NJs and THE JEFF: 2008 SPRING TOUR DIARY

Rock trio NJs and The Jeff (“Non-Jeffs” and “The Jeff”) emerged from the musical hotbed of Kent and Akron, Ohio in early 2007. They disbanded after only 18 months but left in their wake a blistering seven-track, self-titled EP and a few dozen “spine-blowing” gigs. This two-hour video diary was edited from five tapes captured by drummer Brian Yost during the band’s 2008 spring tour.


Filmed with a Canon ZR40 MiniDV Digital Camcorder from March 15-20, 2008
Edited in Premiere Pro (2017)

Premiere Screening: December 23, 2017
120 mins, DV

I came to this project in an unusual way.

 

I guess my involvement began on the drive from Akron to Chicago with my brother Brian, drummer Brian Yost, and "guitar man" Jeff Gill during the 2015 Furious Light tour. Yost and Jeff were doing double duty as both members of my band and the opening act, Midland Uprising. Among the four of us, we'd been involved in a lot of different music projects over the years, often contributing to each other's records and performances in various capacities. I think we were taking turns playing some of these on the van stereo when Yost pulled up his previous collaboration with "The Jeff" on his phone.

 

NJs and The Jeff was Yost's main gig when he and I first starting playing together in 2007. They had a Cream-type vibe about them—a power-trio with performances guaranteed to "blow out your spine!" The band was pretty badass, and it was great to hear them again. I asked about getting higher-quality WAV files so as to preserve their CD on my Dreaming Out Loud Records website, but Yost said he only had the MP3s we were listening to.

 

That Christmas when Yost, Jeff, Brian, and I gathered for a night out in Akron's Highland Square someone surprised me with a surviving CD, which I used as the source for the 10th-anniversary definitive digital edition now accessible on all the usual streaming services. Brian remastered the mixes and I compiled a 20-page liner notes PDF —mostly comprised of the photos from Elizabeth Myers.

 

NJs and The Jeff: 2008 Spring Tour Diary - Photo Slideshow DVD Menu

 

Liz had also taken a lot of photos of me playing music back around that time, and I remembered she went on tour with NJs and The Jeff over spring break 2008 (most of us were college students at Kent State University). I believe the band paid her way, and in exchange, she photographed the tour. 

 

Though I was able to find a lot of pictures on the NJs' surviving Myspace page, the resolution was pretty low. I reached out to Liz to see if she still had the camera originals. She did—numbering over 1,600! It took a little while, but she got them to me and I set to work. 

 

Averaging almost 200 pictures a day, there was a narrative quality to the six days of images, which were organized by "day" (as in day one, day two, etc.). Looking through them, I felt like I was along for the ride. 

 

There are a couple of dozen photos in which Yost was holding a camcorder, so I texted him, "what happened to those tapes?" He told me they were in a box at his parents' house in Ohio, but he'd never watched them.

 

What?! Speaking as a guy who had already had much of his creative life filmed for decades and made into documentaries, this was unfathomable to me.  

 

"I need those tapes! I'll edit them together for you," I said (or something like that); and sure enough, he shipped them to me the next time he visited his folks. 

 

The videotapes were also organized by "day," and when I sat down to start editing them I got completely sucked into the story of these three guys and a gal in their early 20s setting off on The Road for their first tour. 

 

There was a built-in narrative of the tour stops (Cincinnati, Louisville, Nashville, Charlotte, and finishing back in Akron) and the built-in narrator of Yost himself.  

 

NJs and The Jeff: 2008 Spring Tour Diary - DVD Chapter Menu

 

Having put together Inertia: Behind The Scenes of James O'Barr's The Crow back in 1999, I was very familiar with the convention of a cameraperson and their subjects telling "the folks at home" what they are seeing. For Inertia, my pal Jackson was pivoting an early-90's model 5-10 pound VHS camera in his palm, pointing it back at himself and assuming the alter-ego of behind-the-scenes "host," JACK SOMMERS! Camcorders in 2008 were much lighter—all the easier to take "selfies" with (though, of course, that term had not yet emerged). 

 

I found it all quite compelling. I had not seen "new" footage of this sort in a very long time. What's more, no one else had ever watched the tapes I was digitizing before—not even the band themselves! Plus, the pictures I had culled through had raised all sorts of questions I hoped would be answered. 

 

Why was Taylor angrily brandishing a baseball bat? Why was there a knife stuck in a motel mattress? 

