August 4, 2009
Tour Diary: On the Road with Justin Shorey
Words and Photos by Kara Mears
It’s late Monday morning after a long weekend in New York City. I’ve just finished a coffee and pastry-laden breakfast in Greenwich Village with Boston singer/songwriter Justin Shorey. We stop for a few deep breaths outside the historic Cafe Wha?, the first place 19-year-old Bob Dylan played when he landed in NYC, for a little soul food. The Sky Line Radio Tour, Justin’s first, is six days underway. We climb in the car and head south out of the city.
Somewhere between Virginia Beach and South Carolina we get pulled over. The officer issues Justin a ticket. Pulling onto the highway, Justin turns to me, smirking, and with a solid hint of a Boston accent, says, “I’m thinking this ticket is a small price to pay for all that speeding I already got away with, don’t ya think?”
Fast-forward two days. Fast-forward two, eight-hour days of driving. We’ve been to Maryland, Virginia Beach, North Carolina and south. At least an hour left until we get to Winter Park, Fla., and we’ve been driving for nine. The sun is setting. It’s about 8:30 p.m.
We’re supposed to be there by now. Justin picks up his phone to call the venue. Justin is packing light this first go around on the road: lyrics in his head, satellite radio on the dash of his rental, guitar on the backseat. Blue eyes and freshly trimmed sandy hair dark rinse jeans and a black T-shirt with the Boston skyline in white, he looks neat but not exactly artsy. Then again, he doesn’t pretend to be. Unassuming as he is though, there is poetry in his simple, neat appearance and approach.
“When I booked this tour, I started with all the places east of the Mississippi where I knew somebody,” Justin says. Nineteen shows in 25 days. Just about a week into the tour and he is already feeling the distance between friends.
We pull up to Austin Coffee & Film, on Fairbanks Avenue in Winter Park, around 9:30 p.m. Justin parks in the back and I follow him along the building to the front entrance. A young woman and two guys are sitting on the patio smoking and laughing at a punchline we just missed. Looking through the large pane glass windows I see but a few patrons. After checking in, Justin heads back to the car to get his guitar and merchandise: a 12-song, self-titled LP recorded in 2007 and the three-song EP, Sky Line Radio, recorded at Emerson College’s WERS studios in 2008. He has Tshirts for sale baring a hand-drawn image of a grizzly bear and the words, “Thought it was a mountain, found out it’s a grizzly bear” – lyrics from the EP single, “Grizzly Bear.”
Justin sets up on the small stage at the front of the cafe. Turns out his friend in Florida lives two hours in the wrong direction from where we’ll be headed in the morning. I hop online to find a couple of cheap motel rooms.
The set starts slow, with sparse claps marking the end of each song. Justin pushes on with “Forsaken Soldier,” a melancholy ballad written from the point of view of a man serving his country, who has found out it was all for a lie. “A bad moon has rose,” the chorus warns. A fresh set of hands roar. A shaggy-haired young man donning Chuck Taylors and tattoos, who came in the back, calls out, “Hey man, play 100 more songs like that one and I’ll stay here all night.” Justin and his new fan, Matt, end up rapping after the set. Matt is also a musician. His band plays local music festivals and his friend is a DJ. He buys Justin’s CDs and promises to help get him on Orlando radio and his band’s festival circuit. “You deserve to be playing for way more than four people man,” he says. “I love your sound. It’s real courageous for you to be coming out and just doing it.”
“Play, play, play. I figure if I just get in front of as many people as possible, even if I get just one fan from a show, it’s worth it,” says Justin. “And hey, you never know. Maybe that kid will really do what he says he will.”
Justin doesn’t know the people he’s playing to and they don’t know him. He started in Boston four years ago playing open mics and small venue shows. In January he sold out Cambridge’s Middle East Upstairs with Kid:Nap:Kin, The Shills and Supervolcano. Justin’s hope is this same focus and hard work will see him to equal success and more in every city in America.
I knock on Justin’s door around 9 a.m. the next morning. He lets me in. The news is on.
“Hey, I think I know why this place was so cheap.”
“Yeah. Why?” I ask.
“It was robbed last week,” he tells me.
One hour later, it’s already 90 degrees outside. We’ve packed the car and are headed north on Rt. 75 to Georgia. The only thing standing between Justin and his next gig in Columbus is more of the same: 400 miles of Interstate. A friend in Boston calls to see how the tour is going. “If you’re feeling like you need some better tour stories, give me a call back and I’ll throw a TV out a hotel room window. Make this a little more rock’n’roll,” Justin says to his friend. He continues, “Yeah man, this tour is just like being back home and working real hard, except that now I’m just working real hard and focusing on one thing.” In Boston, after a 12-hour workday building cell phone towers, Justin goes to work on his music: practicing songs, writing new ones, playing a gig or recording an album. He’s kept this pace for the last four years. Driving north on Rt. 65 to a gig in Tuscaloosa, a highway billboard warns, “GO TO CHURCH OR THE DEVIL WILL GET YOU.” I point this out and Justin chuckles. The only thing we’re strung-out on is caffeine and Southern sweet tea, which Justin orders at every opportunity. After this tour Justin plans focusing solely on his music for the next five months. He’ll paper Boston, playing everywhere within a three-hour radius of his apartment in Everett, Mass. He anticipates his band accompanying him on a nation-wide tour this fall.
“I don’t pretend stuff. I actually do it,” Justin says. “I’m a free thinker and pretty much a free person. Nobody is making me do this. I don’t have a record deal. I’m taking my experience as a tower climber, and trading it in for something different. I haven’t burned any bridges. I’ve got nothing to lose but money. From where I stand, it’s a win-win either way.”