Can Kickers, Kickin' Around the Country

By Casandra Knudsen

December 3, 2002

(We stayed with Cassandra and friends in Flagstaff AZ. This was a final paper for Journalism 231. She got an A+ .... we hope.)

It was an ordinary Tuesday night in early October as my roommate, Kevin, and I strolled downtown after a hard day's schooling to relax and listen to the sounds of new and aspiring musicians. Every Tuesday night is open mic night at Charly's, the bar that is located on the bottom floor of Flagstaff's Weatherford Hotel. I noticed right away the awkwardness of three fellows who made their way up to the stage with their instruments and squatted down to watch, anticipating their turn-which was next. They must be new here, I thought, but I wasn't sure if there were also new to town.

Judging alone by the guy in the dark clothes with the multiple piercings who had punk musician written all over him, it wasn't until the dark, curly-haired fellow whipped out his banjo that I was confused. They took the stage with a subtle hesitation that reassured my assumption that they were outsiders, but immediately played those old familiar sounds that made me take them home with me, literally.

"So we, um, are kinda lookin' for a place to stay tonight," the punk-rocker-looking drummer said. Simultaneously Kevin and my ears perked, the light bulbs lit up and we immediately made eye contact with a rasied brow and a smirk. Being fellow musicians ourselves, we'd do more than most folks to support the profession and plus we had a roof to provide. I gave the nod and before my chin could make its way back up Kevin was already at the stage offering up the invitation.

What we were actually bringing home were a few random college buddies who upon getting lost in a good jam session less than a year ago decided they liked the sound enough to do what every musician dreams of...go on tour. The Can Kickers, as they call themselves, are in that stage between the comfort of playing at local bars and venues and being rockstars, getting paid to tour the world. This all too familiar stage is an incredible challenge, as well as a struggle, where you push yourself to the limit mentally by taking the wheel when you haven't slept in days and throwing in $20 that would feel more right to be spending on food. "Long, boring drives in the van accompanied by short sleep now and then frayed people's nerves at times," said Daniel Thompson, the fiddler.

Kevin and I climbed into their van and led them to our house. On my right was Daniel Thompson and on my left was Doug Schaefer, the drummer. Riding shotgun was another Daniel, Daniel Spurr, the banjo player. I was a little confused about whom the quiet guy with the camcorder was. He didn't play with the band, but was obviously traveling with them. His name is Matt and he drove.

We got back to the house, had a late night jam session and then just shot the shit until dawn. Dan Spurr shared the beginning, "I had been playing banjo for about six months when a college friend wanted to start a jug band. We built a washtub bass and had jugs and washboards and other noisemakers and played jug band kind of tunes. Dan T. was in the band too and he played things like the jaw harp and harmonica."

Doug also went to Connecticut College and met the Dans through a mutual friend, Jana Savanapridi. "I played buckets along with the two of them one night and decided it was really fun," Doug said. "I picked up a washboard and we went from there."

Doug had been in a band before called "The Afflicted." It was a hardcore punk band that had a record out with ADD records and toured the country once, but it wasn't what Doug was looking for. Meanwhile Dan Thompson, who was raised in rural Connecticut without a TV, was influenced by his older brother's music selection-hardcore and punk. "My mom sings church music," he added. He played flute in junior high marching band, but got bored and quit. he then picked up the odd instruments for the jug band with the other Dan that was called "Granny's Grits and Liqour." It wasn't until after graduating college in '99 that he ordered his fiddle on EBay after witnessing some great fiddlers at a music festival. "And most importantly, hanging out at jam sessions-that's what really made me want to play, the jamming thing," Dan replied.

Dan Spurr was exposed to the bluegrass sounds at an early age. "My parents were folkies," he said. "I didn't pick up the banjo and actually start playing folk music until I was in college, but it felt right and natural when I did."

In due time the banjo player, newfound fiddler, and ex-punk drummer began their concoction. And what came out was needless to say a whole different sound. "It reminds me of a Celtic Irish bluegrass/folk with a kick of punk type of sound," said kevin Dobbin, after hearing them for the first time that Tuesday night.

