4 Urban Lessons from a Cross-Country Music Tour

Pierce Turcotte is a Strong Towns podcast listener who just wrapped up a 29 city tour with his band, The Greeting Committee. Today he's sharing some lessons he learned along the way.

On April 9th, I left my home near Kansas City with the rest of my bandmates and embarked on a month-and-a-half long tour across the United States. With six people stuffed into a fifteen-passenger van, hauling a trailer full of music gear to twenty-nine different cities, spirits were high.

Our band is called The Greeting Committee, and we fall into the “up-and-coming” category. We first met in high school and, after picking up momentum with our local alternative radio station, started to play more and more shows, mostly opening up for other bands. Almost four years into playing as a band, we’re starting to get longer and more frequent tours. 

Our most recent tour, opening up for Jukebox the Ghost, earned us our longest tour yet. Over the course of the tour, I got to experience 29 different cities across America. Granted, my time in each individual city is fairly transient and consists mostly of the day of the show, but I still cram those days with as much exploring as I can. This has allowed me to see some really diverse and beautiful places, and to get a glimpse of what each one has to offer.

The band (Photo by Pamela Ayala)

The band (Photo by Pamela Ayala)

Here are a four things I learned along the way:

1. Where to get the Best Coffee

This might be the most important thing that I learned on tour. The world of coffee, considering I’m in my early twenties and skipped the traditional college route, has been an important source of community in my life. Kansas City’s coffee scene has been there every step of the way to fulfill all of my coffee and social needs, but when I started to tour and couldn’t go to my favorite shops, I was afraid of losing the community (and caffeine) I had. That’s when I had the idea to start finding new favorite coffee shops in each city I visited.

Some of the best coffee shops I’ve been to are reflection of the life and culture around them. It’s not because the coffee is amazing, it’s because the neighborhoods and cities surrounding that shop are amazing. If I had found that community in my home town, I wondered what it might look like in other cities.

My coffee adventures always start with a bit of research on Yelp. I’m not terribly picky; I just look through pictures to see if the shop and area seems interesting. Depending on time and where I’m staying, I’ll either walk or Uber to the coffee shop. I’ve walked some absurd distances for the sake of coffee, but it’s almost always worth it.

Portland and Seattle are two of the most quintessential coffee cities today and I can always expect to find a coffee shop in an amazing part of town. This past tour, we had arrived on the Northeast side of Portland the night before the show, so in the morning, I did some research and found a couple shops within walking distance. I ended up walking through a gorgeous neighborhood with blooming plants spilling onto the sidewalk. The coffee shop I found was squeezed between local restaurants, music stores, and other buildings covered in beautifully graffitied walls. It was obvious that the whole community in and around the coffee shop was blossoming with life and activity.

Now, when we drive towards certain cities, I'm filled with excitement about the coffee and community I'm about to encounter. Cities are hardly ever alike, but whenever I can find a city that is economically and artistically encouraging, I know I’m on the right track to good coffee.

2. How to Explore a City

When I first started touring, exploring was the last thing on my mind. I felt so occupied with the shows that I never really felt capable of doing anything else. That changed, however, one day when we were playing a show in Minneapolis. Since I have a lot of family around the Twin Cities, Minneapolis is fairly familiar to me. 

The morning before my first show in Minneapolis, I grabbed a Nice Ride bike (Minneapolis' local bike share) and took off around the city. I rode from downtown Minneapolis to the University of Minnesota and back toward the U.S. Bank Stadium. I was gone for over two hours, confidently riding down busy streets as if I were a Minneapolis local. (It would be even more convincing if you could hear my impression of a Minnesota accent.)

This set me up for the rest of my tours. While Minneapolis is my bread and butter when it comes to accessible cities, dozens of other cities have that same comfort and ease. I’ve learned that the best way to explore a city is to explore it as if you were a local. On this recent tour, for example, I acquainted myself with the Phoenix, AZ metro line and took it over to Tempe where I met a friend for coffee. Utilizing the transportation tools that each city offers has enabled me to explore so much that I would never have seen if I'd just stayed in my hotel room or AirBnB.

