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Music where they live: Singer Mary McBride's unconventional tour

By J. Freedom duLac
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 16, 2011; W12

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.

Outside a couple of club dates and fundraisers, all of "The Home Tour" concerts are free, with no real potential for merchandise or album sales. Financing has been an ongoing issue. In fact, McBride, who usually generates most of her revenue through touring, is giving away hundreds of copies of her latest CD, "The Way Home," a notable gesture of generosity for an artist who already struggles to make a living.

"It's not a terribly good business model," she says of the 26-show tour. "But everyone wonders at some point in their life: What kind of mark am I making? To me, the benefit of doing this is obvious. We're allowing people to take a pause from their daily struggles. We don't necessarily go in to cheer people up, but we are cheering people up."

At the Abbey Apartments, where most of the residents are black, McBride, who most certainly is not, steps to the microphone to begin her set. Two gospel singers -- one of whom lives at the Abbey -- had worked as her warm-up acts.

McBride, 41, grew up wishing she could be "a big gospel singer" herself. Now, she's belting "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot," her rugged, force-of-nature voice flooding the courtyard as she slowly unpacks the old spiritual like some distant relative of gospel legend Marion Williams. (The New York Times has described her voice as "part angel, part truck driver, as if to say sometimes you power through sadness, and sometimes you just hope for a miracle.")

"Swiiiiiiing lowwwwwwwwww

Sweet charrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr-iot.

Coming forrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr

To carry

Meeeeeeeeeeee

Hommmmmmmmmmmmmmme."

McBride's vibrato-laden voice swoops and soars before the band joins in. "Come on, sister!" a woman shouts. "Sing it, sister!" another woman exhorts. A group of women dances in time along the fourth-floor railing, and a man wanders aimlessly wearing a broad smile and a T-shirt that says "I don't suffer from insanity, I enjoy every minute of it."

Men and women in folding chairs raise their arms to the sky. The skeptic in the Lakers jersey unleashes a volley of ear-piercing whistles, the sweet sound of approbation. Afterward, after the band's signature show-closer, a rollicking version of "Amazing Grace" set to the famous Keith Richards rhythm-guitar riffs of "Honky Tonk Woman," Abbey residents rush the stage to thank McBride.

"God bless you," one man says.

"You're an angel," one woman says.

McBride hands out hugs and CDs, and a woman takes her copy of "The Way Home" back home, to her apartment on the other side of the courtyard. She drops the new CD into the stereo and presses play with the volume cranked high and her front door wide open. McBride looks up as her own voice blares from the speakers.

The woman is dancing in her doorway.

***

"I come from a long line of non-profiteers," McBride says one afternoon by way of explaining why she would eschew a standard promotional tour for a seven-week, cross-country stint playing free shows for people who'd never buy one of her albums or concert tickets and, in fact, might not even like her at all. At the head of the line of non-profiteers is her mother, Ann McBride-Norton, who spent two decades working in Washington for the citizen lobbying group Common Cause, of which she eventually became president. McBride-Norton now lives in Bali, where she runs Photovoices International, a nonprofit she founded with the mission of "empowering people through photography."

McBride's older sister, Claire, works as a mental health consultant for a nonprofit social services provider in San Francisco. She has a stepbrother (from her mother's second marriage) who happens to be the famous actor and staunch social and environmental activist, Edward Norton. McBride's father, Charlie, is a Washington lobbyist -- the for-profit kind. He previously served as press secretary to Russell Long, the powerful U.S. senator from Louisiana, and then as chief of staff to another U.S. senator from Louisiana, Bennett Johnston.

McBride herself was a special projects producer for the Avon Breast Cancer Crusade. For that nonprofit work, she was paid. As a musician, she works to live (it's called the music business for a reason); but for this tour, anyway, she has separated the art from the commerce in searching for a different kind of payoff.

"It's about the overall experience of engaging with these different audiences more than it's about getting a new record out there," McBride says. "The payoff is this intangible feeling of doing something that's meaningful to people."

It's the end of the second week of the tour, and her bandmates are staying at the swanky $300-a-night W Hotel during a six-day visit to Washington. McBride is booked in a suite with her partner, Leslie Klotz, and their two dogs; it's hardly an unnecessary indulgence.