The Can Kickers eventually worked up a few tunes and recorded some. They burned some CD's and scored a few shows, all in the space of about two months. "We played a lot of campus band MOBROC (Musicians Organized for Band Rights On Campus) shows at the college and a few shows at local venues," Dan Spurr said. "In May I moved down to North Carolina for six months and we didn't get back together until probably January of 2002. We started playing more shows, recorded another CD and then Doug got the notion to go on tour."

"We went for a little tour down South in the spring and then Doug started working on a big tour all the way to the westest regions-just to see if he could do it and he did," Dan Spurr said. And according to Doug, it wasn't easy. "Booking is hell," Doug recalls. "It is a lot of work, but it is also rewarding when you realize that everything you achieve comes from your own sweat and blood." He spent countless hours booking the shows and surpisingly, it was really cheap to book the entire tour. Doug used the internet and only sent packages to people who would most definitely give them a show. "You can book a national tour for under $100, which is really good," Doug laughed.

Back to this guy Matt. Doug knew him from high school and he had just quit his job. With nothing else to do, he decided to tag along. Dan Thompson recalls, "I met Matt on the night before we left; we said hi. The next time I saw him he was sitting in my van and away we went."

With a love for adventure, travel, and music, the Can Kickers and Matt set off, leaving New England in the dust. They headed down the East Coast hitting D.C., both Carolinas, Tennessee, Alabama, Florida, and Georgia. From there they headed across the southern states and played shows in Louisiana, Texas, and Arizona, where they crossed my path. After some wonderful hospitality, they rode up the West Coast stopping in California, Oregon, and Washington for many shows. On their way home they paused in Nebraksa, Illinois, and finished with a Halloween show in Pennsylvania. A grand total of about 13,000 miles.

In between all the performances, which almost equaled the number of days, there were some escapes. These good times ranged from messing around with other bands, jamming and staying up until dawn telling jokes, a party in the Hollywood Hills, and a punk rock square dance to cliff jumping with me at Grasshopper Point in Sedona. "I liked playing for the kids in Bremerton, WA," Dan Spurr said. "It's the most rewarding when the kids get into it."

There were also bad times when you rough it all the way around the country. "There were a couple of less than stellar gigs, but they pass pretty quick," Dan Spurr said. Traffic was frustrating for them around the Los Angeles area. "We got stuck in terrible traffic in downtown Hollywood after a Carlos Santana concert got out," Dan Thompson explained. "All these drunk morons grid-locked us for hours and hours. Folks on the street were jumping on people's cars, making a ruckus." Dan then went on to get sick in Oregon at his brother's house and carried it all the way home with him. "Matt would get really pissed off now and then and want to take off," he also recalled.

For Doug, the end was the worst. "The last three days sucked," he said. "We drove pretty much straight back from Washington state to Connecticut with only a few stops. We were tired and it was getting cold. It still beats working, though!"

All three musicians agree that the tour was a success. "I learned that the USA is incredibly big," Dan Thompson said. "I was struck by how friendly everyone we met was and how easy it is to find a place to stay. I think as long as someone has got a banjo or a fiddle or whatever, and can play it, they will never go hungry-some musician said something like that; it may have been Pete Seeger. I also learned that we brought too much crap and not enough socks." Doug learned that he could successfully book his own tour and use music to cover gas money, food, and places to stay in order to travel thousands of miles. The other Dan confirmed that the fun outweighs the hardships by far. As for Matt, well, he hates old time music now.

The crowds seemed to respond well. 190 CD's were sold and a radio station in Portland, OR interviewed them- which will be broadcasted nationally sometime in the near future. "Crowds varied from complete lack of response to shaking the building we were in by dancing," Dan Thompson said. From what I saw in Charly's, the Can Kickers sure had a way to make people get up and boogie. As for money, they pretty much broke even, thus, it was the experience that made the tour a success. And when asked if they planned to go on tour again the response was "Hell yes!"

"We are planning a tour to Ireland," Doug said. "We'd like to come back across the country as soon as we can. We played 35 shows in 45 days. We saw the Atlantic, the Pacific, and one of the Great Lakes. We drove 13,000 miles! Start a band and go on tour. You will be glad that you did."