I have played in many bands of various successes over the last 14 years (over half my life!), but only once have I attempted the journey into the USA. It's a tough go for bands to get into the states unless they have attained a certain success here in Canada, are playing a festival or are backed by a record label that will get your way across the border with ease.
Well, one of the bands I was in, Ichor, was none of those things, but we had landed ourselves a show in NYC and one in Baltimore with our friends band, I Spoke, so we decided to hit the road in May of 2003 (I think). We made a 4 day weekend out of it to allow ourselves a day of travel in each direction. Being extremely nervous about the border, we took a very long detour from Toronto to Kingston, to a border crossing we had heard was easier to cross at and brought 2 cars and minimal equipment to try and make it an easier go at the border. Even though we just looked like 4 guys crossing, we still got stopped and questioned. The guy must have been in a good mood, because he bought our story about 'visiting a friend and bringing our instruments so we can jam with him' without pulling us over for more questioning.
Onward we went to New York, feeling a bit lighter leaving the border behind us. Eventually, of course, we had to stop for gas somewhere along the way. If you've ever filled up south of the border, especially in one of the shadier areas, you have encountered the pre-pay rules that they have. I had never encountered this myself, so I went to ask the cashier what the deal was. They guy was this very fat and greasy with super long hair. I asked him, 'How do we fill up the car', to which he replied, 'You give me the money and then fill up'. 'What if we don't use all of the money's worth?' I asked. He then flipped his hair back like he was in a Head and Shoulders ad and said 'If I like you, I'll give you the change. If I don't like you, I'll rape you and then give you the change.' I can't remember if we used up the money's worth of gas, but I can say for sure that I didn't go back for the change.
Eventually we arrived at a hotel north of Manhattan and went to check in. When two of us went to sign in, they were telling us the room rules, which included a maximum of 3 people. Well, we had very little money and 9 people, so we had to find a way to get around that issue. So, armed with the knowledge of their policy and seeing the sign saying that the entrance was under video surveillance, we devised a plan. We took 2 people of similar stature and had them carry in some stuff, then one person would go out and take in another person of similar stature, wearing first persons hat and glasses, and so on, until we were all in. Then we proceeded to spread across the room, littered on beds and the floor.
In the morning we got up and headed for the venue. The show went off without much problem, other than the fact that the headlining band we were to play with didn't show up. The venue was this neat place called ABC No Rio, where some concert promoters squatted in a place and made the power work, and then the city agreed to sell them the spot for $1 if the people involved with the venue would spend the money to bring it up to code. I haven't visited the venue in years, but their site is still up so I assume that they got the work done. Anyhow, after the show, which was a matinee, we decided to make the trip to Baltimore since we had a place to stay for free there. We took off in our separate cars with no specific plans other than getting there. Within an hour or two, we had lost site of each other on the highway. Our car stopped at a service station, hoping the other car might be there, but they weren't and we couldn't get cell service. After an hour or so of waiting and playing this crazy arm wrestling arcade game that had a robotic arm sticking out.
We got to Baltimore at some point around dinner hour and got a hold of my friend Cole and eventually met up with him (hopefully I can one time articulate the interesting coincidence that led to me meeting him in the first place). As the night went on, we got a little worried. Finally at maybe 10 o'clock, we got a hold of the other guys, who told us they were about to get a hotel and head home in the morning. Luckily we avoided that situation and we all went back to Cole's house. We had a great time in Baltimore and Cole is the most hospitable host that a person could hope for. The show was at another community oriented place called Charm City Art Space and was full of great people and fun bands. We stayed another night at Cole's and developed a great bond with the other musicians and Cole's friends. This is an experience I have had many times in my several trips to Baltimore over the years.
Leaving Baltimore was a bittersweet experience. We were sad to leave, but it was such a terrific time that it all evened out. We left feeling pretty good about the experience and were pretty lackadaisical about crossing the border. We were wearing band t-shirts and playing loud music and completely forgetting that the border is just as likely to detain you on the way back into your country as when you are leaving it.
Both cars (crossing at the same time, idiotically) got pulled into the check point simultaneously and they tore apart our cars. They took all the bags and musical instruments out searching for anything that might incriminate us. By some miracle, they didn't open up my bag, which contained all of the flyers and merch we were selling. They finally, in a last ditch effort, asked us outright if we had any drugs; or spiky necklaces, bracelets, anything that can be used as a weapon. When we (truthfully) said we didn't, they were forced to let us return to our home country. The experience was super nerve-racking and left both bands thinking that although the trip was a lot of fun, we didn't think we'd go back into the states until we could do it properly, and so far, I haven't.