Part 1. The Walking Man I’m not a man who is wont to go back. I’m a walking man – I go forward, I go down the road, I roll on, I don’t look back. Any time I have crossed my tracks, or, as we say in the family, boiled the cabbage twice, it has been in defeat or ended in defeat. After putting as much American soil as I could between me and Baltimore, I slunk back there drunk and beaten after 7 years. I recrossed the lower 48 on some self -mythic mission to reclaim California in 2006, only to lose it all to a shaking sickness and a slap that turned into a punch that turned into a final, fatal blow.
There are somethings that I can’t control. We are born with some germ in us which guides our fates in ways we could never predict and can never control. That doesn’t mitigate bad choices or convenience disguised as nobility, but the refusal to revisit I have always felt is beyond the call of predetermination – it is the most conscious and proudly defended right to choose which I maintain.
In the shadow of that, I find myself back in a familiar field. What adventures will your good friend and neighbor, Ol’ Sebbie, find in 2012? Will the friendly ghosts of 2011 come out to dance again, bringing with them healing and square perspective? Will I affirm my own being and find that I can undertake great feats alone? Or will illness, exhaustion and lonesome blues prove unkind fates for a lone pilgrim in a far land? All will be answered, all will be illuminated, and all will be confessed in these following brief pages…
The year that led up to this trip was a radically different one from the one which led up to my previous jaunt -that year was characterized by stress, a near-fatal collapse and the loss of access to my children had been, in large, balanced by a relationship which seemed to be prospering in adversity, work which seemed to be to be to some purpose and I felt settled and in a community of peers, both personally and professionally. The one step back still carried two steps forward. Which is important for a walking man.
The year leading to now, however, has seen the slow, irresistible creep of illness, the sudden and unforeseen loss of that relationship (and her sad choice to share that fact very publicly, which she knew would hurt me) ,an ill-considered change of employment (the change was inevitable, the choice was nonetheless flawed) and the sense that I am, once again, alone and open to the wind leaves me a man on a dangerous cusp. Walking is good, you see, but drifting is not.
So, despite all telling me that travelling 7,000 miles, alone, in my physical state (nor my mental state!) was a fool’s errand and the only thing I was going to find was something I already knew – that the past will always look better than the present and that there’s no such thing as ghosts.
But, knowing as I did that change is in the wind, I decided to stare down the gale and see if I wanted to stand in the teeth of it or wanted to let it blow me where it would. And the only way to find out was to get loose and get lost. And get gone – get real, real gone.
Part 2. The sky in Australia
The sky in Australia is different, especially at night. It’s darker, bigger and you can see things more clearly in it. As I stargaze, as My Morning Jacket wend their way through a droning and seemingly unending saxophone solo, I’m lying on my back among the dope smokers and drop down drunks and once again, reflecting on distance, looking for a message and trying to find some energy.
I’m watching the planet Mars wend it’s wandering way across the deep, black sky – the clouds high, thin and silver – it moving relative to us and us to it. Planets are wanderers and I am wondering if that is, in fact, not our fundamental nature too. Lucinda Willams, via Memphis Minnie, told us there was nothing in rambling, but right now, that’s only one half of the argument.
It’s been a good day, but there are 100 accumulated tirednesses in my body and the corners of my head that need a good bed and some focus to patch up – and there is not likely to be a soft bed and a forgiving pair of hazel eyes at the end of this evening….
The day began at 5:30 in the morning, with the trip from north of Brisbane to Tyagarah – about the same distance as Los Angeles to Tijuana – to set up camp in the well appointed site at the festival. The drive down was unremarkable (save for spotting a very cherry ’68 Shelby, all purring 428 and Highland Green passing me south of Brisbane) – the Australian freeway system seems to cut through light industrial corridors at every opportunity – the roads are generally good (but better once one leaves the state of Queensland for New South Wales, much as they improve once you leave Pennsylvania for Maryland) and there is an only occasional tantalizing glimpse of the glorious coastline.
The staff at Bluesfest are, as ever, friendly and eager to please and I am checked in and somewhat informally checked for alcohol or illicit drugs (in other words, I am politely asked and then asked twice again am I sure. I tell them I have no booze or drugs, just a gunny sack full of Coldplay CDs. The gatekeeper agrees this is a most undesirable thing to be bringing into the Bluesfest but, technically, not against the rules. As I set up, I was treated to an hour long show from tonight’s headliners, Cold Chisel, in the form of their soundcheck. As the first band wasn’t due on until 4:00pm, I settled in with a book (Hellhound on my Trail by Hampton Sides, an enthralling read) and soaked up some Aussie sun.
DAY 1 – The Hands, Trombone Shorty, David Bromberg, Nick Lowe, My Morning Jacket, Cold Chisel
State of voice – strong and indomitable
My festival opener for 2012 was The Hands, a collection of crack musicians led by two brothers who duel relentless on vintage keyboards, creating a thick and wonderful funk that had even my stiff and leaden feet shuffling within seconds. While the entire ensemble were crack musicians to man, the B3 player, Clayton Doley, became something of a meme across the festival (or at least, he did for me) as you’ll see when I start to talk about other acts over the next few days.
Suffice to say, a crisp start, full of good vibes and a strong sense of welcome – and a great layer-on for the awesomeness we knew which was to follow – the star of last year’s show – the star of the 6th Ward, the mighty Mr Trombone Shorty.
Of course, the problem with being Trombone Shorty is that you ARE Trombone Shorty. And that means the person you are constantly measuring yourself against is yourself – and the one peculiar legend (among no doubt many) to consider here is how he measures himself against last year breathtaking and revelatory performance.
How he succeed is in the fact that Shorty is a classicist (a word that I seemed to say and awful lot over the 5 days, to anyone who would listen) and he understands the only way to meet, beat or confound expectations is through the music (compare and contrast with the likes of Lady Gaga or Rhianna, who seemingly deem the music irrelevant and confront expectations by showing more skin or wearing goofier costumes in their videos). and that’s where Shorty triumphed this year – with essentially the same band (he added a baritone sax) he has made them tighter, better integrated, less entertainers, per se, than musicians who work with and for each other.
Shorty’s trick is to always wind the music back to where it comes from – he’s a student of the sources, so he and his band can effortlessly deconstruct hip hop forms directly back to first line New Orleans funeral marches, or draw line from the hottest of the James Brown hotfoots to the slickest modern R&B. The band also offers plenty of interesting diversions on the way. Of course, word of mouth from last year ensured a rabid cult and a packed house for the gig, which only added to the roof-removalist atmosphere.
In all, a triumphant return from a truly great artist. Even when the shock of the new is stripped away, Trombone Shorty remains a profound talent and Orleans Avenue a resourceful and powerful ensemble who can tear the roof off any given sucker at any given time.
Flushed and thrilled from TS’s triumph, I made my way through the hot, dusty afternoon to the Crossroads tent to catch the Dave Bromberg quartet.
