08/13/2012 07:13 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

My Vacation With Brazzaville

My friends know that I have a tendency to not plan my vacations, primarily because all my mental energy for the last 8 years has been taken up by work -- the 2008 Obama campaign, the AFL-CIO and starting the New Organizing Institute being the primary three, and dealing DC politics as an added task. Typically, my lack of planning, has resulted in a nice stay-cation or a local trip to the mountains, which I greatly enjoy. This time, however, I followed the band Brazzaville on their house concert tour through the northeastern United States. I learned (and relearned) a lot of things over the week and was struck by the string of happy accidents that had led me and everyone else to where we were.

I had already decided to take the next week off from work because by a miracle of scheduling luck, I didn't have anything on the calendar. The first day of my vacation was on a Saturday and I was still in DC. My co-worker Pilar and her husband had invited our whole staff and their other friends to a house concert for Brazzaville, a band which she and her husband Chris found several years ago through CD Baby, an online site that promotes the work of independent musicians.

It wasn't a given that I'd actually go to the show, I'm rather reliable at work, but in my personal life, I bail on people all the time because I'd rather stay home or do something by myself. Call it introversion or laziness or bad planning, it's usually some combination of the three. But I went. I asked Pilar about how this show came to be. A couple years ago, David who is the founder and lead of Brazzaville put out a call to fans via email asking if they wanted to host a house concert and and Chris and Pilar took him up on the offer. As soon as I heard about it, I was immediately fascinated by this house concert model of band tours. My experience in online organizing for political campaigns always included organizing events with volunteers like the Obama houseparties in 2008. I had also been spending a lot of time reading about and thinking about what it takes for musicians to make a living in the digital era, so this seemed like something really interesting to consider.

I learned more about the east coast US tour which they had started in Florida and come through the Carolinas and would take them from DC to New York for two nights, Boston, and then three days near Providence, Rhode Island. And so every day for the next week became a happy mix of driving, finding a place to sleep, seeing friends, going to shows, talking to people about the music industry, and getting to know the music and fans of Brazzaville.

Brazzaville's music is sweet and rich with threads of folk, bossa nova, rock, tropicalia, spanish, and rock. The band has had many formations over the years, this part of the tour was with David Brown the founder and lead of Brazzaville and Kenny Lyon, the guitar/ukulele/melodica/bass player who has been with Brazzaville since the beginning. Kenny grew up in Spain, Florida and Africa playing the guitar, played with the Lemonheads and lives in Los Angeles now. David grew up in Los Angeles, played saxophone with Beck, started Brazzaville fifteen years ago and has lived in Barcelona with his wife and two children for the past nine years.

The Beginning

When I arrived to the Saturday show at Chris and Pilar's, it was a brutally hot and humid Washington, DC summer night and they had set up the living room so Brazzaville could play for the crowd. The A/C tried to keep up and the cold beers and mango popsicles from Pilar helped to cool folks off. Before the show Chris introduced me to Kenny. Chris said I should really talk to him about all my questions and thoughts about the music industry.

Most of the folks were friends of Chris and Pilar, some of whom had come to the show in 2010. A handful were fans in the area that had learned about the show through Brazzaville's email list. There was a group of about 10 Russians that were completely delighted to have the opportunity to be at an intimate house concert with Brazzaville. I got the explanation that Brazzaville's largest fan base is in Russia, and no matter where we were over the next week, there was always a Russian, Turk, or Ukranian in the crowd.

David took requests from the crowd, taught us the chorus on songs like "Love is the Answer". We clapped to other songs, and he told the stories of where the songs came from in his life. David's deep melodic voice and the harmony of Kenny with the complimentary guitar chords and solos were enticing. David asked for requests and the Russians were the first to oblige. The first time they asked for one he maybe wasn't expecting he exclaimed "OH! Okay, yeah, let's do it! It's been a long time since we've done that one!" and they'd be quickly into the song. We snapped along to "Inland Empire Freeways" (Watch a version at a Russian house concert here.) Kenny has a calm and strong presence, and when he played you could tell he really experienced the music. That first night, they held a simultaneous aura of elusive, fancy rock stars and guys you might run into playing guitar in the park who would ask you to join them in a song.

After the show, Chris and I saw the Russian women whispering to each other near the door and looking down at the set list. Eventually they walked out in front of the house, and Chris said, "I think they were talking about stealing the set list." He picked up the paper and took it out to the women who were still talking on the sidewalk -- they left completely delighted.

