When I was younger, I was terrified of big cities. When I was starting my college search way back in my high school days, one criteria I had was “not the Twin Cities” because having grown up in rural Minnesota put the fear of big city life into me. As I look back on it, it’s almost like I was a caricature of one of Sinclair Lewis’ pathetic characters in his satirical critique of small town life, Main Street, which is loosely based on his experiences growing up in my hometown of Sauk Centre. (To this day, I still think it’s weird my hometown honors him with Sinclair Lewis Days…like, don’t you see the irony in that?! Oh well…it’s a reason to have a parade!)
Now that I’m older, all I want to do is travel. I put my travel bucket list on my phone and periodically I look at it and plot my next endeavor. Ricky Gervais put it best: we weren’t here for billions of years, and then we’re on this earth for 80ish years, and then we’re gone from it again for billions more. Why not make the most of our lives?
Well, I’ll be honest–I’ve been in a rut lately, which is why I haven’t written anything since August. I didn’t really know what to write about. The only traveling I’ve done since Europe was a much-appreciated trip to Parkland, Florida, to visit my best friend Mike for a warm, sun-soaked, paddleboard infused, cabana-lounging Thanksgiving. But the school year has me grinding away with the daily ins-and-outs of school life, and I just didn’t want to bore you with the details (or the lack thereof). If you followed me on Facebook or Instagram, you’d catch the highlights of time well spent with friends rocking out to Minneapolis-based bands like 4onthefloor as they blast forth with foot-stompin’ songs in 4/4 time, reliving the greatness of the 90s with my friends in Grunge Unplugged, maintaining my girlish figure with a workout session here and there, snuggling with my dog, or singing songs on my ukulele. Seriously, I just looked through eight months of Facebook posts, and those are the only five things I seem to post about (oh, but let’s not forget those back-to-back titles the University of Minnesota-Duluth men’s hockey team brought back home, either!)
I don’t even like hockey, but I’m all aboard this bandwagon, baby!
Needless to say, it was time to find my way out of the state again. One thing about me, though, is that I don’t care for frivolous adventures. If I’m going to do something, there generally needs to have a purpose behind it. I like to ask myself, “What’s your why?” Sometimes, this existential approach makes me over-analyze my motives and then I just end up procrastinating or stalling until the moment has passed. I like to call it my “mindful midlife crisis.” Maybe that’s what my next blog should be about. Please don’t steal that idea.
But about six months ago, I found my “why” in the form of a brass band covering songs by my favorite band in college–Rage Against the Machine. Their name: Brass Against!
The first video I saw of them was their rendition of Rage’s “Wake Up”, which has always been one of my go-to jams. What struck me was the ferocious vocals laid down by their lead singer, Sophia Urista. I felt like I was witnessing the reincarnation of Zack de le Rocha had he died and come back as a fiesty woman (side note: please don’t die, Zack…I’m still struggling with Chris Cornell’s death). Sophia’s vocals sliced and diced their way through my ears, and when she let out her primal scream at the end of the song, I devoted myself to learning and hearing more from this band.
I found myself going further down the YouTube rabbit hole and finding videos like their covers of “Guerilla Radio” the anthemic “Killing in the Name” and getting more and more excited at this wildly original take on Rage’s music.
I sent Brandon the link to “Wake Up” and his response summed up things quite eloquently:
Me: “If this band goes on tour, I’m going.”
For the next few months, my eyes were glued to Brass Against videos: not only were they covering RATM songs, but they were also busting out songs by Tool (with Samuel Hope on vocals) and Black Sabbath (with Maya Azucena on vocals). I NEEDED them to announce a tour!
And then…they did! They announced a tour!
Now listen…another month in Europe would’ve been awesome, but the last trip wiped me out financially and this one was right in the middle of the school year, so this wasn’t happening. Not only that, but my girl Sophia Urista wasn’t touring with them. Don’t get me wrong: the singers who were performing with them could bring it, but I fell in love with this band with Sophia Urista on the microphone. No Sophia, no Billy.
I was simply going to have to wait until they announced shows stateside with Sophia Urista on the mic.
While I waited, the band continued to put out more videos on YouTube for my viewing pleasure, and each new cover of some of my favorite rock jams built up more and more excitement at the possibility of a tour. Clearly the European audiences were ready for an extreme brassing because shows sold out quickly over there.
But I was ready to make America RAGE again!
Then I saw the announcement I was waiting for–Brass Against would be giving the Gramercy Theatre a fistful of brass–featuring Maya Azucena, Samuel Hope, AND SOPHIA URISTA!
SAY WHAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAT?! You’re gonna give me all three of them?! TAKE MY MONEY!
