Following Al: Weird by Northwest

(Note: This concludes my “Following Al” trilogy of posts. If you missed them — which is totally understandable given I started this two years ago — here are part one and part two. For the curious, it was this announcement that got me off my duff to finish this post.)

What’s wilder than driving 550 miles over three days so as to see three “Weird Al” Yankovic concerts in one weekend?

Waking up that Monday, tired, but wanting more.

That feeling led to me looking at the remainder of the tour schedule to determine a) where in the world “Weird Al” would be wandering, and b) whether I might want to wander there, too.

Turns out, Al had a few shows coming up in the Pacific Northwest.

I love the Pacific Northwest. I don’t think I’ve taken the time to write about that love, but it’s a passionate long-distance relationship we have. I try to get out there at least every couple of years, and since Al’s tour was taking the band there about two years since my last trip the whole thing seemed kismet.

All I had to do was convince The Empress of Whisky that it was not unreasonable to spend a week of vacation and a lump of my savings on such an adventure.

It wasn’t a hard sell.

She is a huge Phish fan, and we have regularly planned travel around that band, so she very much understood where I was coming from.

Thus began a week-long trek during which I followed Al across two states, taking trains, planes, and automobiles, whilst interspersing visits to friends and conducting other fun activities with  The Empress.

We landed in Portland (PDX), hopped in our rental car, and headed west for the coast, stopping only for cheese and ice cream in Tillamook — yum.

We spent a night in a small beach town, enjoying seafood, local beer, and some dune hiking.

Next day we headed down the coastal highway, leisurely making our way through that beautiful landscape for a couple of hours before making a sharp turn east and setting our sights on Eugene, Oregon, where a small theater played host to Al and the band that night.

I’ll say this about Eugene — it’s flat. The city-part between the mountains, I mean. Not much in the way of trees. Not much in the way of buildings taller than three stories. But it’s a lovely town, with a great  pizzeria right next to the theater — perfect for a slice and a pint after the show — and a wonderful little cafe that is the first place I ever had a stroopwafel. (They’re delicious.)

Next morning, we turned our rented auto north to Portland, where we would spend a couple of nights in a wackily-decorated micro-hotel, visit friends, see the truly awesome Portland Japanese Garden, browse several nifty local shops, drink some fine local beers — and a whisky! — to fill all the hours that weren’t spent watching two shows in an old high school gymnasium-turned-music venue. Oh, Portland.

After Portland, The Empress and I parted ways with a kiss and plans to see each back home. She stuck around to go on a hiking adventure with local friends, and I continued to follow Al.

His next show was in Spokane.

Getting there from Portland was fun. I walked to a light rail station, hopped aboard  a very clean train (using the pass that came with our hotel room) and rode that down to PDX, which, by the way, is a helluva nice airport. It’s open and airy, and it has things like free wine tastings inside. Also? There is a small (20 seats or so) theater that shows short films all day.

All of which is to say I had some fun things to occupy my time while waiting on my flight.

When it came time to fly, I had an experience approaching “old time” air travel. First, I had to actually walk onto the tarmac to board the plane via a set of steps hanging out the side. Compared to the gates and walkways used to board modern commercial aircraft, that was a little strange.

Of course, my first flight was aboard a World War II era Czechoslovakian spy plane,* so I’m not fazed by much.

*(Note to self: Tell story of my first flight.)

Anyway, the plane was a small, 50-seat propeller-driven relic. Once aboard, it was like being in first class, as there were few of us, and the seats were old-timey large.

I tried not to think too much about what this said about the plane’s age, or its odds of making it over the Cascade Mountains.

Really, I just thought of what they’d say if I died in a crash.

“He was following ‘Weird Al’ around.”

“Oh, that makes sense.”

Others nod along.

“Pass the whisky,” someone would say, as this whole daydream takes place at a funeral that is more like a good bar party.

Anyway, the plane landed — with an authentic tiny-plane bump on the runway — and I was soon headed to my hotel room for a nap before the show, which was held in another quaint small-town theater. No cool pizzerias or diners here, but I did find a dive bar for a burger and beer before bed.

I didn’t get to spend too much time in bed, as I had to be up stupid early — I think it was 3 a.m. or so — to walk over to the train station where I would catch my ride over to Seattle.

I love riding the rails, and it was beautiful to doze a bit before waking to the sun coming up over the Cascades, through which we were traveling. If the occasion presents itself, I highly recommend that Tacoma-to-Seattle excursion.

Upon arriving to Seattle, I had a free day and night, so I spent them prowling old book stores, eating way too much good local food, and winding up watching Solo: A Star Wars Story, thus making me a perfect (at the time) 10-for-10 on seeing Star Wars films during their initial release weekend.