Of course, Bromberg is a legend who has played with anyone who’s worth playing with – from the Grateful Dead to Bob Dylan, from the Reverend Gary Davis to Widespread Panic – heck, even the Beastie Boys have sampled him. He’s semi-retired nowadays, preferring to work in making and restoring violins in Delaware (true. Rock on, dude!), but he works a wry and fine line in hokum blues and fronted with an unintrusive but sympathetic backing group of electric base, fiddle (and a very fine fiddle, too) and a second guitarist/mando player. Sandwiched between the heavy hitters of Trombone Shorty and Nick Lowe, it was easy to overlook Bromberg’s set – but it was excellent – wonderfully played and sung with equal doses of sly fun and deep reverence and the man is a master storyteller, to boot!
Next along was of the acts I had most wanted to see… a man whose middle name is, believe it or not, Drain – my old flame, Mr Nick Lowe.
When I was in high school, me and my little mobb were rabid anglophiles – rabid, slightly behind the times anglophiles, who loved anything coming out of England form the late 70’s to the mid 80’s. Nick Lowe and Dave Edmunds were my favorites, but Elvis Costello, Graham Parker, Billy Bragg, Wire, Gang of Four, The Jam, Ian Drury, The Clash – all of those acts we just lapped up. And I have always had a last admiration for Lowe’s determined individualism and his sheer craftsmanship as a songwriter, so I much looked forward to re-acquainting myself with an old master.
The set was a good natured, high spirited jaunt through both hits (opening with a solo “What’s so Funny About Peace Love and Understanding), some chestnuts for the die-hard fans (of whom there were plenty) and newer (and singularly excellent) material. The show also marked the appearance of what was to be the ubiquitous Gibson J-45, strummed by Lowe
All in all, a happy hour spent with a man who knows his audience, knows that they don’t want to be pandered to and who knows how to leave the room with a warm vibe.
Which, after a dinner of very excellent Jambalaya, brings us back to My Morning Jacket and the sky in Australia.
A few weeks back, I received an unexpected phone call from a woman at the Baton Rouge Advocate. Last year, a friend offered me a job down there in what was basically an Administrative capacity – I’m much more interested in the business of running newspapers as opposed to that of writing them these days. Now, I turned it down because things were going so well at home, I’m close to my doctors there and, frankly, I was a little leery of Baton Rouge. Now, this phone call opens the door and I have to ask “does the road want walking?” I’m going in circles right now…
Part 3. The Flame Trees will blind a weary driver
Rock bands are funny things. They come and they go – some endure as memories of warm nights, the first dizzy spin of a head rush, illicit beers on a concrete floor, a hand misguided and confounded by the dark and the hooks and eyes of recalcitrant lingerie. Others become institutions, multi-generational, irrelevant and inviting hostile silence when they announce a song from their new album. Some, worse than all, become “brands” – “featuring” original members and hosting karaoke sessions at the House of Blues, Riverboat Casinos, State fairs and Wal-Mart Openings. Others, like ZZ Top showed us last year, find a way to go simultaneously forward and back by recommitting to their passions. In Australia, few rock bands have ever been held in the esteem in which Cold Chisel are held and few rock bands ever have more to lose by coming back (after almost 30 years) to a rabid cult of fans who, in no small number, were not born when they first broke up (and in some cases, their parents may not even have been born….). I was curious, here, as to what goes on.
Conversation with the locals pre-gig proved enlightening and a little troubling. A potted history is that of a young hell-raising band from the back of beyond coming to Sydney in the late 70’s, winning a rep through sensational live shows, number 1 albums, self destruction, an epic final tour in 1983, singer goes on to multiple #1 solo albums, half-hearted reunion in the last days of the 20th Century, silence and now this. A band that sold three million records in Australia (which is, apparently, a lot) and most of them since they broke up. When I asked for an American frame of reference, the name I kept hearing most often was “Bruce Springsteen” – an enduring symbol of rock’s past and alleged roots, but perhaps a mere symbol nonetheless. Why are they so popular with people who weren’t born when they made their records? Steve-O, who is 18, explains that it is simply like they never went away – through the radio, video and re-releases, CC are a ubiquitous part of the Australian cultural fabric – popular with young men because their music is direct, unpretentious, unchanging, guitar driven and the guys in the band themselves are earnest, “real” and not “faggots”, like most rock stars are apparently. They reflect he values that Steve-O and his “mates” (an Aussie term for buddies, but implying some deeper psychic affiliation) feel honor bound to preserve – straight talking, staying true to your raising and defiance of arbitrary authority.
I asked Steve-O if he felt any chance of being disappointed by tonight’s one-off show. He looked at me as if I had just tried to recruit him to the Taliban.
So, into the jam-packed tent I shuffled and found a spot stage left about 20 rows back. Given the jostling, skittish mob around me, I was worried about a rush and got myself into brace position. In my experience, when a band hits the stage to an overcrowded room, one of two things will happen – the crowd will surge forward (not good) or will simply jump up and down on the spot (not so bad but still not good). I need not have worried – when Cold Chisel burst out on the stage to a rapturous roar (Bluesfest Crowds tend to be 55/45 female, but Cold Chisel was 70/30 male), the crowd threw its hands into the air and leaped in exultation – and then started singing along as if the band’s mere presence was enough and the actual music they played was just for when the crowd got tired admiring its own cleverness.
And what of the band? The songs were, as described, solid, for the most part unexceptional, meat and potatoes rock – a fine guitarist, excellent piano player and the new drummer (apparently the much loved former sticksman died of cancer a few years back) was fiery and forceful. The songs from the new album were good and typically to-the-point. The singer sounded generally like he had just stepped on a tack, but he didn’t have much work to do, generally shouting a few phrases here and there and letting the crowd to the work while he prowled the stage – distributing winks and waves and thumbs ups to the crowd with much like the manner of a drunken but beloved uncle at a Christmas get together.
An odd point – one of their most rapturously received songs was a ballad about a solider who survived the battle of Khe Sahn and returned to Australia disillusioned, Born-In-The-USA style. I wonder if Steve-O would be interested to know that there were no Australians on the ground at Khe Shan and, equally, I wonder how the boys at the 3rd Marine division feel about the song. But, these quibbles aside, the set was certainly entertaining, the band surely honest and worthy and the singer’s call for have an Australian band headlining Bluesfest “every fucking year” (Cold Chisel being the first in 23 years!) was a memorable and exciting coda to the show.
So ended Day 1. and, as I stood under a swollen moon, beneath those huge and all revealing skies, two thoughts came to mind as the happy, drunken and party-minded throngs swept past me outside the venue – firstly, today was all about old values and new starts – the old values of Bromberg, Lowe and Chisel and the new starts given to them by Trombone Shorty and My Morning Jacket and how, ultimately, where you go will always trump where you have been because one you cannot change and one you cannot help – and secondly, the increasingly annoying thought that now, as the music faded, I had to go sleep in a tent.