Flight and hotel booked.
Rally ‘round the family with a pocket full of shells.
Just warming up…
With the flight and hotel accommodations out of the way, it was time to plan my itinerary! If you followed along with our Pearl Jam Eurotrip, you know that I enjoy laying out a minute-by-minute plan to make the most of my time in a city. Does that take away from some of the organic adventures of traveling? Yeah, it probably does. But I really only had 50+ hours in NYC, so I wanted to pack in what I could. Besides, I hadn’t been there since the May, 2016 Pearl Jam shows at MSG, so making a plan meant making the most of my time.
I played the role of tourist in 2016 with a ferry ride out to the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island, a city bus tour, a walk in Central Park, a journey to the top of the Empire State Building, a moment of reflection at the 9/11 Memorial, a walk across the Brooklyn Bridge, and a slice of pizza from Grimaldi’s (oh yeah, and PJ shows 33 and 34 out of 49). After watching the Queens episode of Parts Unknown with Anthony Bourdain, I thought about venturing out of Manhattan and exploring some of the other boroughs, but soon I realized that there were still places I wanted to see in Manhattan, so I tried to keep everything within walking distance.
What I did take away from that episode, though, was making food a priority. Usually when I travel, I eat out of necessity and I don’t make a conscious choice to eat somewhere fancy or local. But being in NYC, an iconic foodie city, I decided to work in some food stops to make this trip a different experience for me.
My first stop was a Free Tours by Foot walking food tour of Greenwich Village. I really enjoy these kinds of tours because you get to decide how much the tour is worth, and they’re usually just as thorough and enjoyable as any tour you’d end up dropping $60 or more to do. Our tour guide for the day was a guy named Jon, who had a booming, vaudeville-style voice that added a showman’s flare to our jaunt. Our tour made five stops: first, we enjoyed delicious falafel balls from Mamoums (the red sauce is no joke!); then we ate the greatest pizza I’ve ever stuffed in my face from Artichoke; we then made our way over to Faicco’s for some rice balls; our fourth stop was supposed to be mini-bagels from Bantum, but unfortunately they were closed, so instead, we made our way over to Bleecker Street Pizza for the freshest ingredients I have ever tasted in my entire life! Finally, we sweetened the deal with a cupcake from Molly’s Cupcakes. Along the way, Jon took us through Washington Square Park and gave us a history lesson of Greenwich Village (which is actually redundant…look it up!).
Once I was thoroughly stuffed, I walked to my hotel–The Jane Hotel. If you’re a solo traveler, I cannot recommend this place enough! The bellhops dress in the old-school uniforms, and my room was a 50 square foot cabin with a communal bathroom down the hall (what’s the point in having fancy accommodations when you should be out exploring the city!).
The location of The Jane Hotel fit perfectly into my plans because it’s only a few blocks away from The High Line and Chelsea Market (where I somehow managed to shovel two tacos from Los Tacos #1 into my mouth after the food tour). From there, I walked up to Rockefeller Plaza to watch the ice skaters gracefully pirouette below before taking in my first Broadway musical–The Book of Mormon at the Eugene O’Neill Theatre! Using the TodayTix app, I scored a front row seat for $100, which gave me an up-close and personal view of the performers as they guided me through the finer points of Joseph Smith’s founding of the Mormon faith and taught me African phrases like “Hasa Diga Eebowai”.
After belly-laughing for two+ hours, I made my way back to Chelsea and navigated my way to a delicious Cuban restaurant called Coppelia. This cozy diner with a vibrant nightlife was only a few blocks from my hotel, and with items like oxtail empanadas, huevos rancheros, and arepas on the menu, I made it my comfort food stop for the rest of the weekend.
I slept surprisingly well in my cabin room that night, so I was out the door and back at Coppelia for breakfast by 8:30 a.m. From there, I took the #2 train down to the 9/11 Memorial and Museum and spent the next four hours there in quiet reflection.
I took the same approach as when we visited Auschwitz –one picture for documentation, but no words. What words are there to say in places like these, where atrocity makes its home?
I wanted to pay my respects to those who lost their lives on September 11th, 2001, so as I made my way around the reflecting pools, I read the names of the victims in my head to personalize them. They were people I never met in my life, but they shared life on earth with me. It was the only thing I could think to do in that moment.
I then made my way through the 9/11 Museum. How do I even put this experience into words without sounding pretentious or disingenuous to the victims and their families? I don’t know that I can. I know that I often found myself trying to compose my emotions as I examined the front end of a firetruck smashed to pieces, a steel beam bent into the shape of a pretzel, seared seatbelts from the planes, and charred business documents that were being worked on that day by the people whose names I read before, some of whom may very well be in a room behind a wall that reads, “Reposed behind this wall are the remains of many who perished at the World Trade Center site on September 11, 2001.”
