Jake Allen's personal travel journal
entry 1: around the world in 60 days
How this round the world trip began…
I’ve been touring the United States as a solo artist for over a decade. As I’ve explored the highways of my home country, there have been glorious nights in the spotlight, amazing people, busking for gas money, a few close calls, and the stuff romance novels are made of. Performing music has given me the opportunity to be lucky enough to see most of this beautiful chunk of land we Americans inhibit. Throughout my travels, the thought of going overseas to perform music has always been like a shiny object hanging just out of reach. It wasn’t until this year that the circumstances clicked and the right people came into my life to lift me high enough to grab it.
Museum of Illusions, Prague, CZ
Take me to the River (TMTTR) is a non-profit organization based in Washington D.C. and is comprised of around fifteen painters, digital artists, and mixed media savants from around the planet. Almost every year, they take a trip to a seemingly random city in the world, cultivating collaborations, community outreach projects, and always an art exhibition inspired by water.
One of the group’s founding members, Judy Jashinsky, became a fan of mine at a northern Michigan music festival a few years ago. Despite a hefty age gap, we became great friends. As a longtime lover of art, I was pleasantly surprised to learn that Judy was a full-time painter. We quickly found ourselves as fellow artists from different times coming together to laugh at the present-day zeitgeists to the sound of a Wilco record and usually the taste of a damn good dirty martini.
Somewhere amidst a sea of conversations, Judy invited me to join Take me to the River. I said yes and shortly after I found myself in New Orleans among an eclectic group of forward-thinking, heavy drinking artists. As the only musical artist, I was dubbed the outcast of the group. It took a while to for me to carve out my spot in the group, but I eventually found my purpose in this special, sometimes a dysfunctional, family.
When 2017 rolled around, TMTTR started talking about a possible exhibition in Lithuania in the fall of 2018. Being of eastern European descent, my ears perked up. Once the trip was confirmed, I started my typical thought process of how to capitalize on being in such a place. Perhaps after a visit to the Baltic country, playing a run of shows in Europe would be possible.
Members of Take me to the River in New Orleans, 2015
Judy and I
“The T in Takamine”
In 2012, I was living in Arizona. That year, my dear friend and Fender sales rep, Phil Short, took me to the winter NAMM show in Anaheim, CA. This is where anybody who makes anything that makes music goes to sell their stuff to retailers. Guitar companies, drums, sheet music, you name it… over 200,000 people attend. It’s the most well attended music expo in the world. One of the byproducts of this is that hungry musicians flood company booths looking for endorsement deals. Ending up there by happenstance, I didn’t really plan to solicit myself to any companies. I just wanted to explore and feed my inner music nerd. However, my gears started to turn when I first walked past the Takamine booth.
Takamine was the one guitar that was able to give me what I needed on stage. Ever since I started playing a hand me down EF341 at 16 yeas old, I was blown away by how well the guitar’s electronics could pick up the percussive sounds in my playing style. No other guitar could touch it as far as I was concerned, and still none have.
On the last day of the conference, I mustered up enough courage to go down to the Takamine booth in hopes of having a shot to play for one of the employees. I approached the first person I saw wearing the company shirt and introduced myself half pretending to have infinite confidence. I said, “I see you have a stage set up.”
“Yea,” said the representative.
I asked if I could play a song for the booth on the stage.
“That stage is for our clinician,” he said quickly.
“I want to be your new clinician,” I said with a half cocky, half scared smirk.
He chuckled and much to my surprise, led me up to the stage. He threw a guitar over my shoulder. I was pretty nervous. I knew I had to deliver, so I pulled out the flashiest thing I could think of, a percussive tapping piece called “Slappy Thang.”
“That was good,” he calmly said with a relaxed smile. “Here’s my card. Call me.”
I left the booth smiling and quickly looked at the business card in my hand. I realized I had just played for the head of artist relations!
Shortly after returning to Arizona, I sent out a hopeful email to my new friend at Takamine. The first thing he said on his reply back to me was, “Let’s start by offering you a guitar. What would you like?”
Several years have gone by since that first NAMM experience. Since then, I’ve done a ton of clinics, convention performances, and videos for Takamine guitars. It wasn’t until last year that I got a big invitation from the head of creative operations at Takamine, Makoto. This guy has built guitars for all the greats. They call him “the T in Takamine.” I was elated to learn that he was inviting me to come to Asia to play two trade shows and visit the Takamine Headquarters in Japan, coincidentally, in the fall of 2018. The pieces started to fall into place and my dream started to look like a reality.
