Tag Archives: blues

An American Song

23 Apr

For nearly ten years, I could not listen to music without really knowing why. Any song, but especially voices in polyphonic harmony caused me either great emotional pain or annoyance. All I wanted was silence. In the car, in the house, in the world. I have a clear memory of returning from a Celtic festival in 2007 listening to a CD from Seven Nations and literally keening to high harmony. As I steered the car around the Beltway, the voices and notes linked into my soul much too deeply and a vast ocean of raw emotion was revealed. In that time, connection to artistic form was too intense, too close and I could not allow its energy near. Music moved me without much persuasion. However, last spring I slowly began to listen again to songs I loved once, a long time ago.

I am not your rolling wheels
I am the highway
I am not your carpet ride
I am the sky
I am not your blowing wind
I am the lightning
I am not your autumn moon
I am the night. . .
The night.

And once started, I ate it like a starving child. Music fed my flame. I couldn’t stop. Lyrics called to me. Rhythms took me into dream, into memory, the notes translating my emotion into sound beyond word. And since, I have wandered from those old beloved songs through genre after genre until now, landing into something that intrigues me intensely not just musically but culturally: Americana.

With spring’s slow onset, daily runs with bluegrass and old time carry me forward. A search then began for live experiences. After a chat about my love for bluegrass with one of my friends, he suggested a performance by the Carolina Chocolate Drops at the Jefferson in Charlottesville. The opportunity seemed perfect. I’d never heard of them, but that concert unknowingly opened a door for me to satisfy this new penchant for “southern roots” music. In dancing and connection, a deep happiness blossomed which has carried me for weeks. Country Girl, Cornbread and Butterbeans, even a remake of Hit ‘Em Up Style had me alternately flat footin’ and hip poppin’. The quartet’s style is so unusual, a curious modern re-visioning of bluegrass, old time country, R&B and early 20th century jazz; all of it was an amazing new encounter. A cultural interest in traditional instruments and the links back to Scots and Irish roots also endeared the band to me. When their lead singer Rhiannon Giddens performed a puirt a beul (gaelic mouth music), I was keeping time with a boot heel and hand to the thigh, calling out at every emotional turn. In singing of an ethnic cultural past, the slave narrative of Julie shone most brightly in this musical form. I didn’t know what to call it, but I knew I had to hear more. Even in watching dancers from Good Foot Dance Company, I began to see convergence culture for the first time. For someone who has been in a dark silence musically for over a decade, this type of audio fusion was enough to completely capture my senses.

As a result, the fueling for traditional and bluegrass edged live music has delivered me to the Ciderworks and Rapunzel’s and then finally, this past weekend to DxDT in Roanoke, Virginia. The Down by Downtown festival celebrates local music by providing venues for the numerous artists of all musical genres in the Roanoke Valley. When had I last seen a local band perform or even had choices among them? In the recent past, modern consumer culture has delivered to public approval only “marketable” bands, those who had potential for profit in one form or another. But now, much like the early days of rock and roll, self promotion and production allows artists to present their efforts directly for public discernment. Through the advent of technology, all art forms are undergoing a local Renaissance, from what I have observed. While it does create more chatter, more need for sifting through the overwhelming volume of expression, it does allow more voices to be heard ….more perspectives of culture and diverse American life.

Friday night took me to Fork in the City to check out The Floorboards, a rock-blues- folk fusion band with audible ties to the Eagles and Van Morrison, with some Mellencamp and Stones thrown in for good measure. The songs were fresh and entirely danceable, Matt Browning’s vocals in clear strong harmony with fiddler- mandolin player Patrick Turner and Bob Chew’s blues guitar. The Floorboards musical blend was like an early evening ride down a mountain country road windows rolled down with a gang of friends, beer and bonfire to come.

A real treat during the evening was fifteen year old Gabe, a blues guitarist and singer invited to play a tune with the band. From the moment he began, I think all who were there would agree that we were witness to a musical virtuoso. And the fact that these ensemble moments happen in local venues extends the idea of the importance of community art expression and the connections which grow each artist within it. To me, this is the heart of a commitment to “local”.

On Saturday evening, I stopped at one of the market restaurants to hear a DxDT band, but soon found the atmosphere a bit seedy and the blues duo not too compelling. Down by Awful Arthur’s, I strolled into the waves of music. Venue after venue, the sound floated like flotsam on a sea, swirling between the brick and glass fronts of packed restaurants. Chilled night air was held back by curtains of lamplight and neon glow. I stopped to watch members of Another Roadside Attraction busking in front of the Market, soon amazed that not many stopped to enjoy, to take in the creativity and life of the street. After a song and a juggle, I swam through the crowd around the corner toward Fork in the Market, stumbling onto a raucous party featuring Welcome to Hoonah, another Americana style band with a unique eclectic blend of folk, country, zydeco, and blues. Spencer McKenna and Jessica Larsen’s vocals wound out song after country rootsi-fied song, blending guitar with old time washboard …yes, a washboard. Add violin, steel guitar, bass, drums and a swinging party and the tiny Fork dance floor flooded with the lot of us. And dance? Yes…yes we did indeed.