Jim Valvano’s advice in his “Don’t Give Up” speech was to do three things: spend some time in thought, have your emotions moved to tears, and laugh. With the privilege of the life afforded to me, I moved on from my time of reflection and my time with my emotions to carry on with my day. My journey to One World Observatory was thwarted by high winds and cloudy skies, so I walked up the street to an Asian fusion place called Zutto Japanese American Pub. I took a seat by myself at the sushi bar and ordered pork belly bao buns and spicy chicken ramen. The melting fat from the pork belly and the hot broth and noodles did my shivering bones some good, so I made my way south to Battery Park with pit stops at Alexander Hamilton’s tomb and the charging bull statue on Wall Street. (Side Note: everybody wants a picture with the front of the bull, but I found fewer people want a picture with the bull’s nuts…).
I still had time and money on my MetroCard, so I took the subway up to Central Park and rented a bike for an hour. I took a leisurely cruise around the expansive, uneven terrain and just marveled at its topography. Central Park has boulders protruding out of the ground for climbing, scenic valleys with serene ponds for relaxing, trees breathing life into its inhabitants, and Strawberry Fields Forever. By the time I had finished meandering my way on the bike path, my hour was up, so I headed back to the hotel to catch a quick nap before the show.
The Gramercy Theatre was the perfect venue for this show. Small, intimate, excellent sight lines. At no point did I feel crowded, and the slanted floor put the performers in my full view the entire time, which made a short guy like me very happy!
The opening act was a fun, eclectic band called 78RPM. I’m not usually one to enjoy opening acts, but I found myself bopping around and enjoying the high, nasally vocals of the lead singer backed by poppy keyboard and bass-laden grooves and catchy choruses. They just seemed to be having fun playing music they had written, and I fed off of that energy and caught myself smiling with delight as their music hit my ears.
At one point during their set, Sophia Urista was standing right next to me handing out hugs to friends, and I was like, “Holy shit! That’s Sophia Urista!”
So what did I do?
I FUCKING FROZE!
I JUST STOOD THERE LIKE AN IDIOT!
There she was–the singer I travelled all this way to see, and she’s just standing there, literally ten feet away from me, and I couldn’t process the information appropriately enough to be like, “Hey, I’m a big fan. I travelled all this way from Minnesota just to see you get vicious on the mic with my favorite Rage Against the Machine songs!” Instead…
I FUCKING FROZE!
I JUST STOOD THERE LIKE AN IDIOT!
With that missed opportunity, I decided to make friends with the dude standing next to me wearing a Pearl Jam 2018 tour shirt instead. His name is Pablo and he’s originally from Philly. Between the two of us, we’ve seen 77 Pearl Jam shows, so we started reminiscing about which shows we’d seen and waxed nostalgic on the magic of PJ20 and the most recent Chicago shows. We then started talking about our love for Rage Against the Machine, and we learned that we both saw them at Woodstock ‘99! We relived the horror that was the Port-o-Potties and revelled in the insanity that was the Rage Against the Machine mosh pit (or pits, as they broke out everywhere in the sea of chaos that swept people up like a tidal wave of physical aggression).
Those were the days…
We lamented that we’ll likely never see that original line-up again (though we held out hope considering I caught RATM’s reunion in 2007 at Alpine Valley as well at their controversial performance at the Target Center during the 2008 RNC, where police officers in riot gear waited outside for us to start some shit), and we settled in for a night of a brassful of steel!
When the lights went down, guitarist/band leader Brad Hammonds strapped on his axe and, with the thump of drummer Nathan Bell, launched into the tittering build-up of Audioslave’s anthemic, thunderous first single, “Cochise”. With each pulsating beat into the kick drum, a new member of the band, each brandishing a brass instrument–from saxophone to trumpet to trombone to sousaphone–and took their position on stage, poised and ready to launch an all-out assault of brass-infused rock into the night. The horns hummed and squealed, building excitement through anticipation…
And then Maya Azucena walked out on stage, her pink mohawk shooting towards the sky like flames, ready to set the night on fire. She strutted around the stage powerfully, gracefully, forcefully. Her leather threads were straight out of Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome. The band crescendoed into each downbeat, and right before I was ready to burst, Brad Hammonds leapt into the sky and came down with the force of nine cannons blasting rock and soul into the Gramercy Theatre walls!