Part 4. Blues run the game. I slept through the night – a rarity for me – and woke around 5:30. The rain had stayed away, mercifully, so after some more reading and a good hot shower, I decided to make my way to the communal store for a cup of coffee – if only to soothe my ragged throat and to check out the locals.
Aussies are, as a general rule, a good natured, amiable bunch. There’s a long line at the store, but they queue patiently, chatting to one another, showing off photos from the previous evening, comparing the magnitude of their hangovers and talking about how they plan to spend their days. There’s no jostling, no hustling to get to the front – no one mutters if the guy at the head of the line spends 30 seconds bantering with the server and no eye rolling or reaching for concealed .38s if the server takes 30 seconds to flirt with a pretty girl. It’s a big country, with a big sky and they measure time in a big way, too. Coffee and burger orders are taken by collecting first names and the grill chef cheerfully hollers out a new one every 30 seconds or so – “Phil!” “Marceline!” “Tom!”….. “Tom!”…… “burger’s ready Tom!!”. Soon the rest of the line has picked up the call and random “Tom!” “hey Tom!!”‘s start flying around, spreading from the line back to the rest of the servers and out into the garden where folks are eating their breakfast. Inevitably, the “I am Tom!” “no, I am Tom!!” calls start coming back, only to be rebuffed with “no you’re not” or “you were Phil 10 minutes ago”….. The silliness persist for a good 5 minutes, with occasional re-eruptions, but Tom never comes forward.
I drank my coffee on the way back to the camp, just as Crosby, Stills and Nash struck up their soundcheck. They sound ragged and cranky with one another, “Love the One You’re With” is littered with clams. Hmmmm….
Day 2 – Dallas Frasca, Eugene “Hideaway” Bridges, Harry Manx, James Vincent McMorrow, Eilen Jewell, John Hiatt, The Specials, The Fabulous Thunderbirds.
State of Voice – Rough as guts
The day, however, begins with a search for less familiar pleasures. I trot down to the Jamablaya tent to catch Dallas Frasca, described in the program as a “twin slide guitar attack”, which sounds promising.
Dallas Frasca is, in fact, a local leather lunged young lady who leads a band equal parts Black Keys and Wolfmother – and owes just a little too much to both to really escape those comparisons. The show is energetic, her pipes are impressively strong – but her songs just lack finesse and are hard to tell from one another.
It’s a rarity, but here we have a band which is a clear partnership between members, not singer and sidemen and the creative force in the band is a strong woman. Excellent! And, if it did nothing, it certainly woke me up!
One of the occupational hazards of attending a Blues Festival is that one is, on occasions, required to listen to some actual blues, so it is off to check out an honest to goodness Texas bluesman, Mr Eugene “Hideaway” Bridges…
Bridges is an old school bluesman, specializing in slinky solos, startlingly good Sam Cooke impersonations and big-hearted showmanship that has the audience stomping, singing and clapping along (worryingly though, the audience seemed incapable of joining the sing along chorus of “Stand By Me”. How hard can it be? Stand…. by me, oh Stand…. by me. Jeez. They can get the “Tom!” gag going for 10 minutes but three little words….)
Bridges recounts from the stage tales of travels taken and journeys criss-crossed in the name of the blues, countless roads wandered and re-wandered – a walking man’s tale. Almost 50 years of blowing like the dust, forward, back, always in search of the song. I got to thinking about it – of the blues as a statement evolving out of hush harbors and shotgun shacks, the music of a close personal voice like Lightnin’ Hopkins or Son House or Robert Johnson, or as the truly American musical statement, vast and visionary, big as Bridges’ Texas, or BB Kings journey from Itta Bena, MS to the White House, or Sam Cooke’s from nearby Clarkesdale to 9137 South Figueroa Street. Bridges leaves this stage but he, and the song, and the blues head for another one. What right does a man with a story to tell have to sit in one place?
Of course, the Blues isn’t merely an Americans spectacle – it is a worldwide extension of an American spectacle, it is – if you like- an American language with a universal grammar and a thousand local accents. And no-one epitomizes that better than Harry Manx – born in England, in thrall to another denizen of Clarksdale, who lives in Canada and learned to play slide guitar from an Indian raga master.
Manx is quite superb in an intimate live context. His guitar playing is bewitching, his voice warm, familiar and intimate and his stage manner can captivate a room. His incorporation of Indian techniques and influences is absolutely authentic and results in a hypnotic stew of notes – some in familiar flavors, others hinting at a far more exotic spice.
The hour with Harry seemed to stand still for everyone in the room as he told his stories, sang his blues and ended in tribute to the man who lived in a cropper’s shack in Clarkesdale, Mr Muddy Waters.
Next up was the find of the festival…. James Vincent McMorrow
Part 5. John Hiatt is a thief. Imagine a young Van Morrison in Cambridge in 1968, but instead of Van’s infusing his dreams of nature with the voice of Big Joe Williams and those shadows of 12th and Vine, he did it with the voice of Roy Orbison, sitting in his car on the outskirts of Wink, the words to “Only the Lonely” drifting down from the stars. Then you have something like the wonder that is James Vincent McMorrow. Barefoot, carrying an ancient looking Gibson Bluesmaster he sang in a fragile yet wholly formed voice that seemed simply to emanate from him – his lips barely moved. It was like Blind Willie Johnson moaning “Dark was the night and cold was the ground” a wail that found words.
His songs are the same balance between what is there and what is not as his voice. Heartbreaking but affirming in the essential truths, McMorrow writes with the same impressionistic touch as the young George Ivan.
He has a genuine knack for capturing incidents and moments that resonate – both in the happy and unhappy memory. He knows how to spread the honey and how to twist the knife.
The performance was not with out drama – as he played, Joe Satriani and co were playing in the neighboring tent and it must of been awfully difficult for him to hear himself over the racket. But he handled it with grace and a certain fierce humor.
Another continuing annoyance were the flocks of young girls tittering and screeching about the tent as if he were some teeny-pop star. Spellbinding as he was, the constant interruption of chattering and texting, as well as the dull thump of Armageddon being laid down by the pointy-guitar widdlers were grossly unfair to the artist. Immediately, he finished, I made sure I marked out his next performance in the schedule so I could catch up with him again.
Next up, as I found myself standing in the front row, was the Queen of the Minor Key, the wonderful Eilen Jewell.
For every “country cutie” that rises up, for every Taylor Swift or Faith Hill or Shania Twain, may there always be an Eilen Jewell to cut them down. A woman whose voice is salt, smoke, late nights and “You ain’t Woman enough to take my Man”. And I am profoundly grateful for that.
Her crack band take her through torch ballads, straight country, rockabilly, Swing and jump-blues and primitive rock and roll and she herself is a mesmerizing performer, someone able to get inside a song and inhabit it a sit does her. She may seem frail and tentative as a stage persona. but there’s a keen intelligence behind the piercing blue eyes.
Hot damn, I love that woman!