In addition to taking public transit or biking, there's an even easier exploration tool that people often forget about: your feet! Walking, though sometimes not as fast, allows you to see some of the quirks and characteristics of a city for literally no cost (besides, perhaps, a sweaty shirt).

This past tour, I walked by myself down to a pier in downtown San Diego. Listening to the waves and feeling the ocean breeze at night was almost meditative for me. As I've walked through dozens of cities and gotten to know them a little, these unfamiliar landscapes have become less intimidating. Even if I’m somewhere like Atlanta or Chicago where life can appear a bit hectic, I've gotten to see the beauty in that chaos by walking its streets.

3. When to Eat Dinner

This one seems like a no-brainer, but on tour, finding the right time to get dinner is crucial. Most of our schedule on the day of a show starts like this:

On the road (Photo by Austin Fraser)

On the road (Photo by Austin Fraser)

  • 4pm: Load-in.
  • 5pm - 6pm: Soundcheck.
  • 8pm - 8:45pm: Play show.
  • 8:45pm: Pack up the van quickly.
  • 11:15pm: Sell merch and talk to fans after the headliner’s set...

It ends up being a lot of hurry-up-and-wait. Unless I want to be burping into the microphone the entire show, the only realistic time to eat dinner is after our set, or after the entire show is over. This leaves us in a predicament: Few restaurants are open that late, especially if we want something besides McDonald's.

Some cities just don’t have a nightlife, and that’s okay. Here in Kansas City, only a handful of places stay open past midnight, but a lot of the more obvious economically resilient cities I have been to are those that stay awake later. Brooklyn for example, was a haven when it came to eating late. In the three days we were in Brooklyn, I went to the same twenty-four hour “pizza by the slice” shop every day (healthy, right?). The life around Brooklyn is constantly going. Working around our show schedule was no problem in a city that never sleeps.

On my way to a restaurant in Louisville, Kentucky to get some tacos and a bit of escape, I told my Uber driver about my dinner predicament. He then went on about all the bars and clubs open until 3:00am around the city. When he dropped me off at my destination, I saw what he meant. The strip where he had dropped me off was filled with restaurants and bars, all bustling with activity. When my set was over, the rest of the band and I walked over to a bar and grill nearby. Having places still serving good food that late is a rarity and a blessing. It’s also a sign of a town that is economically resilient enough to stay open that late.

4. Never Judge a City by its Cover

One thing I really try to do is to find memorable things about a city. Almost every city we played a show in had some sort of characteristic that set it apart from the others. But that's not always obvious at first glance.

For instance, on the surface, Cleveland, OH didn’t appear to offer much. After we got settled into our venue, a couple bandmates and I walked through the neighborhood around the venue and it honestly looked a bit rough, but the art and local shops made the area feel special. The adjacent park was overgrown and looked like it had been minimally used. However, we walked past kids playing basketball in the street, and families and friends enjoying themselves on their porches. It was clear that this neighborhood was alive and kicking. Half a mile later, we reached our destination, the beautiful Lake Eerie, where we found a park and a family having a small cookout.

Just like any city, Cleveland wasn’t perfect, but the walk to Lake Eerie was well worth it and made me appreciate the city for what it had to offer.

I am constantly learning new things on the road and when I tour. Cities, just like people, come with different backgrounds and characteristics, so being aware and adapting to where I am has allowed me to learn about the cities and towns that welcome me in, and to have a blast while visiting them.

(Top photo by Grant Jones)

About the Author

Pierce Turcotte is a young musician and aspiring writer living outside of Kansas City, Missouri. When he's home, he works as a barista, and writes music and science fiction. When he's on the road, he's out playing shows and probably listening to a podcast. You can find out more about his band, The Greeting Committee on their website, Instagram or Twitter.