 

It was like finally having the chance to see a rare movie you'd only glimpsed in pictures from books and magazines. 

 

Over about a month in the fall of 2017, I organized the five hours of raw footage into a two-hour travelogue documentary; or, "Video Diary," as I called it. 

 

From the first moments on tape one where the guys load up Taylor's Silver Dodge Grand Caravan and toast to the adventure ahead to the closing moments on tape five before the final show when everyone is sick of each other but elated by an unexpectedly effective impromptu semi-acoustic performance at a dive-bar in Massillon, the viewer has the most intimate cinéma vérité access imaginable.

I was surprised at how well the "characters" were defined within the first few minutes of footage. As the band sets forth from Akron, Ohio, they're already two shows into their Spring Break tour and talking candidly with "kick-drum-cameraman" Yost. Jeff has purchased a pack of new white t-shirts and plans to wear a fresh one every day. He's also bought six new pairs of socks, which he says he will throw away as he goes. Stopping off to mail a bill and withdraw some road money, "The Jeff" is happy to divulge his ATM PIN, home address, and social security number to Yost's camera, but he draws the line at his phone number. "You can have my identity; just don't call me."
 

Taylor is perhaps the most eager to "cut loose" on tour. He packs a knife in case there's trouble, jokes about marching into a roadside diner with a bottle of whiskey and ordering only a glass, but he also announces he's brought along tourist guide books for Nashville and Charlotte. 
 
Liz is our proxy. She's the outsider—the only female and the only non-bandmember (not to be confused with a "Non Jeff"). When she arrives, the van is "packed tight," and one of the guys incredulously jokes, "you have stuff?!" As you can see in the evocative images on this page (and in the EP liner notes), Liz pays her way in pictures. Her portraits of the band on tour also paved the way for this documentary. Had I not seen the many shots of Yost holding his camcorder, these tapes would still be on a shelf somewhere at his parents' house in Trumbull County.

Yost balances out Taylor's brash and gregarious humor and Jeff's dry wit. He is our guide, often asking his bandmates, "where are we?" and dutifully documenting such wonders as the precision grilling and lightning-fast prep of a Hamburger Station 12 pack or the invention of Jeff's improvised pencil-and-rubberband guitar capo.
 

Granted, I have my own memories of the group, and I've even been on a similar tour with a couple of its members, but these tapes seem to capture something special that's self-contained. There are the perpetual goals of getting to the next town... seeing the sights... playing the show... finding a place to stay. And there are often obstacles to these goals, as well as the dramatic tension of the guitar-string-thin budget of the band's cash pool. You feel the miles and the strain in the footage and sense nerves wearing thin and patience running out.

There's also joy, adventure, and mischief. Digging in the crates of Shake It Records and chatting with the colorful staff of the local hardware store in Cincinnati... Marveling at the original Kentucky Fried Chicken pressure cooker and "The Big Bat" outside the Louisville Slugger Museum & Factory... Posing for pictures by the bank of the Ohio River and outside the Grand Ole Opry House... Stringing guitars, writing setlists, and drinking road beers in the backseat... Singing along to John Denver and Dolly Parton... Tossing fireworks out the window into oncoming traffic... 

Through Yost's POV camera, viewers are part of the formation of new catchphrases and in-jokes being born. There's a remarkable candidness and a disarming combination of both unaffected and performative behavior—likely because no one on-or-behind camera thought anyone would ever see the tapes.

 

In addition to the ribaldrous road-humor, there are moments of arresting vulnerability. A particularly endearing one happens when the group arrives in downtown Nashville at dusk. With live music emanating from every bar front, the guys begin window-shopping, earmarking the places they want to check out, and their usually calm, cool, and sarcastic bassist becomes overwhelmed and exclaims, "AHHH... I'm freaking out!" The next day, the whole band buys cowboy boots and shops for western-style shirts. The glee and reverence with which they move through the "world-famous" Gruhn Guitars, gingerly picking up and sometimes playing very expensive instruments, is truly touching. 

 

While in Music City, we get an unexpected cameo from local-boy-makes-good, bluegrass musician David Mayfield, whom the guys knew from his weekly gigs with his sister (Jessica Lea Mayfield) at EuroGyro in Kent. Mayfield had only recently moved to Nashville at the time, and it turns out Liz is his cousin! Taylor arranged for the crew to crash with him while they were in town, and he even joins them on mandolin for a cover of Cream's "I'm So Glad" at the FooBar—where one punk rock patron calls The Jeff "Dukes of Hazzard" because of his rose-embroidered buttondown shirt. 