I have to admit, my head was spinning after the dual wonderful sets from McMorrow and Jewell, but I had little time to reflect. Darkness had fallen over the festival site and cool change had come in. One feature different this year from last was the phenomenon of the night visitor – who spends all day sleeping or hanging out in the campground (listening to the music of acts they could be seeing live on their iPods) only to come into the festival proper at night, to drink and party, which they then continue to the wee hours back in the camp ground). So suddenly, it is more crowded as I pick my way towards the Jambalaya tent to see a great favorite – the legendary Mr John Hiatt.
Rushing to the tent, I played with an interesting thought exercise – the finer songwriter – John Hiatt or John Prine? Many angles to consider there, but, as I winkled my way into another front row position I diplomatic conceded that Prine’s best songs were better than Hiatt’s best, but Hiatt’s second best songs were better than Prine’s. Hiatt brought his spare band out and crashed into “Master of Disaster” (another song about a walking man)
But the master of disaster gets tangled in his telecaster
he can’t play it any faster when he plays the blues
when he had the heart to ask her and every note just shook the plaster
now he’s just a mean old bastard when he plays the blues
and it seemed like prophecy – and when he followed with “Tennessee Plates”
since I left for California, baby
things have gotten worse –
the land of opportunity
for me was just a curse
and then “Drive South” and then “Slow Turning” ( he really favored that album!), well, that was a man and a butterscotch telecaster sending me a message!
And of course, I sent a message back, whoopin’ and a hollerin’ until my voice totally gave out. Hiatt’s band, anchored by the ever excellent Doug Lancio (playing a very sweet Gretch 6120. John Hiatt. He steals my guitar, my hat and my voice!) who manages to replicate the role of the legendary Sonny Landreth pretty well, is tense and tight and sympathetic to a Hiatt who seems to want to rock out tonight – right now some collective ecstasy is coming over the tent – I am figuring Hiatt doesn’t get down this way too often…
After an encore of “Riding with the King”, I slumped down, sweating and exhausted, against the cool metal of the crash barrier that bounded the stage from the audience. I closed my eyes for 10 seconds or so and tried to focus against a sudden wave of tiredness. My throat was ragged, my left foot was a mass of pins and needles (even now, 8 days later, I still have no feeling in three toes), I was more than a little dehydrated and I had less that 15 minutes to get to The Specials, who were bound to be packed but, equally, were themselves unmissable. So, muttering “go hard or go home”, I lifted myself up and made for one more once-in-a-lifetime chance
Part 6. A Message to You. I’m always leery of the “reformed band”. Whereas Steve-O saw no possibility of failure in Cold Chisel’s reunion (and I had no baseline to judge it by), I am always dubious about the notion of a band, propped up by a few original members, merely churning out the jukebox for cash. And for a band as characterized by its commitment to integrity as The Specials, this was a particularly high risk roll. As it happened, I needn’t have worried. The Specials carried off their comeback with fierce, ragged aplomb. These are guys who are still genuinely angry and passionate about the same things that drove them 35 years ago. The band smashed and clattered with rude and reckless abandon through their hits, and the crowd responded wit a mix of what may have been relief and was certainly admiration for a ballsy bunch of old blokes determined to rip it up one last time.
“Nite Klub”, “A message to You, Rudy”, “Monkey Man”, “Gangsters” – songs that spoke across racial and cultural boundaries in 1977, across the Atlantic into am upstairs bedroom in Havre De Grace, Maryland, in 1985 and still resonated halfway around the world 30 years later in Australia, played by a band that still remembered what playing the bars felt like. That’s the bliss of history – when it all managed, just for a moment, to begin again.
Is that why we do it? Is that why we invest our hearts in music? Because it defines not only the moment, but it frames those moments forever and acts as the thread that binds them? Or do we make the threads up from triggers of memory. maybe the song was never there and we just put it there to make the past relevant to the present. Who knows? All I know is, when in doubt, dance it out.
I was exhausted but overjoyed as I limped out of The Specials. The night was still young and there was a huge choice ahead of me. Well, there were several huge choices ahead of me, but the most pressing one was who to see next – Crosby, Still and Nash, Earth wind and Fire , The Alabama 3 or the Fabulous Thunderbirds. The prospect of another 2 hours of dancing on my throbbing feet didn’t seem practicable, CSN just seemed like tempting the fate of the jukebox cashola gods once too often (besides, I have seen them many times before) and the Alabama Three were way over the other side of the festival grounds. So the Fab T Birds it was.
And here’s where my worst fears came home to hit me. Because the once mighty Fabulous Thunderbirds are now “The Fabulous Thunderbirds featuring Kim Wilson” – no Jimmie Vaughan, no Duke Robillard. It’s not like any band with Kim wilson is ever going to be a bad band,and they did get into a serious groove in straights but there was a lack of fire, a seeming lack of connection to the music (excellent bass player, though) and when the band left to the stage to leave Wilson to an epic, lung busting and pointless solo harmonica workout, I sat shivering on the grass wishing I was in Boogie Wonderland.
Oh well, not all little ol’ bands from Texas can be ZZ Top.
So day 2 ended and the walking man walked the dusty track out of the fairground back to his humble lodging, the last half dozen songs of Crosby, Stills and Nash playing him his full moon-lit path home. They sound slick and joyful to be with one another – and “Love the One you’re With” goes off flawlessly.
Part 7. The Real Folk Blues Day 3 dawned hot and bright. Somehow, I contrived to sleep into 9:30 so I was a little out of my usual leisurely groove as I rushed to get ready for what looked like a great day of music.
Day 3. – Hat Fitz & Cara, Keb’ Mo, Ray Beadle, James Vincent McMorrow, Justin Towns Earle, Brian Setzer’s Rockabilly riot, Donovan, Lucinda Williams
State of Voice – resembles the final wheezes of an emphysema patient
The program began with a very enjoyable slice of Australiana, courtesy of Hat Fitz and Cara – Hat Fitz, a rough and ready customer with a fine line on self deprecating humor and political incorrectness and Cara, a sweet voiced Irish lass with a winning stage presence.
Despite probably being better suited to one of the more intimate venues, the pair put on a lively show and whipped up the smallish crowd that had gathered. Hat Fitz and Cara kept up he banter from the stage, Hat Fitz telling a particular story about family relations which Cara probably wished he had kept under his hat.
A highlight were The Blueseys, a mad flash mob that appeared much to the amusement of the crowd. Sadly, the attention went to their heads and they moved up front, only to make a massive pain of themselves.
A jolly start to the day, and the tent started to fill as the crowds for the ever popular Keb’ Mo’ started to file in.
I remain ambivalent about Keb’ Mo’. To me, he is a little like the guys on Mythbusters (with one obvious difference – when was the last time you saw a black person on Mythbusters?) – they are science popularizers, not scientists and Keb’ Mo’ is a blues popularizer, not a bluesman, per se. Not that there is anything wrong with that – Eric Clapton has made a good living doing much the same thing for 50 years. And Keb’ does seem like an instantly likeable guy, and that winning personality does come across from the stage – if that makes him an entertainer, well, Muddy Waters and Robert Johnson started out playing house parties and had to be “entertainers”. too, I guess.