If I hadn't been on vacation, I would have been inclined to go home to bed so I could take Sunday to get ready for the next week. But luckily I felt no compulsion to go to bed early that night, and I stayed with a few other folks for several more hours. First, sitting on the back porch and then eventually back inside where we got an encore presentation that included the ukulele that had been causing sound problems earlier. Kenny joked it was haunted, it was unpredictably unreliable, and it had been repaired several times but was still a mystery.

Chris made a pitcher of a gin-based drink that included fresh herbs from his garden. The drink was swiftly named a "Brazza-rita" and we had a sing-along. Chris played some of his own songs, and through some courage I was even convinced to play one of mine. I made it home around 2am, inspired, I played a few songs and went to bed.

It was 12noon on Tuesday in DC, and none of my NY friends who I had reached out to were free to go to the show in New York at Joe's Pub. I drove up to New York anyway, found a place to stay and bought a ticket to the show. I told myself that I could just go for the show and then head to the mountains the next day if I wanted to or I could go to Boston for another show too. Care-free vacation, no planning.

I felt awkward about showing up again to their show, although judging from their popularity with the Russians, this clearly wasn't a new phenomenon for Brazzaville. It didn't seem like the thing to do to explain I followed them to New York because 1) love love love the music 2) I'm curious about the life of a musician and they are the only professional musicians I had ever talked to for more than 2 minutes, and 3) I've been learning about the music industry and scene for the past year, and I'm trying to understand how it's working and how it could work better. It seemed like a bit much to say in a second conversation, so I decided just to deal my awkwardness and go with it.

Near the merch table before the show, I met Lissa, a superfan of Brazzaville. David recognized her name immediately from their interaction online, he said eagerly "Are you Lissa PepperoniPizza on Facebook?!" Lissa smiled broadly as they chatted. She had recently graduated from NYU in the sciences and came to the show with her best friend Eli. She told him she has been a fan ever since she was 8 years old growing up in Alaska.

This would be the only time that I saw them play in a venue that wasn't a house, but it still felt intimate - David's charismatic stage presence was warm and engaging as he took the crowd through a mix of songs from the latest album, Jetlag Poetry, all the way back through songs off the first album from 1998. I was blown away by how many songs they could play off the top of their head - anything requested, any night - if a flicker of a question came over David's face, he turned to Kenny and they seemed to figure it out telepathically.

The show was cut a bit short, as Joe's Pub had back to back events in the space, and after just two beers we had to end. David and Kenny stayed to mingle with fans at the merch table for a long while. They both seem to genuinely enjoy getting to talk with folks that come to the shows. Kenny told me that one of the best parts of these house concerts, as they aren't all that financially lucrative, is the incredible people you get to meet. It was definitely the most of the many rewarding things for me that week.

The following day I met up with two good friends for some beers next door to my hotel. Back in 2004, Justin started Drinking Liberally, which is a national network of liberals who get together socially at bars to talk about politics. It spun off and developed a comedy tour called Laughing Liberally and several other networks. His college roommate and a good friend of mine Matt joined us as well. He had been knocked out by the flu, but I appreciated that he rallied to join us since we were in his neighborhood. Matt just got back to New York after spending a couple months in Los Angeles where he is on Russell Brand's new show BrandX talking about all things political, economic, and cultural -- a new experiment I was happy to see has been picked up for 7 more shows.

Again, my friends couldn't make the show, Justin had a birthing class with his wife, and Matt had a dinner with his girlfriend. I really wanted a friend to come because again I had this anxiety about going to the show that night. And every show as it turned out. I thought to myself - what if Kenny and David give me a dirty look instead of being welcoming? Of course it never happened because these guys and their house concert hosts were so wonderful and lovely. I will say though, it was a bit odd to follow them around the northeastern US, seeing them do the show and staying for a drink after and then reappearing again the next night at a different city, not my usual experience of how I get to know people. After New York, every show night also involved my goofy explanation to the local folks of who I was and how I ended up there. I had a choice, either stop following them or just go with it, so I chose the second.

For Wednesday evening's show, I arrived at David S's loft in Tribeca at 8pm. Being on time meant I was very early, I possibly could have figured that out, but I am 100% trained to be on time from my work life. No matter, I handed Kenny the beer I had brought, and I played with the labordoodle until the other guests arrived.

David had invited all the attendees from the show at Joe's Pub, and I was delighted when Lissa showed up with Eli. This time she really engaged since it was an all-request show and she sat front and center. I'd say she made an excellent setlist through her requests. They ended the evening with Jesse James, which might have been the only song they played every night I saw them. They took a nice video of it below, where you can see the host on the floor in the background playing keyboards and his son in the red chair right in front. Be sure to watch for the incredibly loud/funny sneeze at the beginning from one of the other audience members that causes initial confusion and then an almost giggle-fest from David. We all shared a moment there.