McBride has talked Starwood Hotels into comping "The Home Tour's" hotel rooms in almost every city on the itinerary. She figures the value of all those hotel rooms in all those cities is about $30,000. "They've really made our other expenses minimal."

Those, McBride says, add up to another $30,000. That includes airfare, car rentals and modest weekly salaries, which McBride is paying herself and three musicians (bassist Greg Beshers, guitarist Paul Carbonara, drummer Konrad Meissner). There was also a roadie at the beginning of the tour, before McBride realized she couldn't afford him.

McBride isn't like the beneficent Bono. Her four albums have sold fewer than 3,000 combined copies, according to Nielsen SoundScan. Comparatively, U2's latest album, "No Line on the Horizon," sold 484,000 in its first week.

At a barbecue on the top floor of the Abbey Apartments, a resident asks McBride's band how it all works -- how a largely unknown artist without deep pockets could afford a not-for-profit tour. "That's a very good question," says Carbonara, a gifted guitarist who toured with Blondie in a previous life. He isn't sure there's an answer.

Carbonara is having more fun than he has had on tour in years, he tells me later. He loves how loose it is, and he loves the audience reactions, and he loves what it all represents, this notion of sharing the gift of live music with people who generally aren't exposed to it. "But," he says, "I don't know how sustainable it is."

McBride herself wasn't sure she'd be able to afford the second leg of the tour, on the West Coast. She spent nearly all of her time during a two-week break working the phones before she finally secured enough donations to cover her costs.

The amount of work she has had to do "has been intense," she says. "You learn very early on in the music world not to figure out your hourly rate."

***

Friday afternoon, Sibley Plaza Apartments, a senior home on Washington's North Capitol Street NW, where the old Sibley Hospital once stood. "PEACE TO ALL WHO ENTER HERE," says a sign taped to the door of the community room.

"I'm going to walk around the building to remind people that we're here," McBride tells Klotz.

"I've already started recruiting, though not very successfully," says Klotz, a public relations executive who met McBride at a Christmas party in 2006. (They married the following year in Jamaica.)

McBride sets off for the third floor with a volunteer from a Kansas City church that has sent a group to Washington on a public-service mission. They begin working their way down the long hall, knocking on doors.

There is no answer at Apts. 301 or 316.

At Apt. 314, McBride knocks and then knocks again when she hears somebody stirring. "I. AM. COMING!" a man bellows. McBride looks startled. The door swings open, and a man in an undershirt glares at the stranger at his door.

"Hi, my name's Mary McBride, and I'm going to be performing a concert downstairs in about 10 minutes. I hope y'all can come down and join us."

The heavyset, middle-aged black man glares at her. "What group?"

"My band."

"What's the name?"

"Mary McBride."

"Oh. Okay."

He closes the door. McBride and the wide-eyed volunteer continue down the hall, which is thick with cooking grease.

Knock, knock.

The man in Apt. 303 says maybe. Nobody answers at Apts. 304, 305 and 313, though there are televisions blaring behind two of the doors.

A woman in Apt. 312 listens to McBride's pitch from behind a locked door, then yells: "I don't FEEL like it."

Apt. 311: "I'm not dressed yet."

Apt. 306: "What's this for? Who are you? I dunno."

Apt. 310: "Oh, sure. Yeah. Yeah."

Apt. 309: "I got a bad leg; I got the gout." McBride promises to bring the man a CD. He lingers. He does not look well. "You okay?" McBride says.

"I'm okay," he says. He closes the door.

In the community room, under fluorescent lights, Mark Andersen is warming up the crowd, which includes 22 Sibley Plaza residents, the two dozen Midwestern church volunteers and three people serving lunch in the back of the room.

"Welcome to this folk/country/rock/gospel/heart-and-soul kind of event," he says. He's a well-known punk-rock activist who founded Positive Force DC and now runs a senior outreach network called We Are Family. He has known McBride since the late 1980s, when he began dating her older sister, Claire. He was the first person the singer called when she began plotting "The Home Tour." He tells me later that while McBride's music isn't explicitly political, "she clearly understands that there is an inescapable ethical dimension to art."

She opens with her soulful, pleading ballad "When Will We Know." She is not the most physically kinetic of singers; most of the movement in her performances come through her outsized vocals. More residents shuffle into the room. McBride sings more of her own songs, plus one by a friend, a lurching rocker about the push-pull between the bottle and the Bible. She sings soaring spirituals and frisky Ray Charles songs, and the elderly men and women in the room clap and sway and tap their feet and shout their praise and dance in their seats.