Performing at NAMM for Takamine 2013
Bridging the Gap
Sitting in my home in northern Michigan, I began to plan for my big trip. With the excursion to Lithuania happening in early September, and the invite to Asia in mid-October, the three weeks in between were primetime for doing a European excursion. Since my booking agent is US only, I had to pull out the rolodex and start connecting the dots myself. I reached out to countless agencies, venues, and promoters in Europe. For the few emails did get replies, the response was typically the same… “Jake, nobody knows who you are in these countries.”
The tours I have done in the United States have been varied experiences- some have been very successful and others were so futile I almost had to sell a kidney to get to the next town. However, I have learned nothing is in vain. It was those difficult and unsuccessful tours that garnered the right contacts and opened the doors for success on the next pass. Having this in mind, I became totally content with letting Europe be a “get contacts and open doors” trip. I geared up to leave America with no shows on the books, a measly amount of cash, and my trademark brand of impeccable faith that things would pan out. Truly impeccable faith doesn’t like to be proven wrong. I packed up my guitar and flew out to meet up with the other TMTTR artists.
United in Vilnius
After a six-hour flight, we land in Vilnius, Lithuania and make our way to the front of the airport to be greeted by several other TMTTR members and our primary Lithuanian liaison for the week, Christine. Christine is famous in the art world in Vilnius. Her late husband, Zoromskis, was one of the most legendary artists in the last hundred years in Lithuania. She now works with the Lithuanian Artist’s Association. Her soft voice, warm demeanor, and best attempts with the English language welcome us to Lithuania.
Additional TMTTR artists join my friend, Judy, and I. The group includes Eglon, a wise and quiet, small, dark-skinned man from Jamaica with long dreadlocks; Mansoora, an eclectically dressed, seemingly royal woman Pakistan; Betsy, an American from DC with vibrant blue eyes and a vivid streak of blue in her blonde hair to match; the formerly clean cut gone long grey haired Richard, a former spy also for DC, and Mary Ann, a sweet French woman who radiates positivity.
The first phase of our trip is going to be an artist retreat in the coastal town of Palanga, a four-hour drive from the capital. This is where we will create our works for next week’s exhibition back here in Vilnius. Our driver, Dalnius, throws our luggage into the Sprinter and we all pile in.
TMTTR and more, L to R: Richard Dana-USA, Joan Belmar-Chile,
Giedrė Riškutė- LT, Eglon Daley- Jamaica, Juozas Tubinas- LT,
Agnija Ģermane- Latvia, Betsy Stewart- USA, Jake Allen- USA,
Mansoora Hassan- Pakistan, Judy Jashinsky- USA, Mary-Ann Beall- France
Once we are out of the city, the first thing I start to notice is how much the countryside looks and feels like northern Michigan. The pine forests, farms, and the rolling hills make me feel like I’m on a drive in my home state. Despite the landscape, the roadside stops filled with eastern European foods, culture and people tell me that I’m far from home.
After watching Richard try to speak English with Dalnius for hours, we start to approach Palanga. The forest thickens and the drive gets more picturesque. We arrive in what looks like a typical northern Michigan beach town, filled with mazes of sand dunes (where I’ll find myself writing during our stay), tourists and ice cream shops. Where I would normally expect to see Lake Michigan, however, I take my first look at the Baltic Sea. It’s beautiful. The salt water is calm and seemingly tide-less, just like our great lakes.
Pulling up to the hotel, we’re greeted by more artists, several from the Baltic countries and two more of our own - Ruza, an affluent, feisty German woman from Berlin, and our colorful Chilean prince, Jouan. We were greeted with a traditional Lithuanian dinner made by the Russian chefs at the hotel who speak zero English. On top of the scenery making me feel like I’m home, the Russians bring out a giant bowl of beet soup. The bright pink concoction is all too familiar. My grandmother used to make this traditional polish soup for our family often during our childhood and into my late teenage years. My eastern European genes and my nostalgia are both satiated upon the first bite. This really feels like home.
Richard makes a toast to the table filled with a rich variety of artists both local and foreign, and we enjoy some much-needed wine after our long travels to Palanga.
Downtown Palanga streets
TMTTR members on the beach in Palanga, LT
TMTTR members on the beach in Palanga, LT
TMTTR members on the beach in Palanga, LT
Foreign Rock Star
During our stay in Palanga, I decide to go out and do some busking one night. I’ve always conjured up interesting situations when I’ve played guitar on the streets, so I figure I’d see what awaits on the main drag of Palanga. I grab one the hotel bikes, put my guitar on my back and head for the center of town.
The strip is lively with tourists, but actually quite quiet. You can tell this is primarily a town where people come to relax. I pass a few bars walking towards the pier at the end of the street. As far as nightlife, there are a few karaoke shows going on and a couple DJs playing perhaps the cheesiest music I’ve heard. These clubs are few and far in between and Palanga seems to be primarily a family friendly place. I arrive at the end of the strip and set up shop right near the pier. I always get a little nervous when busking. I don’t want to seem like a solicitor, which can often be the perception. Some people, however, respond to it so positively and enjoy so much that it makes the risk worth it. I’m hoping to encounter mostly folks like this.
