Feeding their Soul: The Commonheart gets creative when eating on tour

The Allman Brothers told us to “Eat a Peach”; Booker T. & the MG’s grooved on “Green Onions” and even the Beatles indulged on a “Savoy Truffle.” But throughout its history, rock ’n’ roll has had a mostly symbolic relationship with food — invocations of various fruits and sweet treats are often metaphors for a decidedly different drive state.

Pittsburgh rock and soul band The Commonheart, however has a more practical problem. Specifically: How do you feed an 11-member touring band that burns thousands of calories each night in a high-energy show; travels together in one van for hours on end; and has a shoestring budget? And how do they do it without everyone getting sick or going crazy?

One mile, one bite and one gig at a time, it turns out.

It’s been a banner year for this musical hydra. They put 30,000 miles on their van, crisscrossing the United States for more than seven months, playing roughly 70 shows from South Park to South Carolina; Westmoreland County to Washington State. They had a showcase at the SXSW festival in Austin, Texas. Most recently, they opened 11 East Coast dates for veteran jam band JJ Grey and Mofro.

Bob Seger sang of the mundane loneliness of life on the road in his epic “Turn the Page,” but Commonheart lead singer and band founder Clinton Clegg might pen something along the lines of “Fill the Plate.”

“For an 11-person group, we’re not as picky as you think we’d be — we have no vegans, no dietary restrictions,” he said.

“But when you’re away on tour, you’re at the mercy of whatever the road is gonna give you, fast food or restaurant wise, and it’s not always ideal,” he said, referencing the chains and gas stations that offer food that he and members Mikey DeLuca and Mariko Reid all termed “garbage.” Ms. Reid called a $5 Hardee’s value meal the “absolute pits of the road.”

Each member is allotted a frugal $10 per diem from the band’s common savings, so it’s rare that a full sit-down meal is an option.

“When that happens that’s like a super blessing. When the band is fed well, and eats something worthwhile, the mood is just way different. I’ve seen it happen firsthand,” Mr. Clegg said. “You’re battling a few things — you’re away from home, your loved ones. We’re all friends and get along, but there’s nothing like a meal to comfort you and calm you and put you in a good place for the show.”

As they’ve gained recognition, they’ve been able to attach modest riders to their show contracts. They aren’t exactly of Van Halen’s legendary “no brown M&Ms” variety, but rather they ask for fresh fruit and vegetables, hummus and pita chips.

“That at least assures that even if we had to eat kind of crappy on the way there, when we get to the venue we can have something with real nutritional value. That’s important. You don’t think about it, but you’ll feel a little different when you’re on your third straight day of seven hours driving and Egg McMuffins and all you want is a piece of broccoli.”

Guitarist and backing vocalist Mr. DeLuca agrees, adding that the physical work requires more than just junk food.

“It’s a high-energy show, but what you see on stage is maybe a third of the effort. We’re moving gear — and if we’re opening for someone, name of the game is ‘get out of the way,’ so we need to get all of our stuff off in five minutes, so we’re frantically tearing down amps and moving big drum kits.”

He said they try to book any hotel that has even a meager continental breakfast. With late nights, early starts and lots of driving, “you can kind of keep the monsters at bay by having a bagel in the van.”

They’ve also quite literally sung for their supper.

“We drove down to Elkins, West Virginia, to play a gig at this place called El Gran Sabor — that’s all I knew about the place,” Mr. Clegg said. As it turned out, the owner and chef is a native of Venezuela.

“We got there and unloaded and they said, ‘OK, we’re going to feed you.’ They’re doing all this amazing traditional South American food with steak, shrimp and eggs, grilled plantains. That was quite a thing to walk in to. You think you’re playing rural West Virginia and it’s like you traveled across the world.”

Washington D.C.’s legendary 9:30 Club also didn’t disappoint in that regard.

“When we get to our dressing rooms (first of all, we had a dressing room — that’s not something we often get as an 11- piece band) and they had beautiful chocolate lava cupcakes. They have a legit kitchen there. They fed us lunch and dinner. I had a Weiner-ini — a hot dog Panini with saurkraut and mustard.”

Mr. Clegg’s singing style is reminiscent of Joe Cocker and likewise The Commonheart gets by with a little help from their friends too, like Pittsburgh musician J.D. Chaisson, a trumpeter in Steeltown Horns.

“His folks live in Maine and they invited us over and served us legit New England clam chowder and lobster — it was midway in the tour. You have 11 people all starting to feel a little vulnerable and missing home — that all comes into play. So his parents doing that at that moment was … it carried us.”

In Kansas City, high school friends of Monongahela native Mr. Clegg that live there treated the band to a spread from Smokehouse Bar-B-Q.

“Best I’ve ever had,” he said. “And K.C. cheesy corn — I learned about that. I didn’t know what that was. Cheesy corn is what’s up.”

That’s one of the perks of the road — trying regional cuisine such as deep dish pizza in Chicago or poutine in Quebec. 

Some favorites: cheesesteaks at Jim’s Steaks in South Philly, of which Ms. Mariko said “all of the ingredients fuse together into one torpedo of deliciousness”; a $12 whole lobster at Rapid Ray’s in Portland, Maine; hot dogs at Papaya King in the East Village and ricotta pizza at Ben’s Pizzeria in Greenwich Village, of which Mr. Clegg said, “that [stuff] changed my life.”

Nashville hot chicken was a split verdict.

“I don’t know what that’s about. I don’t know what they’re trying to prove down there,” the singer said. “The place I went, I tried the mildest they had. I took one bite and was like, this is inedible. It’s not even enjoyable.”

Ms. Reid went to a different place, Prince’s Hot Chicken, and “loved it.”

Keeping with the theme, locally they also played the Banana Split Festival in Latrobe, where they indulged in the eponymous treat.

When at home, Mr. DeLuca indulges on his wife’s gourmet cooking; Mr. Clegg likes to curl up on the couch with his wife, Jackie, and some Chinese food; and Ms. Reid and her boyfriend, Anton DeFade, the band’s bassist, look for anything vegan and healthy.

“My first reaction is, ‘How can I mainline leafy greens to offset whatever abomination I’ve had on the road?” she said.

And despite the characterization of the musician’s lifestyle being bacchanal, Mr. Clegg dismissed the notion out of hand.

“It’s too much of a risk for it to be a big party. It’s work. There’s not a lot of time and there’s too much driving,” he said.

“We’re too young and hungry.”

For both success, and for good grub.

Dan Gigler: dgigler@post-gazette.com; Twitter @gigs412


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