Knocking on all those doors before the concert is unnerving, McBride says later. But when she looked into the audience during the show, she saw a few familiar faces from the third floor, and they appeared ... elated.

"It's like when I was a canvasser for Gary Hart when I was a kid," she says. "You think: This moment of intrusion and discomfort is outweighed by what I'm trying to do."

In a conversation long after the concert, Andersen is still marveling at all that McBride accomplished on the tour. "Honestly, when Mary first told me how ambitious it was, I thought: You're taking a big bite there, and I'm not sure you're going to be able to chew it. She was genuinely putting herself on the line and taking a big risk. You can go out and do something like this, and nobody pays attention and nobody likes it. Idealistic artistic endeavors crash and burn all the time."

But, he says, he saw how the seniors reacted to McBride. He heard them talking about the show for weeks, telling their neighbors who didn't make it down that they'd missed something great.

"They would have appreciated anyone coming to perform for them at their homes," Andersen says, "but they were even more touched because they felt like somebody with a real gift had come to them."

***

McBride was born at Columbia Hospital for Women in Northwest Washington in 1969. When she was six months old, her family moved into a Volkswagen camper for a year-and-a-half-long European road trip. Her father, who'd edited the student newspaper at Louisiana State University, filed dispatches for the National Observer from all over Europe. When Mary's first teeth came in, the family was camping in Spain. "We were on this ridiculously tiny budget, and somehow we managed to make it," she says. "It sounds very familiar."

The family moved back to Washington and lived on Capitol Hill, then Chevy Chase before settling in Dupont Circle, across from the Sierra Leone embassy. There was a piano in the house, and the family often sang together. She began acting in plays (fourth-grade highlight: landing the role of Annie) and became obsessed with show tunes.

There were theater internships in Washington, along with a few forays into the political arena, as a Senate page and intern. On her first day, she spilled water on Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, who expressed his displeasure by bellowing. "It was terrifying," she says. "But it's fun to live in Washington and be a part of that. I liked being around it and having those jobs. But my parents were both so political that I couldn't have escaped that world anyway."

After attending the Field School in Northwest Washington and then a boarding school in Pennsylvania, McBride received a bachelor of fine arts from New York University's Tisch School of the Arts.

She was working in the theater world when she put together an Americana band. She performed in bars and planned to record a covers album, but ditched those plans after watching the World Trade Center collapse. Instead, she wrote a set of songs about New York and Sept. 11, which became her debut album, "Everything Seems Alright." She sometimes got compared to the alternative country artist Lucinda Williams and blues-rock singers Melissa Etheridge and Bonnie Raitt.

McBride promoted her first album with 20 shows all over New York City. The first one was at a farmers market, "where we had to wire power from a building nearby." During the set, McBride says, a shopper "started screaming at us -- 'Would you please just go away?!' The arugula stand guy defended us, then the meat guy defended the woman. It was great. I was so delighted."

The tour's second stop was at Bellevue Hospital Center. "I guess I've always put together these sort of nontraditional tours," McBride says. "We didn't make a nickel on that tour. But we were playing for diverse and interesting crowds. It set the bar in terms of the types of experiences I wanted."

***

McBride and the other musicians on "The Home Tour" realize they're doing something extraordinary. But let it be known that they're not exactly gloating about it.

"Oh, we're such good people," Greg Beshers jokes. Beshers is a multi-instrumentalist who has played with McBride for nearly a decade. In her band's current configuration, he's the bass player. He acknowledges that he has been emotionally affected by some of the venues, audiences and performances ("You'd have to be a cold SOB to walk into some of these places and not be affected"). It's all very serious stuff, he says.

"But we joke about it, too. Like: 'Oh, we did our good deed for the day! We're set.' You have to keep it in perspective. We're playing in a band, going on tour, hopefully making some people happy. Is that a great thing? Yeah, I feel good about it. We all do. Would I do it again? Certainly. But we're not curing cancer here. We're not in the French Resistance."

He laughs.

"After every gig, I feel good, load up the gear, go back to the hotel. Then it's: Okay, that happened. Where are we having dinner? Is the bar open? I think about the shows, but I'm not self-congratulatory about it. I don't think I got enough karma to burn for the rest of my life."

