by JEFF ECHERT & r & & r & & lt;span class= & quot;dropcap & quot; & I & lt;/span & t's a revolutionary (if somewhat anachronistic) concept: touring America by train. Not every band would agree with the plan. Most probably wouldn't. Your tour itinerary is dictated by the train's schedule, leaving you with a limited number of cities to play. And you can only bring the gear you can comfortably carry, so effects mavens and amplifier aficionados may wish to look elsewhere for inspiration. But let's look at the positives -- not only do you avoid the travel fatigue of all-night driving, but you get to ditch the dinosaur that is the ubiquitous tour van (which sucks down fellow fossils at 12 miles to the gallon). For Chicago's Berry, the positives outweighed the drawbacks, and they embarked on a grand tour via Amtrak. It's certainly novel -- it might even be unprecedented, and from talking to the men behind the "harebrained scheme" (their words, not mine), it might be a viable blueprint for touring in a time of fuel worries. At least it has proven to be a hell of a good time.
Singer Joey Lemon is the plan's mastermind. Drummer Paul Goodenough remarks, "[He] pitched it to us about a year and a half ago and, after mulling it over for some time, we eventually decided to go for it."
Citing rising gas costs and environmental concerns as his own personal impetuses, Goodenough is happy with the decision. "We thought it would be better to do things differently," he says. "We've always pushed to do something different in our music."
Though not exactly the nomadic bluegrass or folk band you might expect to ride the rails, Berry's own brand of eclecticism, a sort of They Might Be Giants-style mix of clear, simple melodies, vivid lyricism, and active inner-child imagination, fits with the meandering milieu of the locomotive. They do use a harmonica, though, which puts them in good company with hobos and hitchhikers.
With the train firmly embedded in the American cultural consciousness, the trip is a gold mine of historical inspiration. Goodenough gushes over the scenery, saying "The No. 1 thing for me has been seeing the country from the perspective of the train -- you don't have mile markers or billboards, so you get a much different perspective of America."
Lemon has a wistful historian in him, waxing poetic about the concept of the railroad itself. "Listening to Bob Dylan songs and hearing him sing about taking the train places," he says, "it feels like you're part of it, part of history." Running into traveling blues musicians doesn't hurt the atmosphere either, and Lemon has a great fondness for the m & eacute;lange of rail-riders.
Pianist Matt Aufrecht, the pragmatist, finds value of a less spiritually lifting sort: "It's generally a bit less stressful than taking a vehicle," he says. "We don't have to stay up all night driving. We can all sleep." The band's common sigh of relief has to do with abandoning the tour van -- not having to worry about it breaking down or making that fourth Burger King stop in a day is a very good thing.
But it's not all romanticism and itinerant bluesmen -- the train's troubles are a different animal, and a frantic beast at that. We spoke with Berry immediately after the band missed a radio appearance due to a bus schedule that didn't quite sync up. Things like this lead Aufrecht to remark, "It definitely has its own stresses - it doesn't always run on time ... it has its own schedule." Especially in the West, Lemon notes, "There's very little opportunity to reschedule or go play a good show that's out of the way."
Despite a few complications, Berry is thrilled with the tour. Though scruffier and sootier than when they left, they've taken their idea to heart. "I hope to encourage other bands to do what we're doing," Lemon says. "It's a great idea that's definitely feasible and could save people some money."
Aufrecht, once again the practical one, says, "We're having a lot of fun -- it's a lot better than our jobs back home."
The train may look like a step backwards, a regression even. But for a world that cares increasingly about carbon neutrality and fuel economy, a short hop in a steam-powered Delorean may be just what Doc Brown ordered.
Berry plays the Stage Right Cellars in Sandpoint on Thursday, Sept. 18, at 7 pm. Free. Call (208) 265-8116.