Music News

California Screamin'

The first time I went on tour with Planes Mistaken for Stars, I came close to dying. It was the band's first trek across the country, in the summer of 1998, way before it had signed with the eminent indie label No Idea or perfected its vicious collision of punk, post-hardcore and rock and roll. Shit, some of the members weren't even old enough to drink. All four of them -- singer/guitarist Gared O'Donnell, guitarist/ singer Matt Bellinger, bassist Aaron Wise and drummer Mikey Ricketts -- were still citizens of Peoria, Illinois, months away from deciding to move to Denver. Their roadie, Jamie Drier, had yet to take over on bass (he was replaced last year by Chuck French, of Chicago's Peralta). They were a gang of small-town kids stoked to be driving around in a broken-down van, spitting out their songs and souls in random warehouses and basements every night.

But I almost died on that trip...of acute, utter embarrassment. Gared and I had been friends for a couple of years, and it seemed like a great idea for our two groups to tour the West Coast together. But things didn't jell as well as we thought they would. My band took itself way too seriously; Gared's knew how to laugh at everything. We had nice guitars and tons of effects pedals. Their equipment was held together with duct tape and dried sweat. And their music? It was a geyser of violence, a sloppy mess of sheer passion that made my group's obvious Radiohead worship look downright lame. I was terminally ashamed to share a stage with Planes every night, to see how visceral, cathartic and caustically honest these guys were. They walked it, too; their lives echoed their music, and their music echoed their lives.

It's funny how things come full circle. Six years later, I'm going out on the road with Planes Mistaken for Stars again -- this time as a roadie -- and we'll be following almost the same route we took back in '98. This tour, though, is a bit less modest than that first one. Planes was handpicked by Omaha's indie-rock powerhouse Cursive to be on the Plea for Peace tour, a series of high-profile concerts that also feature spoken-word poet Saul Williams and acoustic songwriter Mike Park. Park, former Skankin' Pickle vocalist and founder of Asian Man Records, started Plea for Peace in 2000. His main goal this year is to get young people registered to vote, ostensibly against George W. Bush. Planes is by far the heaviest act on the bill, but it's never been much of a banner-waving band. Denver loves Planes...but will a nation of fresh-faced, activist indie-rockers?

Monday, May 24 -- Provo, Utah: I get dropped off at Chuck's house at eight in the morning. Besides the band and myself, we're joined in the van by two of Planes's regular roadies: Dave Paco of Deadlock Frequency, a local hardcore outfit that Jamie and Matt once moonlighted in, and Zed Smith, a friend from back in the Peoria days. We're not even on I-70 when AC/DC's Highway to Hell is thrown on the stereo. Bon Scott starts screeching about "going to the promised land."

Later, somewhere on the way to Utah, a CDR of the new Planes album, Up in Them Guts, is played. Despite their self-deprecatory bitching, it's clear that the guys are proud of it; it's a huge leap forward, an ambitious mix of aggression, ethereality and intestine-trawling riffs that they have been working toward since 2001's formidable, if flawed, Fuck With Fire.

We pull into Provo at sundown and find the venue, an empty storefront called Starry Night. A hundred kids soon pack themselves into the small room. The stage is only big enough for Mikey to fit his kit on, so the rest of the band plays on the floor. Chuck is so engulfed by the crowd that you can't even see him. Afterward, dripping sweat, he laughs and says, "I got sucked out in the undertow. I got swept out to sea."

Tuesday, May 25 -- San Francisco, California: We leave Provo at 1 a.m. and drive straight through the night. Everyone's sore and surly. Somewhere near Reno, a Bill Hicks disc gets put on; the late comedian catalogues the evils of Billy Ray Cyrus and Jesse Helms, concluding that he'd prefer "the Satan-worshiping family down the block, the one with the good albums." The van roars in appreciation.

Tonight is the group's first on the Plea for Peace tour. The show is at San Francisco's venerable Great American Music Hall, a beautiful renovated theater covered with pigeon shit and toothless male prostitutes. After unloading the van and bathing in the dressing-room sink, I leave to hang out with some friends of mine who live nearby, in the Tenderloin district. By the time I drunkenly stumble back to the show, I've already missed Planes. We all go back to my friend's apartment and squeeze into his tiny living room for a night of backbreaking sleep.

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Jason Heller
Contact: Jason Heller