***

McBride is not only "The Home Tour's" central performer, but also its booking agent, executive producer, principal fundraiser and production manager. The multiple roles are wearing on McBride, who began putting the tour together in 2009 by calling potential host facilities and affiliated organizations to sell her idea. Then came countless hours on conference calls and a Macbook as she sorted out logistics as well as the funding -- a cycle that continues even as the tour is underway. Especially as the tour is underway.

"It feels like too much for one person," she says. "All of the shows take so much more work than a regular tour; there are a lot of annoyances. But, you know, all of the little annoyances are rendered irrelevant by the end of the show."

Take the show at Misericordia in Chicago, where McBride played for the developmentally disabled. The highlight, she says, "was this woman who came up and conducted the entire show, from start to finish. She was amazing -- completely focused, completely in time, with sticks and everything. Right up front. And people were dancing. A woman was sort of mooing every time I did a ballad. One guy ran onstage. It was so punk rock."

"I'm performing for people who are not necessarily living in the same world I am in," McBride says. "It's so nice to do a show that's completely memorable, because on so many tours, you can't even remember what town you're in, much less who was there or what your experience was.

"Konrad [Meissner, the band's drummer] said regular gigs seem sort of boring after playing all these places where we don't know what we're walking into. It's true. Other shows don't have the same stakes."

What she's really looking forward to is the sequel to "The Home Tour" -- which, as it turns out, was just a pilot program. The latest iteration of her do-gooder dream features a big, national network for musicians who want to do what McBride did, but don't want to spend months and months making the arrangements themselves. She is starting a nonprofit to set up the infrastructure and book and produce future "Home Tour"-style shows.

"There are so many musicians I know who would want to do shows like the ones I've done," McBride says. "But it's a lot of work setting up the shows and getting sponsors and donated gear and everything else."

Mike Alvidrez, executive director of Skid Row Housing Trust, which develops and operates homes for the chronically homeless, tells me that to understand the gift McBride and her band gave the residents at the Abbey and another Skid Row housing complex, the Carver, you first need to understand where the residents have been.

"There's an important part of life that's missing for the people who live in our buildings," Alvidrez says. "When people are homeless, they don't have access to the kinds of things that enrich our lives. They can't go to a play, they can't go to a restaurant, they can't go to the opera or go mountain biking or do any of those things. Mary's tour created that kind of opportunity for them and communicated that these things are not unreachable to them anymore.

"One of the great things Mary did for us was break down this barrier that a lot of our folks have. By virtue of their struggles with mental illness and being homeless, they become afraid to experience joy. It goes away and they don't want to let it back in, because there's a risk that they might lose it again."

***

On the day after the Sibley Plazashow in Washington, McBride brings her band to Victory Heights, a relatively new apartment building in the heart of Columbia Heights. Another show for more seniors, with similar results. Then, Andersen asks if she'd mind going with him, to perform for a couple of house-bound elderly women that he knows through We Are Family. She obliges, as always, hopping into Andersen's old punk-rock touring van with her partner Klotz and Carbonara, the guitarist.

A block away, in another building called Samuel Kelsey Apartments, Andersen leads the group to the fifth floor, down a sweltering, stale-smelling hallway, to Elsie Nelson's apartment.

"Hi, Miss Nelson," Andersen says. An infirm woman is in her bed, sitting upright under a sheet. A nurse is by her side. Andersen shuts off the TV.

"I like rock-and-roll," Nelson says softly.

"Well, I think we need to do a rocker then," McBride says. "That made our set list easy."

And so begins Nelson's private concert, with McBride standing bedside and Carbonara playing an acoustic guitar on a folding chair before moving to the edge of the bed, so that Nelson might hear him better.

They do "Home," the song that inspired the tour, and McBride locks eyes with Nelson, whose features seem to be softening.

"That's so pretty," she coos. "I like that. Thank you."

McBride offers another song, the finale, "Amazing Grace." How sweet the sound.

Nelson is radiating now -- despite being in pain and poor health and stuck in bed, in this apartment, where the air is still and thick and smells of cat food. She is 52 days away from death. This is no place for a concert, and it's the perfect place for a concert.

"If I could only move these feet," Nelson says as Mary McBride sings. "I'd get up and dance."

J. Freedom duLac is a WashingtonPost staff writer. He can be reached at dulacj@washpost.com.

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