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Road Rules

Mary Prankster Just Threw Together the Tour of Her Life and Loves That She Has No Idea What's Going to Happen Next

Jefferson Jackson Steele
Mary Prankster

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Mary Prankster

By Bret McCabe | Posted

Winston-Salem, N.C., has been very, very good to Mary Prankster. The Southern city saved the Baltimore girl's ass when her October/November tour veered toward disaster. On Tuesday, Nov. 19, Prankster was still in Winston-Salem. Still, two days after the band that shares her stage name played there. Still, a mere day before she's due to appear at a Baltimore event. Still, two days before she's slated to perform solo in New Jersey.

Yet she sounds as cool as a penguin, even though being stalled in North Carolina is but the latest obstacle to befall her since September, when her then-band mates backed out of this tour. She really hasn't been home since. She's been rootless, her e-mail address, cell phone, post-office box, and wherever she's staying for the moment serving as her operations base for her label, Palace Coup Records. But given what Prankster has achieved since then, she's more confident than she's ever been.

Not that everything has gone smoothly. She's stuck in Winston-Salem because there wasn't a single rental truck available for her to drive her gear, merchandise, and self back to Baltimore. Plus, her bass player was picked up by the cops the previous afternoon--"He had expired tags and registration [for his car], just one of those things he just sort of let go when we were on the road," Prankster says--and she wasn't able to spring him from the poky until almost midnight.

"So I've got a friend--like, my best friend--who is renting a cargo van in Baltimore and is currently en route to come pick me up and get all my stuff," she says over the phone. "She shot all of my press photos for forever. And she wanted to do her first film, so she came on tour with the band for the past two months, and she shot the whole tour from beginning to end: the first shows with the old band, me frantically finding these guys, and then--well, it's a great story. I mean, it sounds like a good story now."

Two months back, the ongoing saga of Mary Prankster--a rather routine yarn about an independent musician carving her niche in the proverbial big, bad world--turned toward tragic melodrama. Prankster, whose spunky blend of indie rock, poppy punk, and a ballsy and bawdy no-bullshit attitude has been a local fixture since her 1996 cassette EP Mata Hari, believed she was doing everything she could to help her career. She and her band mates of almost four years, bassist Jon E. Cakes and drummer Phil Tang, had recorded their third album, Tell Your Friends, at Mitch Easter's studio in Kernersville, N.C. And though band relations had grown strained, she says the group agreed that this tour would be the last one for this lineup.

"[This tour] is what my whole life has been moving toward," Prankster says. "I really thought this is what is going to make my career. I've never had a tour that's been better planned. The press had already gone out about it. The posters were already out. The deposits already received. The routing made sense. I have been touring for the past two years constantly in order to have places to tour to when this album came out."

Then all hell broke loose. Cakes and Tang decided not to tour--says Prankster, because Cakes and Tang were peeved that she would continue performing as Mary Prankster after the tour's close--and she was faced with canceling the tour entirely, touring solo acoustic, or improbably finding a new bassist and drummer. She opted for the seemingly unfeasible.

"It was an impossible laundry list of qualifications," Prankster admits. "It was September, [and] I had two weeks to find a band, who could learn three albums in two weeks, then disappear for two months with no notice, and play everything well. And they had to be into it. And I didn't really have any money. This was supposed to be the first tour where we could all walk away with a little nest egg after it."

She tried every Baltimore musician she knew, then every other musician in her Rolodex, and they all said the same thing: Love to do it, but it's just too short notice. Serendipitously, a friend in Winston-Salem contacted her out of the blue just to see how she was doing, and she told him about her predicament. He pointed her to Winston-Salem bassist Andy Mabe, who she called.

Over the phone, she told Mabe two things. One, she would drive to Winston-Salem after a weekend solo gig in Virginia Beach to meet him. Two, find a drummer.

"I show up to this art commune warehouse where he lived in downtown Winston-Salem and he was there with a drummer, Terry Klawth," Prankster says. "And I told them this tour was going to be like resuscitating a loved one. I played them the album. They dug it. And I said, 'Basically, you have 12 hours to tell me if you can do this.' And they were like, sure."

Prankster and her new cohorts--Mabe, a veteran who has toured with Neko Case, and Klawth, a multitalented percussionist who has played in incarnations of Jodie Foster's Army and Mighty Sphincter--had four marathon practices in Mitch Easter's parents' garage prior to hitting the road. And though Prankster admits the first shows were expectedly shaky, they soon gelled into something that really surprised her.

"First of all, these guys are super-duper pros," Prankster says. "They learned the songs immediately. And after a while, we were jamming in sound checks, which is something that I've never, ever done. They pick up on stuff immediately. And I have had such a great time."

What had started out as Prankster's nightmare turned into something unexpectedly rewarding. "This whole two months has been wildly expensive," Prankster says. "The guys were pros, but they didn't come cheap, because this is what they do, and I respect that. However, everywhere we went there was some really cool, not so much life-changing but definitely life-enhancing adventure. The people that I met. The places that I stayed. Seeing the ways that music has affected people's lives. What a way to spend two months of your life.

"Indisputably, this was the best-case scenario," she continues. "All things considered, in the end, the money stuff is only money. Every place we've played wants to have me back. And I delivered the [new] record, because the albums are available online or at live shows. And if anything, I feel like I have more options now. I've expanded my horizons. And I can't wait to hear the album that comes out of this experience, once I've had a chance to process everything."

When and how that album gets written is currently her million-dollar question. After two band shows at Fletcher's this weekend, Prankster heads north for a string of solo dates that takes her to Canada and drops her back at CBGB's in New York on New Year's Eve. After that, though, she's going to rest.

"I figure January and February will be decompression," she says. "All this forward momentum makes it very difficult to write. Mostly [I'm] going to be asleep in January, and I've got some tables I want to refinish, and I think I'm going to crochet an afghan."

How--or if--Mary Prankster the band appears in the future, however, is still up in the air. "The guys that I toured with are total heroes as far as I'm concerned," Prankster says. "They saved it for me. So, would I love to play with them again? Yeah. Would I be able to get them again? Don't know. But that's OK. It's not so scary now, the idea of putting together another band. But I just don't know if that's what's going to happen. The future's open. For the first time in four years, I don't know six months in advance where I'll be every single day and what I'll be doing. And I'm OK with that."

Mary Prankster plays Fletcher's Nov. 29 and 30. For info, call (410) 558-1889 or visit

E-mail Bret McCabe

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