I start playing “Eleanor Rigby” by the Beatles. My arrangement of the song is spicy. The mix of familiarity and fretboard acrobatics usually draws some ears in situations like this. Perhaps the most exciting aspect in this moment is the anticipation of how Lithuanians will respond. This is my first time busking in a foreign country and I’m happy to quickly be reminded that music is truly the universal language. People are loving it, stopping as they are walking by and throwing coins into my open guitar case. About three songs in I notice a couple with their dog standing across the street. There is something about them… I don’t know what it is yet, but I know we are going to connect in some way. I can often sense these things in performance situations. I know the people who are going to somehow going to take on a more significant role in the story. After I finish another tune, the couple approaches.
“Hey, you sound great,” says the man.
I’m happy to hear him speak some English.
“I’m T. I own a bar just down the street and I’d love if you’d walk over and play. There are probably thirty people there right now.”
This is the opportunity I have been waiting for, so I jump at the chance to play for more people in this small town. We start our walk to the bar down an unlit street. I must say, I’m a little nervous. I had been mugged once in Anchorage, Alaska under similar circumstances, so now I’m always a little more cautious. With my cautious, paranoid thoughts, I decide to jump on my bike and meet them at the bar.
We meet at the Old Man Bar. There’s about thirty folks sitting out on the patio and I’m pleasantly surprised by T bringing out an amplifier to make my performance a bit pumped up. I do about a twenty-minute set, sell a few CDs, and make some friends. One of the larger tables on the patio is hosting a group of choral singers from Vilnius who are in Palanga and had just finished performing as part of a rock opera in town. I start talking with these folks and learning a bit about the music scene in Lithuania. One of the singers, Andrius, and I really hit it off. My new biggest fan, T, is giving us free drinks and cheese platters while playing my music over the bar’s sound system.
“I’ll come back and play here again one day,” I confidently tell T.
After some great conversations with my new friend Andrius, we decide we should stay connected. After a festive and spontaneous night, I ride back to the hotel feeling divinely guided.
I get up the next morning and try searching for Andrius on Facebook. I click on the guy who first pops up in my search but it’s not him. It’s a different Andruis- Andruis Mamantovas, a fifty something Lithuanian who appears to also be a musician of sorts. After looking at his page it seems he’s a rather well-known cat. By sheer coincidence, this guy is playing that night at a music venue in Palanga. I take it as a prompt and head there with my guitar, looking to connect with a veteran of the Baltic scene.
I walk into the posh, empty venue and sat down awaiting sound check. When an older aged man walks out onto the stage I approach him.
“Hi, are you Andruis?” I ask him
“Um, yea…” he says looking a little confused.
I explain to him who I am and that I’m trying to learn about the Lithuanian music scene and connect with musicians here. I play a couple songs for him. We start chatting about music and he humbly tells me about his history… humbly.
Andrius offers us a couple of free tickets to that night’s show which I end up coming back to with Joan. It’s sold out and the show is fantastic. I can’t understand what Andrius is singing about, since all of his lyrics are in Lithuanian, but I get it… the universal language.
After my encounter with Andrius, I start to learn just how famous he really is from some of the locals I speak with over the next couple of days. People are loosing their minds about this guy. It turns out he is a political hero in Lithuania. Years ago, he had a band called Foje, whose lyrics spoke against censorship and Soviet oppression. He was the first artist of his time to do this in the country. The band won every European music award seemingly possible and Foje’s farewell concert in Vilnius in 1997 garnered a record-breaking crowd of 60,000 people. I would have never thought that I was talking to such a legend. Based on the how serendipitous our meeting was, I have a feeling I may see him again.
After the encounter with Andrius, I’m invited to play an impromptu show at a nearby hotel thanks to a previously made relationship between Joan and the hotel owner Jozuas. We have a fun, casual night with mainly members of TMTTR making up the audience, and I tell them of my interesting encounter with Mamantovas.
Back to the Capital
Day five in Palanga, I wake up to Judy knocking on my hotel room door.
“Jake, we’re all leaving to Vilnius on a bus right now and there is not any room left. Dalnius is coming here to pick up the art at two so you can ride with him back to the city,” she says. None of us have international SIM cards for our phones, so we don’t have any way to contact each other, which makes me a little wary about splitting off from the group entirely. I trust Judy’s judgement, though, so I stay behind in Palanga.