Next day I did some more city wandering — Seattle is awesome for just walking around and seeing neat stuff — before catching up with a local friend to visit her neighborhood brewery before seeing the fifth and final show of my weird week in the Pacific Northwest.

Next day it was back to life, back to reality, which in my case meant wondering whether I could extend my vacation, change my flight back, and maybe squeeze in the next show, which was, wait, in Calgary.

Maybe if it had been in Vancouver …

2019 Whisky Wind-down, 2: The Wind

A bottle of Passport Scotch whisky sits next to a poured dram and U.S. passport, which is open to a page showing a Costa Rica entry stamp.

Today’s dram: Passport Scotch

Today’s tasting notes: It’s a blend. It tastes as much like generic Scotch whisky as you can imagine, in this case on the peaty side with a slight rough edge. The label says its contents are “predominately from Speyside” — I don’t get a particular Speyside vibe off it, though — and it’s made by William Longmore & Co. It’s fine.

Today’s thoughts: I’m rarely drawn to blends, but this bottle called to me in the duty-free shop, so I picked it up on a lark because the name amused me in an international airport.

(There’s actually a story about buying this and then fighting with the TSA about it, but I don’t have a lot of time tonight, and I don’t need to get on any government watch lists, so I’ll save that gem for another day.)

This purchase was on the way back from Costa Rica, which you may recall was where this blog got stuck for a bit.

Frankly, I could still be there.

No, really. Everything in the past two years might just be a fever dream I’m having because I fell asleep in the sun on the beach. Totally possible. Partially desirable.

Part of the joy of the Costa Rica trip, after all, was spending some time outside the States, in the company of people who also needed, after our first year in neo-fascist America, to get away for a bit. The temptation to just never come back was mighty tempting.

I did not succumb to that one.

Instead, I let another temptation take me — the one to just lie down and shut up, to let the world go by, to let the bad things go unremarked.

I still don’t know what I should be saying about things, but I am here, in my home country, which will probably always be my home country, and I daily surround myself with the kind of people who make this a country worth staying in and worth fighting to keep free.

Today’s pseudo-philosophical attempt to relate whisky to life: A blend may or may not be stronger than the sum of its components, but it is a sum, not a single thing. Seems like there’s a lesson in there worth applying out here.

Today’s toast: To there (and back again).

Following Al: Weird Weekend

(Note: This is the second post in what was intended to be a trio. Like the first, it has languished in Draft Hell for a good portion of the time I was away from the site. I have finished it more or less as originally intended, so maybe just pretend you found it in the Archives? Great. Thanks. The final one will also happen, though maybe not immediately following this one.)

So, in 2018, “Weird Al” Yankovic was free for the first time.

Free from obligation, that is, to a record label. The prior year, with the release of Mandatory Fun, his 14th studio album, he had, at long last, fulfilled his recording contract and no longer owed anyone anything, professionally speaking.

How did he choose to celebrate? By taking the band on tour. Just the band, though. No costumes, fancy sets, monitors, backups, or extras. Not even the previously obligatory guest appearance by the local 501st Legion garrison.

It was just, as Al put it, “five old guys on stools, playing music.”

Some background here: I already mentioned how long I’ve been a fan. My concert-going days had to wait a while, but ever since I’ve had the means — starting during my college years — I have seen Al at least once on every tour that has come through Georgia, and he almost always comes through Georgia.

I’ve see him everywhere from terrible lawn seats in the Valdosta heat at Wild Adventures to front row at the Fabulous Fox Theatre in Atlanta, something like a dozen shows all together.

I had not, however, generally gone to the effort to see him more than once on any particular tour. Not that I don’t love the shows, but the big shows have always been pretty predictable — the latest hits, plus a few old favorites, with the odd deep cut tossed in. I loved the shows, but within a tour, they were the same, night to night.

Not this time.

This time, the shows would feature mostly original songs. None of the big parody numbers. And, and … every night would feature a different set list, pulled from about 70 songs the band rehearsed for this tour.

To say I was a little excited would be to terribly understate the issue. I immediately sought out dates near me and found two: A show in Augusta on Saturday, followed by an Atlanta show the next night. I set an alarm on my phone for the time tickets went on sale, and I pounced to get good seats for both.

Two shows! Both different! Wooo!

And yet … there was the temptation for more.

I looked around to see where else, within relatively easy driving distance, the tour would swing through.


It’s only two hours from Atlanta. Easy. But … that show was the Friday right before the Augusta show on Saturday. Augusta is also two hours (plus a bit) from Atlanta. Did I really want to drive two hours to Chattanooga, see a show, drive two hours home, sleep (a bit), get up, drive two more hours to Augusta, see a show, sleep (a bit), drive two hours home, then watch a third show?

