Making Sense of Fifty

Why did a Berkeley troubadour spend two months playing every state capitol in America? Why not?

All 51 state capitols in 51 days. More than twenty thousand miles at $2.50 a gallon. An eleven-year-old minivan with no air conditioning in the thick of summer. That’s commitment — but to what? Three months after the fact, Berkeley’s Webster McBride, the man behind the Fifty tour, still isn’t sure. “I thought that once I got on the trip … just from talking about it, I would get to a quick half-minute summary,” admits the frontman for indie-rock group the Golden Birds. “That never happened.”

Instead, in the careful prose of a 28-year-old Yale philosophy graduate, McBride offers on thirteen reasons to drive across the country and give free acoustic concerts on the steps of every capitol building: “Distance has its way with us. … To do something new to the land. … We will carry Utah dust into Massachusetts. … It is our country.”

The concept coalesced in the summer of 2004, when McBride drove alone from the East Coast to California, performing shows along the way. A divisive election season was brewing, and fragmentation was on his mind. In his stereo were songs he’d written that would’ve had no place on what became the Golden Birds’ upbeat 2005 debut, Carrier. His acoustic musings on love and distance instead became the Transamerica EP. “The trip had been the tour that would support [the record],” he explains. “But over the course of the fall, I became more excited about the trip itself.” Sketched on a US map and framed by friends’ weddings in California and New York, Fifty was born.

The logistics were easy to plan. Kick off in Sacramento on July 4. Fly to Alaska and Hawaii from the two most isolated capitals (Olympia and Phoenix). Sweep from west to east. Follow major interstates. Perform nightly at eight. Find free shelter in each state wherever it was offered; lacking that, camp by the side of the road.

McBride’s friend Jody Avirgan came along for more than a month to shoot a film about Fifty. Others met up with McBride on the way — he traveled alone for only nine days. Audiences averaged five to ten people; most were alerted in advance by word of mouth, and passersby were few. “I liked the thought of it being something modest, and not a spectacle,” he says. “But it also seemed silly to … be a tree falling in the middle of the forest.” Set lists drew from Transamerica, Carrier, and a repertoire of covers, typically comprising “four quieter, love-song-ier numbers while seated on the steps, facing away from the building, then turning to the building standing and playing another four, more uptempo, political/culturally charged songs.”

There were, of course, difficulties: failed brakes, a blown tire, a stolen laptop. A rough southeast stretch yielded sparse attendance and few places to stay. Four times, McBridge was forbidden from playing on capitol grounds without a permit. And he was not immune to internal challenges: “When I got into the heartland, I was uneasy at times when I would play,” he recalls. “Despite all my rhetoric, I still responded to the feeling that this was not as much my home as other places.”

Successes came later. Around forty people gathered in McBride’s hometown of Washington, DC. Duets with other performers broke the tedium — Avirgan played glockenspiel; Golden Birds bandmate Leyna Noel sang; a stand-up bassist in Madison learned the songs before McBride arrived. Touring New England was easy: “It’s not as hot, it’s where I grew up, much shorter drives, and I’m staying with family and family friends. It was kind of anticlimactic.”

At the end of the trip lay no quick wisdom. “I was thinking I would come home and write a counterpart to the thirteen things,” McBride concludes. “But I ended up just pushing the trip out of my mind, not wanting to think about it.” Fifty was never about what he would learn, but about what he would do: fuse the states into one entity by treating them equally.

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