Of course, we also see grimy motels and greasy roadside grub. Poor Jeff gets "food fucked" by Sam's Hotdog Stand in West Virginia, for example, and one especially dilapidated motor-inn didn't even have a working lock on the door! 

I found myself absorbed by the inherent arc of a story, which unfolded for me as an editor the same way it would ultimately to any viewers—albeit in a shorter form. When David Mayfield suddenly popped up in the footage and led the band in a late-night, post-show, silly-song-sing-along I was genuinely surprised. Plus, there's a time-capsule-like curiosity to the proceedings. After all, the tapes had sat in a box for almost a decade before being unearthed. 

In early 2008, smartphones capable of capturing HD-quality video were not yet commonplace, but very soon this sort of tape-based travelog would be obsolete. Nowadays, most folks (myself included) record short video clips which may or may not ever survive the phone on which they're stored. When Taylor tells Yost "I feel like we're wasting tape" four minutes into the raw footage, Yost fires back, "I have five tapes!" Those five, one-hour tapes are filled with now-anachronistic objects like iPods and paper roadmaps. 

The fifth JVC MiniDV cassette is labeled simply, "Last Tape," and heeding the camcorder's LED display warning, Yost ticks off the remaining seconds of both the tape and the whole Spring Break Tour as he solicits final words from the band. Jeff feigns a tearful farewell and Taylor exclaims a celebratory "rock 'n' roll!" And just like that, the tape runs out and the tour is over.

I wanted the experience of the edited film to retain its amateur home-movie intimacy and aesthetic, so my approach was mostly to pare down the footage. Whenever possible, I stuck to the in-camera starts and stops, and I retained the organization of "days" and super-imposed Yost's handwritten tape labels as interstitial graphics. There was one bit where he held the camera from his seat at the drums in the next-to-last gig that I moved to the opening to help establish the first-person point of view, the roles of each bandmember, and to see them actually playing music before letting the tapes unspool. I resorted to montages only a couple of times, mostly as a means of incorporating the relatively few on-stage performances captured—including Mayfield's magnificently manic mandolin solo— and I amused myself by including the ambient sounds of our heroes waiting for their food at Hamburger Station under the closing credits.

 

Even the running time was a form-dictating-content-based decision, with two hours representing the limitations of a commercial VHS tape. This is arguably too long, but even watching it again after a few years in preparation for this web article, I don't know what I would cut. Plus, the length dragging on a little in that last half-hour accentuates the feeling of the road-weariness expressed by the subjects—especially during the harrowing bluegrass heaven-turned-hell of 30-plus-repeat listens to Loretta Lynn's version of "Rocky Top" on the last stretch of the road home.  

Below you can see the short-list of deleted/bonus scenes. Most were full song performances, but "The Jeff's Quest for Magnets" gives a glimpse of the sort of meandering detour that has some charm but didn't further the "story." (Click the picture to watch the private video link) I particularly like the part where Yost zooms in on Taylor through the window as he smokes in the rest area parking lot, looking thoroughly fed up with tour-life. However, this "subplot" scene happens on the drive back, and at that point in the film, we just want the group to make it through the "Rocky Top" home to Akron for their final gig.

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NJs and The Jeff: 2008 Spring Tour Diary - Bonus Scenes DVD Menu

 

As you can surely sense, if you've read this far, I really enjoyed putting this thing together. I instinctively knew, though, that there wasn't much—if anything—to be "done" with it once completed. Though I'm not in touch with Taylor, I don’t think anyone is a parent yet or anything. Nevertheless, nearly a decade had passed, and most of the "cast" have jobs outside of the entertainment business. I didn’t want to compromise anyone’s career path by "releasing" or promoting a documentary they never knew they were making. My plan was simply to burn five DVDs as gifts to the folks on screen and keep one for myself.

Yost and Jeff surprised me by renting a private screening room in Akron at the hotel now right across the street from The Northside Bar we used to play "back in the day." It was great fun to sit alongside them as they watched themselves, ten-years-younger, make the trip from Akron to Cincinnati to Louisville to Nashville to Charlotte and back again. 

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I consider it a privilege to have been gifted these tapes and the proverbial keys to the Silver Grand Caravan—to have the opportunity to include this band in the larger story I’m telling. What started as a short detour from The Furious Light documentary has turned into a much longer scenic route, but you know what they say about the journey being as important as the destination...  

Signing off... 

-David Ullman
March 2021