Six cowboys dressed in black are on a plane bound for Belgium. They're in a band from Seattle called Brent Amaker & the Rodeo, and they're traveling 6,000 miles to play country music to Europeans. They keep their black Stetson hats on for the entire flight.
Somewhere over the Atlantic Ocean at 38,000 feet, Brent Amaker—the tall, gruff-spoken bandleader originally from Oklahoma—is anxious. He needs to get some sleep, but he's worried about the band's first gig. It's at an outdoor venue in Beerse, Belgium, and they're supposed to play for three hours straight. Their only record, last year's self-titled debut, clocks in at 24 minutes.
Despite the Valium and red wine, Amaker is wide-awake. It's 6:02 a.m., Seattle time. He writes in his journal to settle his nerves:
Jesus Christ! I hate trying to sleep on airplanes. It's going to be a long one today in full Rodeo attire. We have to take four trains, carrying our gear, and find our tour manager. I wrote six new songs for the first show, so we'll be able to pull it off. They'll have no choice but to love us.
The Rodeo's brand of spaghetti-western music is a mean-cowboy act, but it's no put-on. As Amaker admits, the Rodeo might not have the best take on country music, but it's their take. "Old-time country filtered through the minds of some guys who have been playing in rock bands," he says. Reverbed guitar twang and clip-clop rhythms underpin Amaker's low-register cattle call. Most of the songs are in G, the quintessential country key and a definite homage to Johnny Cash.
For the last couple years, European DJs and press have been requesting music from Amaker; they find their way to the Rodeo through MySpace. Noting the interest, he applied to Berlin's Popkomm Festival via the online booking service Sonicbids earlier this year. The Rodeo were picked as one of four bands from the U.S. to get a 1,000-Euro travel allowance and play Popkomm—a huge, multi-day festival featuring mostly pop, electro, and dance music—at the end of September. The rest of the tour—seven dates through Belgium, Holland, and Germany—came together around Popkomm, after a Belgian booking agency called Surfing Airlines took an interest in the Rodeo. Surfing Airlines is infatuated with American Americana bands like Amaker, Ruby Dee and the Snakehandlers, and the Black Crabs, all from Seattle. They agreed to provide the band with a house, transportation, meals, and a full back-line, including vintage Fender gear.
Seems like what we're doing might be right for the European market, Amaker writes. They want Americana and we plan on giving it to them.
And they do. After 30-some hours of planes, trains, and vans, their first show—the three-hour gig at an outdoor bar near a canal—starts out rough, but ends well.
It's cold out and the first two hours are grim. The crowd is either over 50 or under 12, more interested in frites than country music, and very European. By which I mean musty, kind, proud of their local beer, and getting drunk on it.
Eventually, the strong Belgian beer works up the Rodeo and wears down the locals. Everyone's loving the music and trying to sing along. Trays of whiskey—which will become a theme during this European vacation—emerge. The gig achieves a proper ending. The band drive back to their house in the Belgian countryside, polish off a case of Duvel beer, and pass out.
The next night, in Tilburg, Netherlands, the scene is even better.
A half-dozen guys are dressed in all-black Rodeo outfits. People have actually been gearing up for this show. In a big smoky club in a Dutch city we've never heard of, some guy comes up to me and says, "Brent Amaker! We drink!" We start the show with "Sissy New Age Cowboy" and the crowd is singing along. Singing a-fucking-long!
Thanks to MySpace, they know the lyrics: "The highlights in your hair are a dead giveaway/You're not singing country music/You keep singin' pop songs and takin' photo ops/ you're a sissy new-age cowboy country fuck!"
The band whips up a serious lather live, drinking and heckling onstage, encouraging drinking and heckling from the crowd. After more trays of whiskey and the end of the set, a girl asks guitarist Louis O'Callaghan if she can try on his Stetson. He obliges; she runs out the door with it. The band is stunned.
Our music is for real, Amaker writes, but we need our hats. Don't mess with the hats.
Averting near disaster, one of the Dutch cowboys lets O'Callaghan buy his hat—a black Stetson knockoff purchased online—for 20 Euros.
The next day, it's on to Berlin for the big festival. Half of the band, including Amaker, is sick and medicating with foul-tasting European cough drops and other foreign stuff.
Some of the guys are treating their symptoms with little bottles of mysterious brown liquor from the truck stops. They don't know what it is. I think they're just happy it doesn't taste like licorice. About 60 percent of everything here tastes like licorice.
Amaker & the Rodeo are the only cowboys at Popkomm. They are the only cowboys in Berlin, for that matter. They've been wearing the same outfits the entire trip and things are getting crusty, but the Europeans are still enamored with the men in black.
This is a place where a cowboy can make a splash. We get "yee-haw"ed everywhere we go. People either love us or ignore us. Not a bad way to operate.
After a minor scare over a missed sound check (blame that strong Belgian beer), Amaker reschedules at the club, a rock 'n' roll bar called Aufsturz. A German sound check is unlike anything I've experienced, even in good Seattle clubs. Soundman Jens was asking Curtis [Andreen, drummer] which particular frequencies he'd like to emphasize in his kick-drum sound. Hell yeah. Some German MySpace fans arrive in Rodeo gear. This is not something I'm going to get tired of anytime soon.
The show starts and the cowboys roll. They're feeling the music, O'Callaghan spooling out a psychedelic guitar solo that wows the crowd while bassist Sugar McGuinn keeps the beat slow and steady. Like an inverse Borat, Amaker has brought the exaggerated heart of America into an alien place, and that place has embraced it.
After the show, I hear again and again, "We were just going to listen to the first song and go, but then we stayed for one more, and one more...."
The Popkomm organizers love the Rodeo's set and afterward whisk them away to VIP rooms and more trays of whiskey. Amaker is introduced to European booking agents and label reps. Plans to return are discussed.
I could get used to flying at this altitude. These people said some shit that I won't even repeat here, because no one will believe it. Even I'm not a big enough asshole to toot my horn that loud. Plus, I don't want to jinx shit.
The last night of the tour is back in rural Belgium. The band is beat and sagging, the partying and the schmoozing and the sickness catching up to them: You know what a balloon looks a couple days after you blow it up? Amaker drinks half a dozen Duvel beers to cut through the haze as the band gets into stern-faced character. The venue is almost empty.
Just as we're about to lose heart, the club fills with what I can only describe as Belgian rednecks. Smoke is thick, dudes are sweaty, and the beer is flying. One fan in particular is way too drunk. He keeps trying to get me to sing "Bad Moon Rising." In any language, this guy is an asshole. Then he jumps onto the stage and starts singing in Flemish through my mic. I give him a minute to goof off then I push him back toward the crowd. Honest, I barely nudge the guy. But he slips on the beer-covered stage and flies off like a cartoon. He bounces up and lunges back at me but Curtis and Mason [Lowe, lead guitarist] are right in his face. The music stops. It's fucking tense. I'm going through the worst-case scenario in my mind (six dudes in a tiny Belgian jail) when someone yells, "Ah, iss no problem. Eees a facking dronk!" A quick "1, 2, 3, 4!" from Sugar and we're back on track.