Music where they live: Singer Mary McBride's unconventional tour
Sunday, January 16, 2011
On Los Angeles's Skid Row, the epicenter of street life in the nation's homeless capital, an East Coast rock band is setting up a sound system in the enclosed courtyard of an apartment building for formerly homeless men and women.
Mary McBride, the band's singer, songwriter and namesake, scans the year-old building's exterior doors from behind mirrored aviator shades. Gospel and gangsta rap spill from the open apartments into the commons. A police helicopter hovers overhead, and sirens shriek up and down South San Pedro Street, which one Abbey Apartments resident calls "the drug highway to Hell."
People with mental and physical disabilities and histories of substance abuse -- people who had been chronically homeless before moving into the Abbey -- shuffle up and down the building's stairs, locked into daily routines that the guests with the Fender guitars are about to disrupt. A man wearing a Los Angeles Lakers jersey, athletic shorts and house slippers stops in front of McBride, who is adjusting her straw cowgirl hat.
"Are you guys any good?" he asks.
"You'll just have to find out," McBride says.
"All right, all right," he says. "We gonna find out if you any good."
He laughs. McBride laughs. Then she says to me: "On this tour, people don't come in liking us; we have to earn it."
McBride is several weeks into one of the riskiest, most unconventional summer tours in recent popular music history. Let other artists put the same old clubs and outdoor sheds on their schedules; McBride boldly began her "Home Tour" at Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola, and the itinerary included stops at a women's shelter, a halfway house, a VA hospital and a low-income housing complex for Native Americans in Gallup, N.M.
After writing "Home" in 2008, a song about a sense of belonging, McBride says, "I thought a lot about the meaning of home." And she began to conceptualize a tour that seemed to have no precedent. "I wanted to play music for people who might not ordinarily get a chance to hear live music, and I wanted to play it where they live, in places that are in some way providing shelter to people in need," she explains.
In Washington, where she grew up in a political family but was also influenced by the activist punk rock scene, McBride sang at two senior homes. There was a performance in Chicago for developmentally disabled people and another in Granger, Wash., for farmworkers.
In Los Angeles, both of her shows are at new apartment buildings surrounded by the bleakness and despair of Skid Row. It's an area that doesn't typically see touring musicians, unless their customized tour buses have taken a wrong turn on the way to the nearby Staples Center. On "The Home Tour," McBride has played in parking lots, community rooms, courtyards and on a basketball court, in front of occasionally unstable people who had never heard of her, let alone heard any of her music. The closest thing to a mass-appeal highlight on her CV: McBride performed "No One's Gonna Love You Like Me" in "Brokeback Mountain" and on the accompanying soundtrack. The gorgeous honky-tonk ballad would have made Patsy Cline proud, but it has never cracked the Hot 100 on Skid Row.
"There was no way to predict how the different audiences would react to us," McBride says. The unpredictability thrilled her.