The Mo’ show is a pleasant enough thing – Keb’ sings sweetly, but with no real emotion – his voices shades appropriately to the context of the song. he plays Dobro and his signature Gibson Bluesmaster – but he may as well be playing that shiny red Stratocaster, so little difference does it make to the sonic palette. His band are diffident and efficient, the solos are just so. The people clap their hands at the right spots, they wave their arms in the air on the choruses and nothing alarming or inspiring actually happens. It’s the business of the blues – the first world, suburban, house car and job blues.
But wait – who should I spy in the audience?
Last year, we stopped in and saw Ray Beadle and found a guy who had a good sense for blues forms, a soulful voice and a great stage presence. What we found this year was a guy who was quite the opposite from Keb’ Mo’ – a hard bluesman willing to take risks and who had raised his game to a very much higher level than the last time we met. Of course, this being the blues and all, the titanic leap in his guitar playing abilities may have been due to some midnight meeting at the Crossroads, who knows.
One point I did note, though, was the wringing of the hands between songs – I do hope this doesn’t indicate the onset of tendinitis!
Beadle simply piled solo onto solo – be they either energetic workouts or supple, imaginative and lyrical, which left the crowd roaring and whooping for more. Another voice of the blues, somewhere between Eugene Bridges’ hard bitten travelling man and Keb’ Mo’s slick suburban storyteller and someone I hope is touring either the West Coast or the Gulf Coast sometime soon.
The morning was an essay in shades, rather than contrasts, between the energy of Hat Fitz and Cara and the serenity of Keb’ Mo and between the walking man of Ray Beadle and the standing man of, again, Keb’ Mo’. At something of a loss for the next act, I wandered back down to the more intimate Jambalaya stage to check out James Vincent McMorrow again, as I promised myself I would and to wait for Justin Townes Earle.
7 . The Depth of the Water is dependent on the Magnitude of the Sin. At some point over the weekend, I overheard someone remark that this is the festival of the son – Justin Townes Earle, Ziggy Marley, Dweezil Zappa – which sort of struck me as interesting. Maybe it’s just a coincidence, but as a son who was marked to follow a father into a family business (and I stunk at it) you have to think about how much the shadow of the father can be leveraged for a career. In the case of Ziggy and Dweezil, pretty much totally – in the case of JTE, well, despite the fact that the figure of “my father” populates his songs totally it is a very qualified leverage because that father figure is not exactly and endearing character. Plus – unlike the other two, JTE walks an entirely different road from his old man and does so with the prerogative of youth.
Of course, he is an excellent songwriter and his new songs surpass his old ones both melodically and in the depth of emotion they reach for. He is also a wily stage presence, mixing self deprecation with confession and a hilarious story – in apologizing for why “Nothing’s going to change the way you feel about me now” being such a mean song he offers the justification that the clothes of his she burned were his good clothes – including his red velvet tuxedo! All agreed, on hearing that, that no song could be mean enough!
he has the aura has consistent excellence in him down the track and it will be fascinating to hear how he grows and deals with his legacy – both how he avoids it and how he embraces it.
So, after an inoffensive half hour from Ziggy Marley, it was time for Brian Setzer and his Rockabilly show. Having seen his orchestra a couple of times and being a fan of all things Gretsch driven and reverb-y, I was looking forward to Setzer’s suburban white boy fantasia of Thunderbirds, Juke Joints and pliant Peggy Sues. So too were a large number of Aussies as the tent began to pack to Cold Chisel proportions – though, on reflection, that may have been the John Fogerty fans trying to nail down a spot for his show which followed. Nevertheless, I suspect they were quite happy to be collaterally entertained by what they were about to encounter in Setzer’s set.
Which got off to a woolly start, with the PA failing for the first two numbers (Seasick Steve’s set that evening had previously been ruined by a similar problem) – but once that was set to right, Setzer and his gang set about their work with unbounded glee, ripping it up, down and any which way he wanted.
The crowd were also treated to a defacto Stray Cats reunion and some disgracefully entertaining showboating form the double bassists, culminating in a three way bass-playoff, of which Setzer was declared the winner (because he, after all, signs the paychecks)
After a delirious encore of “Great Balls of Fire”, Setzer left a sweaty and ecstatic audience as probably one of the least enlightening but most entertaining acts of the festival.
8. Grevious Angel September 6 is Lucinda Williams Day in Santa Cruz, Ca. Five miles down the road, in Capitola, there’s a little spot where every day is Lucinda Williams day. She’s been described, by Time Magazine, as America’s best songwriter over the last 10 years and it’s hard to make a case against that. Her work is marked by an intense commitment to totally exploring the moment of he song, both the sound and the shape and touch of the lyric.
I find it impossible to imagine that anyone I know doesn’t love Lucinda Williams and that anything I can say in praise of here will be anything anyone reading this does not know. Of course, I have seen here many times before but it just seemed inappropriate to be here and not to pay respects to a genuinely great American artist.
Of course, she had similar thoughts, thanking the gathered crowd for coming to see her when they could be watching John Fogerty.
Despite being still visibly unwell (her performance on the Thursday night saw her in some considerable distress, apparently), she launched into an impassioned version of “Drunken Angel” and followed with what I felt was one of the best performances I have ever seen from her, casting a deep and complete spell over the room.
And this, from a performance beset by technical problems – she has difficulty hearing herself and apologized to the audience. “Just sing!” came the resounding cry back and she did, and she was perfect.
Lu-Cindy works a different side of the street from Eilen Jewell – she ties into more of a troubadour, a travelling teller of tales than the Kitty Wells/Patsy Cline/Loretta Lynne lineage, but she’s nowhere near as po-faced as the folk singing ice maidens of yore – too earthy to be a from-a-garrett-confessional-singer-songwriter and her art is too artless for the Joni’s or the Katies of this world. Truthfully, her work is closer in spirit to that of Johnny Cash than to any female example.
And to close the circle, she who has Lucinda Williams day in my county seat, grew up in, of all places, Baton Rouge.
So, day 3 ends. Whereas last year, I was dragging myself down that silver dusty trail knowing that I had spent everything I had to spend and that the journey home began at sunrise, I shuffled out this time feeling physically fine, but no less homesick or unburdened.
Tomorrow is, as they say, another day.
9. When she comes. When she comes. The night of day 3 was rough. For whatever reason, the festival had withdrawn security from the campsites and basically let the drunk kids run amok through the night, which meant precious little sleep for Ol’ Sebbie. And I am a grumpy old cuss without my sleep!
Day 4 – Round Mountain Girls, Joanne Shaw taylor, Rosie Ledet, Bettye LaVette, Candi Staton, Seasick Steve, Weddings Parties Anything, The Pogues
State of Voice – now only able to communicate by hand gestures and by wiggling my eyebrows
Another hot and cloudless day as a somewhat thinner crowd filed in for the fourth day. That morning, as I made my way about 5:30 across teh campsite, I heard the clink and clatter of a glass recycling bin being emptied – bottles tumbling and breaking as they fell from one bin to a larger one and I thought to myself “Oh, Shane McGowans rider has just been delivered….”. For today was going to be the day I met the most noxious of individuals – the “I’m Irish for one day a year “Irishman”. The Pogues were in town!
