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Seven shows, 2,800 miles, and one (beat-up) van

Contra Public's first statewide tour is a test of its endurance, song list and radiator hoses

Posted: Friday, July 11, 2003

On the eve of its first tour through Southcentral Alaska and the Interior, Juneau contemporary rock band Contra Public bought ferry tickets to Haines on July 8 and mapped out the smoothest, flattest path it could find through the Yukon and back into Alaska.

From Haines, it was a matter of willing its beat-up and leaky 1984 Ford Econoline 18-passenger van 665 miles northwest up the Alaska Highway and into Fairbanks.

The band's first show was Thursday, June 10, at the Totem Inn in Healy. Fairbanks, 110 miles northeast, was a strategic spot. The band could rent a new van there, if necessary.

Their tour runs July 10 to 19 and winds through at least seven shows in Healy, Fairbanks, Anchorage, Girdwood and Homer.

"You just want to get to the next town, and get what you need," said Cole Chitty, acoustic guitarist and singer, before the band left Juneau. "The stuff we need to worry about is the water pump and the lower radiator hoses. We gave it a pretty solid tune-up about two months ago, and we've been doing what we can."

Touring is a test of endurance and contingency plans, and touring out of Southeast Alaska, and into the Interior, can be a logistical gamble. Musicians have to plan for ferry conditions, border delays and interminable distances between isolated destinations. They have be somewhat confident they can break into the well-established summer circuit of bands that loop between Anchorage and Fairbanks.

And where to buy food? How much money and equipment to bring? Where to stay? And will anyone come to the show?

"It's Plan B after Plan B," Chitty said. "You just don't want to spend more than you have to."

"The goal right now is to make the music pay for itself," said Dakota Max, singer and guitarist. "We've really figured out how much we need to crack down during the last month. Before that, it's a little here and there, and you don't know which way it's going to go."

Juneau groups Panhandle Crabgrass Revival Band and Peabody's Monster have put together their own tours in the last three years, but Southeast bands don't tour very often. Cyndi Ramirez, lead booker at Humpy's, one of the largest clubs in Anchorage, said Contra Public is the first Southeast band she's ever booked.

It's a matter of isolation, money and organization. And for Contra Public, this tour means they've accomplished a lot since they became a four-piece group nine months ago. In the past six months, they've doubled their song list and can now play for four hours - what many clubs in Alaska require.

"It's a long road of just hustling and bustling and working it all out," said drummer Alex Romero. "We've played venues here in town to pay for a lot of it, but a lot of it comes from our pockets as well. Money-wise, it's just scrimp and save."

"You get to see all of Alaska and meet all these new people," said bass player Bud Curtis. "By the time you come back, you didn't really spend anything. So you're not out that much money."

Contra Public began planning its tour in September. The plan was to travel with Peabody's Monster and open along the way. But Peabody's had a few personnel changes and was forced to drop out. Peabody's has still helped out, donating gear and advice.

Romero was the sound man when Peabody's toured the Interior in the summer of 2001.

"Fairbanks and Anchorage are a bigger version of what's going on here in Juneau," Romero said. "In Fairbanks, I felt smaller than some of the musicians around me, but in other places, like Talkneetna, out there in the sticks, they really appreciated us a lot. You felt like you had really done something."

Contra Public plans to travel in a caravan: two in the 18-passenger van, two more in Curtis' car and two friends in a support minivan. All four band members drive. The Econoline, which used to belong to Skagway Air, has enough room to fit all the band's gear and allow two people to sleep. They have camping equipment, if they need it.

"When (Peabody's Monster) was up there before, we'd pull over and sit under a tree and relax for awhile," Romero said. "We'd stop and hit golf balls into the wilderness, and people would be at a rest stop and we'd tell them about the tour. A lot of them were just traveling to see Alaska, and if they had a night to kill, they'd come see us."

The tour began Thursday, July 10, at Healy's quasi-legendary Totem Inn, down the road from Denali Park's Glitter Gulch.

"The Totem is sort of a gathering place for the people who are working at Denali," said Panhandle Crabgrass banjo player Erik Chadwell. "It's just party central. You get sucked right in there, and before you know it, it's the next day, and you're still awake."

Contra Public must be in Fairbanks on Friday, July 11, for a show at The Marlin. The next day, the band plays at Alice's Champagne Palace in Homer, approximately 584 miles, or 11 hours, southwest.

"We'll leave Fairbanks at 3 a.m. and get into Homer at 3 or 4 p.m.," Curtis said.

After the Fairbanks-to-Homer haul, the grind is somewhat easier. The band has two shows in Anchorage, July 15 at a laid-back juice bar called The Organic Oasis and July 18 at Humpy's. They play July 16 at Max's in nearby Girdwood, return to the Totem Inn on July 19, then spend two days rafting and hiking before returning to Juneau. They plan to bring cigarette lighters decorated with the band's logo and 300 copies of their four-song demo to sell along the way.

"Every venue is different," Romero said. "In Anchorage, they'll have sound equipment, you barely need anything. In Healy, there's nothing there, we have to support the entire sound. It's a different kind of thing when you're a traveling band. No gig is the same."

Korry Keeker can be reached at korry.keeker@juneauempire.com.



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