers, and Chinese food all feed his imp, Robert implored me to pull into Grace Lee’s Lucky Panda Garden on the edge of town.
Hangovers temporarily held at bay by noodles, grease, and Grace Lee’s ancient sauce of seven secret spices (I only got the flavor of soy sauce with some extra sugar), the three of us wound along the south bank of the Columbia River, joining generations of young men before us searching out fortune by heeding the call, and heading west.
Touring is a migration. Exhausted, meandering circuitously, we travel and search for dreams unrealized, following impossible hopes. We hurry up and wait. We are subjected to long periods of boredom punctuated by moments of sheer magic. So we arrived, two tired and one wired, into Portland, and beheld Shangri-La.
At Burnside and Stark is a historic triangular building containing a restaurant, café, historic hotel, and a basement bar called Al’s Den. Here musicians can find lodging, money, meals, alcohol, limitless coffee, and a room full of listeners from all over this world. There is a salt water hot pool. The employees are friendly and considerate. They booked us for a week, and I love every one of the people who made that possible. What sweeter refrain can a working traveler hear than, “residency.” The seduction of a schedule, the cessation of movement, the option to leave your gear in place night after night, dry land exists I’ve seen it! Mcmenamins historic hotels and fine dining chain you are my promised land for seven days, my church, my temple, my native soil. I will guard you against what creeps in the night, I will sing your praises by day and if none of that is required, I’ll be enjoying a cocktail in the hot pool, let me know when it’s time to go onstage.
The last time I saw Robert he was ambling down the hallways in a fresh bath robe, drinking coffee and chatting up the guests. Here, he gets to be himself to a fresh crop of people each day, his meals are provided and his room even gets tidied up when he steps out. The food is good and the room is comfortable. He looked relaxed. He’s got a bay window and a little sink in his room. The bed is soft, the city is friendly, and the crowd is building. The walls are a soothing green with inspiring quotes painted at intervals. The lighting is effective, but reserved. On the wall at eye level a hook protrudes. A safe place to leave what you care about, a harbor for treasure, the perfect place for an ugly mauve garment bag and it’s beloved cargo. Goodbye Blake, I thought, I think you’ll be happy here.
After 10 nights in Oregon, RSB & The Letters will play the Green Frog on Thursday, April 3 with two shows at 7 and 9:30 p.m., before heading to the East Coast for the rest of April.