Flash forward 6 and half hours and I’m in the ten with a spare crowd waiting for local favorites, the Round Mountain Girls. Given the fun I had with Hat Fitz and Cara, I’m looking forward to some folk infused energy to start the day.
And that I got.
What was great about this act was that they weren’t all po-faced about the source of their material and they played with a a Saturday night irreverence not a Sunday morning solemnity, mashing up and trashing up traditional folk songs and pop song into one another, out of one another and going way over the top in doing so. In doing so they ended up being way more fun than the evenings more celebrated headliners. Ooops. I think I just gave a spoiler!
Down to Jamablaya next for a back to back to back feast of the first ladies of soul. But before that, we had a hard blues set from Joanne Shaw Taylor
And…. the less said of this the better.
JST was possibly the weakest act I have seen either this year or last. Basically, this very talented young lady has at some point got herself hold of a couple of Gary Moore CD, figured out how to get up the dusty end of the guitar, wail for all she is worth and then write a whole bunch of shapeless, same sounding songs featuring the same trick (plus an awful version of Hendrix’s “Manic Depression”). Must be said, however, she ain’t the ugliest girl in the world.
Our starter for the Queens of Soul today is the irrepressible Rosie Ledet – the Zydeco sweetheart.
Rosie claims, in one of her saucy song lyrics, to be 5 foot three inches tall. Folks, this is a bare faced lie. If she is 5 foot one, I’ll be a monkeys uncle. But what she is, indisputably is a powerhouse of of twisty, hard rockin’ zydeco and a gifted singer. Her band is excellent, featuring one of the best guitarists I saw on the weekend – very understated but imaginative player and her washboard player is a star in his own right (but washboard players do seem to be exhibitionists by nature).
If I had one nitpick it might be that the rock style drummer overpowered things a little, but then again, by the end of the hour I was a heaving mass of sticky, icky perspiration so it look slike he did his work.
Rosie tells us she hails from Acadia Parish – so who knows, maybe someday soon she and I will be near neighbors!
Anyone unfamiliar with Bettye LaVette’s story would be well advised to check it out – as an example of someone who can rise above years of disappointment to the pinnacle of what she does. I was amazed by her performance – I just did not think singers like her existed anymore. But here she is, in the flesh – unique, untouched and representing for a bygone era in music.
Soul has been a transmuted and abused music form ever since Bessie Smith first cut a “sepia” or “race” record back in 1925. It’s current parlance, now, of “Urban” or “R&B” (which is what it was before it was soul!) is just another attempt to distance it from what it is and disguise the fact that in it’s attempt to promote fungible “artists” such as young ladies willing to flash various body parts or heavily auto-tuned wife-bashers, it has no room for artists like Bettye LaVette.
To say LaVette is old school is an understatement – she is several old schools. She has that mix of sandpaper and honey one tends to find in Detroit singers (she is a native Michigander) but she has obviously learned a lot form working down at Muscle Shoals and there is a sensibility, and artistic fineness she brings that she picked up either from the Dinah Shaws and Sarah Vaughans of the world, on Broadway or both. And her choice of unusual songs (including numbers by Lucinda Williams the The Who) was fascinating and enriching to hear.
Definitely one of the finds of the festival.
Candi Staton, who followed (such that anyone can follow Bettye) succeeded by being so radically different in approach that what would have been inevitable comparisons were soon meaningless. Candi (who, before we go anywhere is a FANTASTIC singer and looks flat out gorgeous for her years) is much more the big-hearted southern soul belter, who, instead of the jaw dropping precision and artistry of B LaV wins instead by sheer spunk and her and her amazing bands ability to throw a hell of a party form up there on stage. And that’s just what they did – laying down a funky disco beat as Candi ran through her hits and told some wonderfully funny stories about her fascinating career – including one which cracked me up where she dished dirt ex husband, Clarence Carter, by working in the title of his hits into her diss.
Like Brian Setzer – not a life changing act, but gee, one of the most entertaining hours or so you will ever spend at a gig.
10. There are only three guys in the world who were in Led Zeppelin and you aren’t one of them! Get over it.
Seasick Steve’s set had been a disaster the previous afternoon, struck by a failed PA. So, it seemed, he was extra keen to please tonight – and, delving into his ancient bag of tricks, he produced sign, wonder and wonderment for a packed crowd.
Such favors included a musical lesson on what a diddley bow is and why the Xmas decoration on the from was important (I did my research – Bo Diddley was named after the diddley bow, not vice-versa), advice on our 401K plan in the form of a song, lessons in why 6 strings on a guitar is pure indulgence (you only need 3, on what looked like an old Fender Coronado). some gratuitous furniture destruction and plucking a girl out of the audience just for Steve to sing to (and what a stunner he plucked!)
But he saved the best for first. Taking a heart swig from a bottle of bum wine (well, Australian wine which is pretty much on a par with Gallo’s finest) he told us “when you drink on stage as much as I do, it pays to have friends around” and introduced the legendary John Paul Jones, ex of a little ol’ rock band called Led Zeppelin. I was more than somewhat impressed by this.
Later, he introduced some friends he had met walking along the beach and those hairy but loveable Aussie yobs Wolfmother came out to join him, proceeding to rock the house down.
It’s true. Everybody loves Seasick Steve.
One band it was recommended I see was Weddings Parties Anything who had apparently reunited for this gig. Something of an underground legend in Australia, I was most pressingly assured by Eliza and Kat that I would not be disappointed.
How to describe them? Imagine if The Clash recorded “Sandinista” acoustically and threw off all the shit songs (Hitsville UK, Career Opportunities, Lose this Skin et al) and replaced them with songs that were heartfelt working class character sketches (or gruesome tales of Cannibalism) – then you’d be close.
Wonderful band – great stage craft, beautiful songs (the sound was perfect and I heard every lyric and they were rich and heartfelt and fantastic – even the song about the escaped prisoner who kills and eats 5 of his comrades). One song of theirs, called I gather “Father’s Day” should have been picked up by some hat in Nashville and made them a million dollars. Another one, I believe called “Wide Open Road” is a stunning tale of jealousy and obsession. A big-hearted band that deserves much wider recognition.
I have a confession. I hate Irish music. I mean, I really hate it. All the yiddle-dee-tiddle-dee crap. It all sounds the same to me. So, why, for the love of jeebus, am I waiting to see the Pogues?
I guess it has to do with morbid curiosity, some desire to see a crowd in action (a very drunk crowd, I have to say, full of young wanna-bes, old never-weres and a few ripe aged actually-ares and the definite vibe of a fight breaking out if someone looks crosseyed at one or the other), only a sliver of which appears to have any idea, beyond the name and the reputation of who or what the Pogues are.