On Thursday, I drove up to Boston rather early in the day to meet with Chris B who is the Assistant Director of Harvard's Cyberlaw Clinic. He's a lawyer who spent 10 years as Senior Director at EMI Music North America. For the last two years he's hosted a conference at Harvard's Berkman Center for Internet and Society called "Rethink Music". I asked him an endless stream of questions and learned that often an artist doesn't own any of his or her music. A record company owns the recording, publisher owns the actual notes, and ASCAP, BMI, or CSAC collect money from TV, radio, internet, etc on behalf of writers and publishers. Crazy!

We also talked about the traditional method that artists would go through if they were able to get a contract. They would get signed by a label and be paid a signing bonus up front. The label would pay for the making of the record and the promotion. This could end up being hundreds of thousands of dollars that the artist is now unrecouped and the contract they sign gives up all their rights. If the album or tour make money, they have to pay back everything that was spent before they see any money, so are very often in debt to the record company for a long amount of time. And those were the "lucky" ones who got a contract.

I told Chris B about my tour with Brazzaville and how it reminded me of the online organizing we do in the social change sector, where folks host houseparties to engage their constituency around their cause. I told him some of my random ideas about how the streaming services could give more money to the artists if they had a higher-dollar "Fan" subscription. How fans could be organized to demand transparency in payment of royalties. Or how organizing principles could be applied to a band's fan community. He was really generous with his time and helped validate my nascent idea that the craft of organizing could be useful in the music space. We agreed to stay in touch and I left to find a place to stay that night.

When I got to the house concert that night, I was greeted by the hosts Steve and Elizabeth and offered food and drinks. I went to the back yard and found David and Kenny were getting the sound set up and were about ready to start. Strands of small white lights draped across the fence and gave the yard a soft glow. They invited folks to move closer and put the crowd at ease. "You can come sit closer if you want ... you guys are still way too far away ... there's this huge hole up here it's like we're playing a festival or something it should be full of photographers... we don't really need this much security... you don't look dangerous." The audience moved forward and relaxed into the set. About halfway through, one of the Russian fans requested "Sewers of Bangkok" off the first album, which is definitely now in my top 3 favorites.

After the first set was finished, they took a break so folks could get more food and drink. I had a few minutes to talk with Elizabeth who told me she is a graphic designer, hence the lovely flyer design. She told me how she got connected with the band, and how much fun she was having. I asked if she would do it again. "Absolutely! It took some work to put it together this time, since it was the first time, but it would be easier to do it again and it's so great!" Steve brought out a big bundle of mangosteens, a fruit I had never seen or tried, but makes frequent appearances in Brazzaville songs because, as David explains "they are a mysterious fruit that I've long been fascinated with." The crowd gathered around the stage where Steve taught the art of taking off the outer layer to reveal the soft, white lychee-like fruit inside, and wow - so delicious. The mangosteen can be seen on the flyer Elizabeth made on the cigarette pack.

It was getting late, and so to not disturb the neighbors they played the second set acoustic, which sounded incredible, including one of my favorites "Clouds in Camarillo" that David wrote about his mother. I ended the evening having one more drink before taking a cab back to Cambridge.

Friday started with lunch with Marshall Ganz, who teaches organizing and public narrative at Harvard. Lunch was cut a bit short because he and I share the same penchant to let our Prius' run nearly completely out of gas, despite the clear warning sign that displays "Add Fuel" and the blinking gauge indicator, so he had to take care of that before he made it meet me. I would enjoy even the shortest lunch with Marshall, he's one of those exceptional people in my life who I feel so lucky that I get to spend time with every time I see him.

We talked about the two organizing projects I recently started exploring -- stopping the private prison industry in America and working with the music fan and artist community. He gave me a book to read about the moral limits of markets, called What Money Can't Buy, and he somehow managed to understand and explain back to me within 2 minutes my absolute revulsion of the private prison industry.

I hadn't known before how much music Marshall listens to, and we talked about how the music community is an obvious group to organize. The constituency of music fans is both large and passionate. And not to mention the music fans for a particular band like Brazzaville are so committed. It's the same thing I see in other organizing spheres, if you give people a way to contribute, like host a an event at their house, people will step up and have been grateful for the opportunity to do more. He pointed me to another book, Music and Social Movements: Mobilizing Traditions in the Twentieth Century and told me about some of his memories of music in his organizing efforts.