I swayed and jumped and hooted and hollered and sang my heart out as Maya Azucena told me to “Go on and save yourself! Take it out on me!” The energy in the room fed off of itself. The band’s presence on stage gave life to the people on the floor, and the people on the floor sent the music from the stage that much higher into the rafters! This NYC crowd came to play!
Maya Azucena put the finishing touches on “Cochise” and gave us a salute of gratitude before exiting stage left. Out from a side door popped a dynamo with deep, dark pink curls bouncing to the driving rhythm of Rage’s “Bulls on Parade”.
I may have froze in that earlier moment, but I made goddamn sure Sophia Urista heard me this time!
“Ah shit! What’s up, New York!” she replied!
For a second, I was a New Yorker!
“COME WIT IT NOW!”
Sophia Urista whirled around the stage, pure adrenaline and diva pumping through her veins, tongue out, tasting the buffet of energy as it filled the room.
“THIS MICROPHONE EXPLODES, SHATTERING THE MOULDS!”
Standing before me was the very reason I made this journey, and it was EVERYTHING I wanted it to be!
The raw power of her vocals and her animated stage presence whipped the room into a frenzy, and to my right, I saw a mosh pit break out! It was like I was transported back to Woodstock ‘99 all over again!
When she finished calling out “Bulls on Parade!” she gave us another shout out and slipped back behind the side door. From the opposite side of the stage, a shadowy, hooded figure made its way on stage. Crouched low and rocking back and forth, it announced its presence by chiding us: “Who are you to wave your finger? You must have been out your head!”
The sousaphone’s kinetic pulses thumped the bass notes to Tool’s “The Pot”, and the mysterious figure leaned in and made its humanly presence known to us in the form of Samuel Hope. His voice soared as the music surged ahead, the frantic rhythms creating a sense of urgency in the discontent of the lyrics. This was a different energy–it required you to be patient and it required you to embrace being off-balance with the time signature. You had to absorb this energy more, and you had to let it fester longer. There wasn’t a powerful release, but more a slow burn. The instruments toiled through the muddy waters until Samuel Hope made us see we were actually eyeballs deep in bloody waters.
And then, with one last breath, he chided us again: “You must have been out your miiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiind!” and the scream just continued to pierce its way through my chest like a laser beam, and I was reminded of all that makes Tool amazing.
And it went like that for the rest of the show. Maya Azucena would come out on stage, her presence imposing and militant and fierce. Then Sophia Urista would spring out of nowhere and bounce around the stage with unmatched energy. Samuel Hope would then stir a boiling stew of raw emotion only to hold it at arms reach until we could take no more, and then he would throw it in our faces so we could lap it up with scorched gratitude.
The set list burned through songs like “War Pigs” by Black Sabbath, “Sabotage” by Beastie Boys, “Guerrilla Radio” by Rage, and “Parabol/Parabola” by Tool. Sophia Urista had the entire crowd jumping up and down, middle fingers extended, and chanting “Fuck you, I won’t do what you tell me!” during “Killing in the Name”. Maya Azucena poured on some “Gasoline” by Audioslave and had us coming down the mountain with a little Jane’s Addiction. Samuel Hope joined Sophia Urista for “Know Your Enemy” and reminded us that “Time has come to paaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaay!”
The night finished with all three singers reminding us to “WAKE UP!” and as I watched Maya Azucena stand with fist in the air, I knew I had just been part of a magical evening surrounded by talented musicians–from the trumpets, trombones, sousaphone, saxophone, drums, guitar, and singers–and positive people.
The energy that filled the Gramercy Theatre had me smiling from ear to ear all the way back to Coppelia, where I filled my stomach with arepas so it was as full as my heart.
The next day, I finished up my trip with a walk along the Hudson River down the West Street river parkway, a journey to the top of One World Observatory, a stroll through the Brooklyn Botanic Gardens to smell the daffodils and see the blossoming cherry trees, and–of course–Smorgasburg, a food truck free-for-all in Prospect Park, where I had beef and chicken meatballs from Amazeballs, brisket barbacoa tacos from Borrochito, a variety of dumplings from Mao Bao, beef short rib skewers from Bisska, and a smore confection from Ring Ding Bar.
Not a bad way to end an amazing weekend in the Big Apple!
I want to thank Brass Against for lighting a fire under my ass! I have been looking forward to seeing you perform live since the moment I first watched your video for “Wake Up”, and this show gave way to many exciting opportunities while visiting NYC! I look forward to the next show (and don’t worry…this time I’ll bring friends!)
AND I WON’T FUCKING FREEZE EITHER!
LIKE AN IDIOT!
Fuck you, I won’t do what you tell me!