No, I did not.

Want to drive that much.

I absolutely wanted to see three shows in three nights.

Reluctantly, I let the opportunity pass, consoling myself that I would have two shows in two nights, and that would be fantastic.

Then a funny thing happened.

My job decided I needed to attend a conference the week leading up to these shows. The conference was in Nashville.

Funny thing about Nashville — it’s two hours north of Chattanooga, a total of four from Atlanta.

Now, some people, having bought tickets to see shows on Saturday and Sunday and now having to drive an extra four hours the day before said shows, might be a tad grumpy.

I was ecstatic.

See, I had to drive through Chattanooga to get home.

And if I was going to drive through Chattanooga anyway, damned if I wouldn’t stop for a “Weird Al” show.

Thus it came to pass that, counting from Friday morning through Sunday night, I drove a little over eight hours (traveling about 550 miles), watched three concerts (about six hours total), and slept, well, some.

I was a tired monkey come Monday.

A tired, happy monkey.

Whisky Wind-down, 1: Life’s a Beach

A pair of hands hold mini-bottles of Maker's Mark bourbon. In the background, rain begins to fall on a tropical beach.

Today’s dram: Maker’s Mark

Today’s tasting notes: This is an old favorite. A classic for a reason. Well made to the same standard for better than a century. Good, warm, just enough bite.

Bourbon is an American creation. Today, it’s a reminder to me. Of home, when I’m away from it. And of the good things there that make it worth going back to.

Mostly that’s people, of course. Family. Friends. Friends who are like family.

But also ideals. Liberty. Equality.

We may fail, often, and years like 2017 may make us question the strength of our society and its commitment to those ideals, but we endure.

Today’s thoughts: Privilege. I acknowledge it. From a beach in another country, together with like-minded friends, I prepare to watch a new year roll in, and I know, within a reasonable margin of error, I’ll be fine in the coming year.

I didn’t feel this way as this year began. I felt quite a lot of trepidation, in truth. And 2017 has not been a year to be proud of, as an American.

Or, bluntly, for me as a writer, as someone who feels compelled to speak up, speak out, but all too often fails, allowing inertia, apathy, and whisky to prevail in place of the long, difficult slog that is activism.

Will 2018 be better?

I don’t know.

But as I sit on a tropical beach, miles away from responsibility and stress, I still find my thoughts turning toward all the things I could have said and done better this year, and I’m not ready to leave off just yet.

Today’s observation on the weather: It rained pretty hard for a couple of hours today, eventually driving most everyone away from the beach, and throwing kinks into the evening plans of locals and tourists alike.

That happens, even in tropical paradise.

But now it’s clearing, and the sun’s gone down, and plans will be re-configured, or new ones made.

Time will roll on, weather and human perceptions of its passage notwithstanding.

Today’s toast: To tomorrow. Always tomorrow.

Whisky Wind-down, 2: Done?

A hand holds a mini-bottle of Bushmills 10-year-old single-malt Irish whisky. In the background, a pool, Christmas lights, and a palm tree bedecked with Christmas lights.

Today’s dram: Bushmills Irish Whisky, Single Malt, 10 Years Old

Today’s tasting notes: It’s clearly Irish whisky, smooth and easy, but there’s also some slight edge to it, with a pronounced maltiness you don’t get in the original Bushmills.

I’d like to tell you something about the aroma, but I drank this right out of the mini-bottle, so I didn’t get much.

Today’s thoughts: Bluntly? I’m tired. Good tired, but still.

I spent the day on the road, crossing from mountainous northwestern Costa Rica down to the central Pacific coast. It was a lovely drive, in good company, but still.

Now I sit, resting my bones, in a hostel by the beach, with my whisky and muchos cervezas artesanals, in good company, and it’s all I can manage to post this by midnight back home.

It’s been a long day, one of many in this interminable year, and it’s all I can manage to imagine finishing this commitment as the year ends.

I may not.

It may be the mood will take me away, and I’ll spend the day in good company, ending the year sans whisky, sans writing, sans commentary.

It may be I shall touch the Happy Isles, and see the great Achilles … no, wait, that’s not me.

Sure, I sometimes roam with a hungry heart, but I am no Ulysses, nor his chronicler.

I have much to say before winding the year down with one last whisky. Thoughts that have been brewing all year. Thoughts I alluded to at the beginning of this series.

Only now, at the end, I find myself not wanting to think. Or write. Only pura vida.

So, it may be you’ll hear from me tomorrow, as scheduled.

But if not, don’t worry. I’m fine.

And I’ll return. Some day.

Today’s toast: To good intentions.