Riding a Night Train [Part I]: Long Road to The Barking Dog

Thursday

Hello, and welcome to the inaugural Handsomebeast tour, brought to you by an abundance of skill, toil and tenacity from a group of musicians I’ll come right out and admit to knowing well — and whom I’m about to know better still, it’s safe to say.

This behind the scenes exclusive (holy hell, I’ve been waiting to use that phrase in earnest for so long) will consist of my observations as the Beast’s style consultant/door guy/resident bachelor/inept roadie/shameless groupie/de-facto manager over the course of the next three and a bit days. I’m only too happy to come along for the ride for a number of reasons, chief among which is my desire to help the goofballs below:

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Meet the band! [left to right]: Nick Serena, Carlos Ortiz, Anthony “Tony” Ortiz, Jacob Rodriguez, and Eleazar “Peewee” Ruiz

Handsomebeast will be playing at The Barking Dog in Bethesda, MD, The Bowery Electric in New York City, then Plough and Stars in Cambridge, MA. Even now, as I write this, they’re driving up from Houston (27 hours, or as near as makes no difference, 1,500 miles) in what is, bar none, the single most tremendous specimen of a full sized van I’ve ever borne witness to. 

It boasts reclining bucket seats with quaintly worn magenta velour upholstery, pull down window shades, semi-convincing faux-wood trim, and plush magenta carpet to match — I shit you not. We’ve already been referring to it as a long list of things too vulgar and crude to put in writing, so let’s just call it The Night Train.

Slave to impulse that I am, yours truly chose to hop a literal night train — be warned, that phrase will make many appearances over the course of this narrative — having bought myself a ticket on the red eye from South Station in Boston to Union Station in Washington. Upon arrival at 7 AM, the plan is to catch a ride to Nick’s childhood home in Bethesda, where we will all take a power coma, then begin the adventure.

Just as this is their first tour, it is also mine, which has me bordering on new motorcycle giddiness. In addition to seeing the boys, who are among my favorite humans, I get to indulge my decade old fantasy of being the cool, edgy writer — therein lies the fantasy — boozily working on a story for his buddies in the cool, edgy rock band. Odds are this is as close to tragic delusions of Rolling Stone notoriety as I’m ever going to get, so goddamned if I won’t milk it like a Midwest dairy farmer.

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A very deluded, self-satisfied young writer enabled by tequila and cigarettes

Despite how much I savor the concept of riding a night train to tour with a band, the reality itself is radically less sexy. It consists of a train car that rattles like an ancient shopping cart, lukewarm cup of Irish coffee, exceptionally unsanitary bathrooms, and the company of a ladies’ high school track team who insist on either a) taking pictures of themselves and occasionally each other, or b) gossiping much louder than is prudent at midnight on public transport full of people who are trying to sleep. So begins my steady, inevitable descent into bad tempered old age, it would appear.

Yet press on we must, because there are far more important things to give mind right now than sleep. I get to hit the road and ward off the dreaded advances of normality, if only for a while. My excitement to see the boys outweighs my irritation for having to deal with the girls (though only just) so I crank up the Arctic Monkeys, looking out the window into a softly moonlit sky full of unknown promise. This is sure to be an exhausting and glorious weekend, of that I’m certain — more to come.

Friday

Walking in the front door, I’m welcomed by a pile of unconscious and ripe-smelling young men who’ve just sustained the intense physical toll of a cross country drive. Once everyone gets up and moving, we grab some breakfast at a local diner, catching up and talking shop over coffee, chicken and waffles. There’s vivid excitement at the table as everyone starts to shrug off the road weariness in light of realizing that Handsomebeast is finally on tour.

While only declaring themselves an official band in 2014, the group has played together since four years prior. They are, to all intents and purposes, brothers, ones sharing the sincere, incurable dream of being touring musicians; so in addition to this being a reunion for us boys, it’s also a pivotal milestone in their musical careers.

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[Circa 2011] the founding members exhibiting typical goofiness, energy and proud nudity

Fortunately, they’re used to performing under pressure, but it’s plainly apparent that this all feels very surreal for five guys also accustomed (albeit nowhere near satisfied) to working assorted day jobs to support an unassailable dedication to their artform; and nothing — not late night rehearsals, relentless mundanity for a paycheck, nor yawning miles of perilous, winding roads through the mountains of Alabama — would stop them from making this, their first tour, a resounding success.

And so we’re sitting in this comfortably cramped booth, hashing out a game plan for the opening gig while cheerily swapping bites of greasy food and the more than occasional penis joke. There’s a real sense that this is the calm before that space rock bump-and-grind hurricane hitting our nation’s capital in just a matter of hours. Manuel Salas (a close friend/integral assistant to the band) and myself will be acting as wingmen to the Beast this evening, selling merch and working the door, respectively.

The handsome hurricane in question approached The Barking Dog quickly but methodically. We knew a certain number would turn out owing to Nick having grown up here, but also because a number of his loved ones in the area had been promoting our arrival — chiefly his younger sister, the inimitable Kaelynn Serena, who is impossible not to love, and something of a sibling to me, too.

While no one doubted each others’ collective ability to crush the set itself (as actually performing their music is the easiest, most natural part of it all for them), everyone knew and recognized that we had to capitalize on the critical opportunity to leave a lasting first impression in a major East Coast town.

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Many thanks to the venue and staff for hosting us

Rest assured, they did not disappoint. As door man — not my career of choice, but a role I agreed to without pause if it meant supporting the cause — I was charged with the standard collecting of cover, applying of wristbands, wrangling of piggybackers, and keeping track of headcount. Much to our satisfaction, I ended up having to give up on the last of those responsibilities promptly after doors opened, because people were flooding in by the dozens, and it was all I could do just to stem the tide.

Once more to our satisfaction, this meant we made a killing at the door, selling a healthy quantity of merch as well. More importantly, however, the set featured not a single dull moment. Each and every person in attendance was dancing for all 70+ minutes of the set (their longest ever), irrespective of age, gender or sobriety.

Halfway through, Nick invites Kaelynn onstage for their commanding cover of “Clint Eastwood” by Gorillaz, a scene that’s nothing short of heartwarming. Then, after delivering their go-to closing track, the unstoppable “Doodoo Bird”, our crowd deafeningly roars for an “Encore!”. I’d seen this happen before, in stadiums and arenas, but never quite like this, and certainly not so genuinely.

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The Serena siblings [post-gig]

One thing you wouldn’t be privy to without knowing Nick personally is that all of his friends and family have long since known he made the decision to pursue a career in music, but none had really seen him or the band do their thing in real-time. Thus to both see — and finally know — that all the years of hard work, being broke and battling every form of doubt conceivable had paid off in the eyes of those he loved most was, well….a very special experience indeed.

And so it turns out Handsomebeast’s long road to The Barking Dog was well worth the many perils they were beset by upon it. Nick and I make a last minute (if less than emphatic) attempt to go out with his buddies from high school after the show, which wouldn’t do much good for our brains or bodies in the very near future, but we figured the present seemed like an appropriate time for such endeavors.

Last call rolls around, so we make our way home. The air is pleasant and warm on a night that felt triumphantly conquered. It’s always good to start the season with a win, but yet more important is making sure never to let up the pace. We’d done well in D.C., nevertheless, with the morning sun would come a new and formidable challenge. New York awaits us, and after all, who are we to deny it?

to be continued


 Check Handsomebeast out on Spotify and/or SoundCloud


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