Two o’clock rolls around and no Dalnius. Then three, then four- nothing. I’m starting to get a little concerned that I might be stranded, so I start talking to the hotel receptionist using Google translator. A few entertaining minutes in, Dalnius pulls up. He’s a smiley, long-haired fella who speaks a little bit of English. You can tell he’s a good guy just by the vibe he’s giving off. Unlike the ambitious Richard, I decide to not make Dalnius try to decipher my English too much during our four-hour ride. I use what I would consider easy English words and keep my sentences short. I think Dalnius appreciates it.
During our ride I pull out my MacBook and start working on the demos I recorded in Palanga. The song I wrote during our stay is shaping up nicely and I’m looking forward to finding a studio in Vilnius to record the final tracks in. Dalnius notices I’m working on music and starts asking me about it. He wants to hear what I was cooking up but I tell him it’s not ready. Instead, I give him a copy of Deviant Motions, my latest album, and he puts it in… Instafan!
When we arrive in Vilnius, I learn that we are staying in a hotel in the Old Town district. Once we get into the area, my eyes light up with excitement. Hundreds of historic buildings line the cobblestone streets, all matching each other in perfectly planned architectural harmony. The red rooftops make the sky’s blue pop in a way you don’t see back home. The detail and charm of the city is so immersive. Now, I’m really starting to feel like I’m in Europe.
Driving very slowly through hordes of interesting-looking people, we get closer to the hotel. I spot several TMTTR riverites strolling up the street toward our home for the week.
“Hey, aren’t you those famous artists from the states?!” I yell out to a few of them while hanging out the van window.
They look over with big surprised eyes and all smile as I jump out and reunite with them. Dalnius hands me my suitcase and guitar and I give him a big hug. I had a good time bonding with this guy. I accompany my fellow artists up to our new hotel, Domus Maria, a giant historic church that’s been partitioned and is now used for a multitude of things. The old rectory has been converted into a cozy hotel where we’ll stay for the week.
Old Town Square in Vilnius, LT
Falling in love with the city
The days in Vilnius are sweet. The weather is perfect and the sightseeing is rich. Judy and I spend a couple of days exploring the many ancient churches, the winding cobblestone corridors and historic landmarks in the city. Everything worth seeing is close walking distance to our hotel, so we get hefty dose of Vilnius during our stay.
Perhaps one of my favorite aspects of the city is the people. They are all seemingly the most sophisticated folks to walk the earth. The men are dressed debonair in suits and interesting euro jackets that speak volumes to the eye. The women are the most beautiful creatures I’ve ever seen. They are traditional in a social sense which is a rich contrast to their style, most of them sporting black leather jackets, dark tights and often a European cigarette. These people take pride in their style and it shows.
There is a lot of ruckus in town right now due to the Pope’s planned visit happening next week, right after we intend to leave. The stage they are setting up next to the main church in town is massive, and appealing.
The nightlife in the city is more than plentiful. Many of my nights are spent ducking into the many bars and nightclubs in the neighborhood, making friends with the locals and occasionally pulling a Baltic dame onto the dancefloor for some mutual physical freedom. I don’t typically dance, but it’s Europe, and I’m a million miles away from home, so why not? Throughout these lively nights, I start to uncover a rare, rowdy version of myself that my wanderlust is pulling out of me.
Recording in Vilnius
During a lot of our stay in the capital most of the group is getting up early, walking over to Pacai Palace and the Contemporary Arts Museum, and preparing the opening, which is happening in a few days.
My contribution to the show isn’t fully finished. I still have to find a studio in Vilnius where I can professionally record my song for the exhibition. After sifting through several places, I come across a nice-looking facility called Folk Science. I check out the specs and decide that this is the perfect place. The rates are good and the gear looks great. I spend a full day recording and bro-ing out with the studio’s head engineer Arturas. He’s a young aspiring engineer who speaks great English, and our workflow during the sessions is smooth. This is saying something, given how many different instruments and tracks we pile into our limited time. I like to overdo it sometimes, and Arturas is starting to notice. He reels me back and makes sure we are being efficient.
By the time we exit the studio, we’ve recorded and compiled all of the tracks for the song “Color in the Grey,” my contribution to Manuscript. Now I just have to sequester away in my hotel room for several hours and mix it. The track will be synced up to a video that was created back in Michigan. The video started as a joint effort between Judy, myself, and Traverse City videographer Jake Burgess. Since Judy and I took off, Jake’s put a boatload more of his time, ideas and creative prowess into the film. I still haven’t watched the final product at this point, but since I sent him the demo of the song and he used that to edit the final cut around. I decide I’m not going to watch it until it is synced with the final mix of the song.
I sit in my hotel room at Domus Maria for about six hours mixing on headphones. I get what I feel is a solid final product and I sync it to the video. I finally watch the final video with the final music and I am in awe. Jake added so many new things that make for an engaging experience and fit our group’s water theme impeccably. The next few hours are spent facilitating this thing to play on loop at the exhibition, which proves to be challenge, but eventually we’re good to go.