So “off” is the crowd vibe, I decide that this one may be better watched from the side of stage, on account of shit being likely to get jacked up at any given time in the tent. Outside they are stacking the drunks up, the one or two days a year Colleens are cutting a rug and some leather faced senior citizen in tie dye is playing a tin whistle. A tiny, bug eyed red head man in a flat cap is wandering around with clenched fists, virtually daring passers by to make eye contact so he can punch them in the knees and someone knifed the beach ball that had been bouncing around for 15 minutes or so before – the crowd now amusing itself by throwing its deflated corpse around the tent.
The band comes out late and launches into a fairly predictable medley of hits. McGowan is especially unintelligible, although he does seem to be uttering some variety of barks and cackles which come close to the actual notes he should be singing – or at least closer than I am used to. It’s the music, though, that is off. The band is too polite, too formal – there’s no swing or soul to it. It’s almost like a Celtic lounge band fronted by some street preacher with an acquired brain injury. About four songs in, the walkouts begin.
And then it got worse. The band, as they would do, went on into further traditional (i.e. boring) Irish music and the hits that crowd may recognize dried up. Also, McGowan appeared to be quite capable of staying on his feet during the gig, so it became apparent that the novelty value of seeing him fall on his ass would not materialize, hastening the walkouts. It was all very pleasant and all, but it wasn’t inspiring – certainly not a patch on The Specials (who now seem to have played a lifetime ago) and people began to leave, citing local legends John Butler trio playing in the main Mojo tent.
After an hour or so of Ireland by the numbers, the band bid their farewells, without having played their one most recognizable song “Fairy Tale of New York”. Of course, the people who didn’t walk out are the hardcore fans and they know this, so they start hooting and yelling for it
“Fuck off the lot of ya” comes the only intelligent utterance of the evening from Shane McGowan.
Of course, it is all grand theater and after a slightly too long break, the band returns for the encore. The crowd goes wild. The band launches into the music.
And does not play “Fairy Tale of New York”. Off they walk again.
More hoots and catcalls. After a minute or two more, the band reappear. And still don’t play it!. (It’s very possible, of course, that they don’t play it out of respect for Kirsty McColl).I do have to add, though, that the music they played in the encores did have the fore and drive sadly lacking from the main set.
So, the hardcore fans left having caught a glimpse of their idols, the big eyed guy didn’t get to punch anyone in the knees, the colleens danced off elsewhere, the drunks slept in the down-drifting dew, the Pogues got a big filthy wedge of money, the leather faced eternal hippy tootled aimlessly on his tin whistle with undiminished energy and I sighed a big sigh. One day to go. Just one.
The sky in Australia is bright with stars as I wander out of the festival, tired, shivering a little (the days have been warm but the evenings decidedly chilly) and feeling slightly over it all. I felt like I needed an exceptional day tomorrow to get through.
Turns out I got it.
Here’s another thing I love about Australians – you know when they had that “Occupy whatever” fad a while back? Well, when it came to Australia, hardly anyone bothered and those who did were roundly abused by passers by who told them to get off their stanky asses and get jobs! And then, when the good burghers of the towns decided they wanted the parks that they paid their taxes for back, they simply unleashed the cops on them who tore the tents down and told the protesters to get lost. These people take no shit from anyone!
So. Been a long, ragged road but I’m okay. A good nights sleep, a constitutional walk around the half empty campsite in the crisp morning air, a conversation with a girl with the most astonishingly dark and pretty eyes and the promise of some good music (and the threat of a cynical disappointment) have buoyed my spirit, if not my aching, shaking limbs.
Day 5 – Blitzen Trappen, Great Big Sea, Slightly Stoopid, Dawes, John Fogerty, Zappa plays Zappa, Melbourne Ska Orchestra.
State of voice – now only able to communicate via Stephen Hawkins-Type deal-io
Blitzen Trappen, from the desperately trendy town of Portland, OR open proceedings and are, from the first downbeat, excellent. There’s a bit of My morning Jacket about them but they do tend to stay inside the lines a little more. Whatev, I am digging them in a major way – thought here are some murmurings inside the tent and quite a few leavers. It’s something like Little Feat last year – it shows either a lack of curiosity or respect.
Great Big Sea, those convivial and habitually merry Northlanders were next, delivering rousing sea shanties and folk rock to an initially thin crowd that warned up quickly. A highlight of the set was their humor from the stage – likening Newfoundland to Australia on account of all the snow they get here and pointing out that both Newfoundland and Australia were founded as penal colonies – only the convicts who got sent to Newfoundland must have been being punished for far worse crimes than those sent to the paradise of Australia.
The other highlight were these two adorable Canadian girls who were backpacking around Australia and stepped in just to see their hometown heroes play and spent the entire set in some heightened state of ecstasy. I took a photo of them holding up their Maple Leaf flag with the band in the background. They were very sweet.
Slightly Stoopid, from San Diego, gave us a pleasant hour of their folsky reggae – unremarkable but not uninteresting. They mellowed a lot over the last few years if this set is representative!
It was after their set that I discovered something wondrous. Over the previous 4 days my voice had been shredded to nothing, a croak at best. as it was warm in the tent, I wandered outside to a stall and bought some of their organic lemonade. Basically, it was raw lemon juice but that is neither here nor there.
Within 10 minutes, my voice was completely restored! All hail the healing power of Australian lemons!
“Hi. We’re Dawes, from Los Angeles California. Not THE Doors, pronounce it Dorse, if you like!” The key message here is not the band’s name, but their location. I have their first album and liked very much their heightened songcraft, their big as all outdoors sound and chiming guitar textures. Little was I prepared for the staggering improvement in every aspect of this band since that album.
Dawes are now very much into the territory Jackson Browne was mining int he “For Everyman”/”Late for the Sky” period – both in sonics and lyrically. While they have a way to go lyrically, it is impressive how much ground they have made up in the space of an album, but the sound is one perfectly evocative of warm days, winding roads climbing hills and the glimpses of the surf below between the peaks. It has Northern/Western LA stamped all over it, it is indelible.
The songs are excellent, emotionally cogent and melodically pleasing and varied. A highlight of the festival and a band to watch.
12. Fortunate Sons
Clayton Doley has now not been sighted for 2 days. We’re officially concerned. Write home Clayton and let us know you’re ok.
So, it’s dark now and there’s a bad moon rising. The tent has filled up and I am having a conversation with woman who describes herself as the world’s biggest Lucinda Williams fan. We’re both a little skeptical about what we are going to see from John Fogerty, who is due on next, both suspecting a garb for the cash – given the rampant commercialism around the gig (T shirts $5 more than any others at the Merch Tent, Autographed posters $100, Clothing inspired by John’s stage-wear price on application) our doubts are fueled. Does he still have ‘it”. Does it matter? What “it’ did he once have? She’d heard his late night set was flat (but didn’t see it because she, as the world’s greatest Lucinda Williams fan, was at Cindy’s gig with me).