After driving down to Providence in some not lovely Friday-afternoon-escape-from-the-city traffic, I had a chance to sit down with David in a coffee shop near where the house concert was going to be that night. We discussed his experience as a life-long musician, father, husband, band founder, independent artist, drug addict, and American living in Spain. We talked about his 6 months out of the year travels, marriage, connection with fans, the ship tour he'll be doing next summer in Russia down the Volga River, policy and bureaucracy, and his work to try and directly improve the lives of the most vulnerable in society during his trip to Russia. I could have talked to him for hours, he's the kind of person you want to get to know better.

He is very open about his past with drugs and alcohol. Nearly every biography makes reference to it as part of his life. I was curious about his openness and willingness to discuss it, which seemed incredible to me, since I'm such a private person. I asked him as we walked out to my car about it. He said people ask him at shows about the fact that he isn't drinking. He said he talks about it because it seems to make it easier for people who are maybe struggling and wondering if they have a drug or alcohol problem to talk to him about it.

We talked about the house concert model of touring and reminded me that while somewhat unusual in the United States, it's actually quite an ancient tradition for musicians to play in people's homes. He said that the idea to do house concerts in the US came from touring in Russia and hearing about their tradition of "kvartirniki" or apartment concerts. There were many venues in the Soviet Union for music but not for the type of music (rock and roll) that the young people wanted to play and listen to so they were forced to hold secret apartment concerts in people's flats and those were called Kvartirniki (from the word kvartira for flat). In Russia, even where they play huge shows, they still play house concerts, because they want that experience. And he likes house concerts because of the environment that is created and direct connection with the audience.

The house concert on Saturday night was again in a backyard of a local fan of Brazzaville. The heat hadn't dissipated from the hot summer day yet, and the mild breeze brought a nice relief when it blew every few minutes. The crowd seemed mostly to know each other and were friendly and conversational. Towards the beginning of the show, Kenny finally solved the mystery of the haunted ukulele -- humidity. We later joked about the aftermarket opportunity to sell tiny, portable ukelele air conditioners.

The next morning, I woke up and learned the second guitar part of Anabel 2, which was originally a synthesizer part on the album. But I couldn't figure out the chords by ear. Despite the caffeine and lack of sleep, I felt calmer and more lucid than I had in months. David and Kenny and the Brazzaville music had had an effect I hadn't anticipated. I was starting to feel more present and I remembered consciously that the human soul needs joy. I need joy in my life. Something you'd think I'd know, but every couple years I have to be reminded of it. The US is in a an emotional depression - not just an economic depression - a real cultural separation of what is good for people as human beings and the structures we have developed to organize our society. As we hopefully pull our economy back to solve the economic crisis, we need to think of music as part of the solution to solve the emotional crisis of our country as well.

Saturday's house concert was just twenty minutes east of Providence in Westport, Massachusetts. The show was the perfect end to my vacation with Brazzaville. I found a place to stay and took a drive around the area for a couple hours. It's a beautiful rural area, painted with waterways and trees and roads paved with the kind of old-style tar that bubbles in the extreme heat. Brazzaville was the final act of a day-long music line-up in Thatcher's back yard. They were clearly serious music fans and had probably a better music setup than many of the venues I've been to in DC. Despite some initial audio weirdness, after they got it straightened out, they sounded incredible that night and Kenny's guitar solos rang. It was great to see some familiar faces -- several of us had come to one of the previous shows and it started to feel like community.

Steve and Elizabeth, the Boston house concert hosts, had sent me earlier in the day the mp3's of the Boston show and they drove down for the Saturday show in Westport. Their friends David and Steve from Providence were there, and I got to hear about their adoption of a beautiful 2 year old girl. After the show, we ended the night talking around a table lit with citronella candles. Steve told Kenny that his guitar playing was amazing that night, and we all agreed. And David told a story about when he bought three kilos of mangosteens with his wife in Thailand on the island of Ko Samui and they ate them all in one sitting because they were so incredibly good but then they felt ill.

"I think it would have been OK if it was only two kilos," he said, and we all laughed.

The rest of the crowd had left, and the group kindly indulged my request for a photo.

The End

I had a lot of time to think on the eight hour drive back to DC on Sunday and I have so many more thoughts from this trip I'd like to share about organizing the music community, getting to know David and Kenny, music and playing the guitar, and the role of music in creating community.

Thank you to the community of Brazzaville fans that made this possible. Pilar and Chris in DC, David and his family in NY, Elizabeth and Steve in Somerville, MA, the lovely folks in Providence, Rhode Island, and Thatcher in Westport, MA. And the whole Brazzaville community from Russia to Turkey to Charleston to Boston.

Finally, a sincere thank you to David and Kenny and Brazzaville. Your music, generous spirit, and warmth are a bright spot in this world.