In thinking about this genre and the artists who comprise it that night, I texted a friend.

“I’m destined to be an Americana chick…I need ten years back.”

“But what does this mean?” she said.

And I don’t really know, honestly. These artists and the lot who love them are so creative and unique, at least the ones I’ve encountered. They seem to be making a world more attentive to the environment, committed to local art, craft and expression, and living a full and rich life by navigating two worlds, both real time and virtual space. I’ve labeled them Tech Hippies. They give me hope that the limits and excesses of ultra conservative materialist culture will be challenged and surpassed without renouncing all the positives that technology has brought to us. Maybe we’re just beginning to learn to balance another new world of thought and music which might take us all further toward home on this collective journey. It’s an American song I want to sing. . . with them.

Homeward Bound

20 Jan

If you ever change your mind
About leavin’, leavin’ me behind
Oh, oh, bring it to me
Bring your sweet lovin’
Bring it on home to me, yeah

Okay, lets talk about the blues and let’s do it honestly.

What it do to a passionate woman?

I’ll keep this civilian and as delicate as I can, but if you don’t really want to know about my first experience with the blues ala Eli Cook, stop now…because I’m going there. Let me preface this by saying that the day’s travels were not as astounding as I had imagined. Dinner at Wild Wolf Brewing Company in Nellysford was entirely forgettable, wretched even (little better than Buffalo Wild Wings), and if I could have left without paying the check I would have. Honestly, it was the lowest tip I’ve ever left for service and I wondered how stoned all the wait staff actually was, and that was at the bar. So, I was looking for the blue lining in the coffin of the day, so at least I could rest the day’s end in respectable comfort.

Upon entering Rapunzel’s Coffee and Books in Lovingston, the atmosphere was quiet and well, a bit on the reserved side. It’s a coffee shop that has wine and a good beer selection. I immediately began to think, hmmmm.. blues in here? Must be the slow, sort of folksy blues…maybe a little James Taylorish type of blues.

The atmosphere is really rather interesting.Walton’s Mountain meets antique shop meets bookstore. It’s hushed, really hushed. To my left there were two older gentlemen asleep at their tables. Asleep, sitting up. So I wasn’t really sure how the evening was going to go, but I had come this far; I might as well go for it. When Eli took the stage, he reminded me of the grunge guys I loved so well from the 90’s, mixed with a bit of modern mountain man. Entirely alluring, handsome, masculine and entirely young, too. When he began to play and sing, this Nelson County white boy meets Texas bluesman meets reincarnated “down at the crossroads” black man had enough salt and gravel in his voice to keep a woman from freezing up for miles and miles and miles. Last night was cold in Nelson County, until I got to Rapunzel’s. Part of me giggled and the other part of me said shame on you for giggling.

The style of his blues definitely has a Texas twist,  raw and electrified with a slide up and down the distortion scale. Its hillbilly meets Hendrix all barreling down a dusty hot road. But it connects to that side of a gal, that side that men might do well to pay closer attention to. Someone once told me a long long time ago, that if you wanted to know a woman’s true nature, watch her on the dance floor when they’re playing the blues; you’ll know right quick where her intentions lie. By the fifth song, I began to think,  Wonder if they’ll think I’m entirely too much if I just get up and dance? Then I began to wonder, Why isn’t everyone else moving? The gal sitting in front of me was catching the wiggles, but she and I were definitely the only ones on the same wavelength.

Listening to Eli play his own tunes interspersed with Robert Johnson, Jimi Hendrix, Stevie Ray, Muddy Waters and other blues giants was raw and real. Several tunes stood out such as Anything You Say, Don’t Ride My Pony, and his Miss Blues’es Child. When he launched into a rendition of Sam Cooke’s Bring It on Home to Me, my hand went to my heart. Jimi’s Bold as Love, and his finale of Lennon’s A Day in the Life blended into She’s Got a Ticket to Ride shows his musical versatility and talent. This guy is ah—mazing. After two hours, I was still wondering, Why is no one dancing? Clapping along at least? How much can I wiggle in my antique wooden folding chair and not break it?

In that sort of venue, up close and personal, I began to think about the troubadours of old, the wandering minstrels who sang of love and romance to ladies of court. How could they not fall under the spell? I sat dead center stage, maybe twenty feet from Eli’s one man combo in perfect view of that left foot on the beat box, right foot on the tambourine and both hands making a gorgeous acoustic electric sing her heart out. Music like that sends an imaginative mind into overdrive. His music and persona has a kind of broody moody charm that makes a woman feel well, to quote Aretha, like a natural woman. Like cooking collards and pork barefoot in the kitchen on a August afternoon so hot the only solution is a cotton sundress with no knickers and a beloved waiting in an old creakin’ cherry post bed in Me’mie’s well worn and ironed hundred year old French linen sheets. And the song to come? Practiced, played for the hundredth time, but honest to heart as the first time through.

That’s as far as the blues will take a wandering lass. And regrettably last night, takin’ it on home was a solo adventure.  😉

You know I’ll always be your slave
Till I’m dead and buried in my grave
Oh, oh, bring it to me
Bring your sweet lovin’
Bring it on home to me, yeah ….


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