The fact that the lights went down to a CD recording of “Almost Saturday Night” did nothing to mollify our doubts.
So, the deal is Fogerty plays a whole album (in this case “Green River”) and then does a greatest hits set. Sure enough, out he comes looking lean and energetic, sporting a Les Paul Gold tip and cranking into “Green River”. Immediately, it is apparent he is “on”. His voice is great, indistinguishable from the record. The band is unremarkable but unoffensive – but Fogerty is grasping onto the songs with a keen edge and he is taking them into an edy, anxious world where he battles with our expectations of how the song “should be” and how he should sing it. It’s obvious he is loving being able to sing these songs again (if anyone doesn’t know John Fogerty’s history of legal woes over his music, it makes tragic and fascinating reading. The mere fact that he came back so many times from getting the royal screwjob is an amazing testimony to his character) and wants to play with them. By the end of a nasty, stinging “Green River”, Fogerty has won.
The album is a bit of a hard sell, though – only the title track, “Bad Moon Rising” and “Lodi” really mean anything to most of the audience. It is wonderful, though, to realize through the artist, what a fantastic song “Wrote a song for everyone” is and how deeply relevant it still is.
The greaest hits section was equally uneven, mostly wonderful – with Fogerty again running his band ragged, over-boiling with passion on “Travelling Band” (one of the greatest american rock songs ever written – if not only because it was used in the Good Guys where Bradley Whitford put a beat down on some punk. Bradley Whitford kicks ass!) and flying into a lather of rage on “Fortunate Son” (a song that kicks a Bradley Whitford level of ass itself) and finishing on a transcendent “Proud Mary”
Much humor and storytelling from the stage – even the old chestnut as he handed a guitar back to a tech to be tuned – “dang! it was in tune when I bought it!”. Telling the story of how he came to write “Who’ll stop the Rain” he mentioned being at a place much like this back in 1969 – “called Woodstock. Of course, after the folks got high there, they got nekkid.” After waiting for a second, he turned his back to preserve our modesty….
So, what of it. Bottom line is that Fogerty wrote some songs that we tend to take for granted because we hear them on the radio a lot. Critically, he was always punished for this – the Beatles got played on the radio a lot but were considered great artists. And Fogerty never out out a record as crap as “Hello Goodbye”, “Lady Madonna” or “The Ballad of John and Yoko”. But that is considering them as records – what are they as songs?
The simple truth is that many of them are monumental songs – songs that affirm and, after 40 years, reaffirm the dreams and aspirations of working class Americans. “Porterville”, “Lodi”, “Wrote a Song for Everyone”, “Proud Mary”, “Fortunate Son”, “Born on the Bayou”, “Penthouse Pauper”, “Long as I can see the Light” and even “It came Out of the Sky”. We live, we dream – we feel happy when our dreams are affirmed and we feel angry when our dreams are taken from us. That’s the hub of his songs and that’s the hub of the show he is still out there presenting. yes, it is sad that he hasn’t written a decent song since 1971 – but if the songs serve and even greater purpose after 40 years, does it matter? An old hammer still drives a nail straight.
And someone should thank him for being that hammer.
Time for a slice of very good organic pizza (what is organic, anyway. It’s made of carbon. A 2B pencil is organic but I’m not going to eat that) before Zappa plays Zappa. Actually, I could have had 6 slices, because they were interminably late – which ruined what should have been a fascinating show. Another thing that didn’t help was their insistence on playing most of the songs off the “Bongo Fury” album – one of Zappa’s less accessible and least guitar interesting albums. But we got great versions of “City of Tiny Lights”, “Motherly Love” and a monster version of “Willie the Pimp” so it is hard to be too disappointed.
One funny story was that, on my way to get pizza, this drunk kid ran straight into me and fell flat on his back in the dirt outside the market stalls! He’s laying there, int he dirt going “It’s all good dude, all my fault, I’m okay, rock on” and I’m going ” man, you gots to get up! and he;s like “nah, it’s good, I’m chilling’. These Aussies are tough bastards. They are.
So, after Z plays Z, it was time to head down to Jamablaya to where it all ended last year – the Melbourne Ska Orchestra, exhaustion and collapse.
Last year, we got to rid out the gap between sets with Trinity Roots, who’s deep dub sounds proved most efficacious to my ragged soul. This year, no such luck as 1814 plied us with their insipid pop reggae for three unbearable tunes before they strode from the stage, clearly unaware that they sucked out loud.
Last year, the journey ended at the pulsating sounds of the Melbourne Ska Orchestra. This year, this year of circles and long walks, the road leads back to the same tent, the same song and the same sense that everything I brought here should be burned and I should leave, in that yellow midnight moonlight, somehow new and somehow clearer in my knowing of what and where I am.
I came here last year by accident and this year by choice. I didn’t choose to come here alone, but that’s that germ in me that won’t admit defeat, even if it is too late. I didn’t plan to come here the person I was, I planned to come healthier and fitter and surer of who or what I was. But I am here, my body has held up pretty well and my spirit hasn’t done too badly wither. And now am I staring at the stage, as the myriad of places are set up for the two dozen odd musicians who’ll soon be peepin’ and a wailin’ and I can feel a different kind of tremor in my leg. As soon as that drumbeat comes down, I’m going to start the burning.
I’m a pretty good dancer for a guy generally described as a “Lummox” and a “Galoot”. Good enough, leastways, for unattached chicks to want to dance with me. Which is more or less how good a dancer you ever need to be.
I’m noticing not a lot of room to move here and skanking is an up and down dance, so someone is gonna get clobbered.
Of course, the MSO’s set is frantic and ecstatic and the crowd is wild for every minute of it – it’s much the same as last year’s set, further fulfilling the notion of circle. But shorter – the Latin section has been dropped (thankfully for my back, which gave out at that time last year) but the gig still went off superbly -people were clobbered, including myself, chicks danced with me, one young Aussie lad slapped me on the back and said I was a legend and, at the end, my legs burning and sweat running in hot salty rolls down my face and chest, I felt full, Full as if, through all of this something had maybe not been achieved, but had been accounted for – some lost sense of resilience and independence. That I had done it and I had pulled though.
Now all I had to do was to get home.
They say it’s good to go a’ travelling but it’s nice to come home. That’s true. They say also that the journey is what counts, not the destination. Maybe that’s true, but this has been a story about destinations. This has been a story of a man in decline measuring himself not just against the journey his disease has traveled but that his will can travel. I said, last year, that the dancing days are few. Well, they are now fewer – but at least I know that I out the ones I crossed off in the intervening year to good use.
So – where to now? I have until 4/30 to make up my mind about Baton Rouge. I’m a man possessed by spirit of place, a place has to have a feel for me and I didn’t get much of it from BR. If I have a “network” anywhere, it’s here in California – doctors, guitar pickers, drinking buddies and sympathetic and easily impressed ladies. But there’s no reason they wont be in BR and the work there will be better and a change is a change is a change.
And in the end, I am a walking man. And the walking man, when all is said and done, has got to walk.