Wednesday, July 6, 2016
Country folk blues
My wife saw him first. He emerged from the Metro Mobility Bus, struggling slightly with his guitar. Metro Mobility is the door-to-door bus that helps the infirm or disabled get around these twin cities. It was good news to see him, this old man, walking slowly, but ably enough. It meant that The Open Mike Night at the Riverview Cafe would be a good one.
Fairly speaking, Open Mike Night at the Riverview Cafe is always pretty good. And despite the old man's auspicious arrival, this Open Mike was one of the least interesting I have seen in awhile. Always suffering from an old white man syndrome, Thursday's Open Mike was at its worst in this regard. I don't have anything against old white men, especially as I'm working my way to aging into one, but we were wall to wall with them here. We might have been two hours into the show without an exception to the demographic, and for the whole of the night "fiftyish" would have qualified any singer as a mere babe in the woods.
That might not have been so bad if it weren't for a problem of musical sameness rearing its head too. Start to finish was crowded up shoulder to shoulder with songs of deep Americana: Country Folk Blues. Dirge music, rust belt Union Songs, sad tales of broken down cars, lost dogs, and love gone wrong. This was dusty stuff, and though a notable proportion of the songs were written by the performers themselves, there was nothing in them to show they weren't all songs from the 1930's. I'm not saying this music doesn't interest me, but a little emotional variation, an occasionally different genre or tempo, can exert a powerfully refreshing quality on the listener's ability to absorb, to feel, and to see.
Poignantly, things started steadily improving only as the crowd thinned down, better music to a smaller crowd. We were a little looser with wine and beer, more forgiving, and clearly bettered by a dwindling count of audience members who were anxious about their own upcoming performance. By the time the old man came on I doubt there were more than a dozen of us out watching on the cafe floor. The old man hooked his guitar up just like everyone else did. The night's host set the sound for him, and the old man sat down and played. It was every bit Americana; Old folk blues just like we'd been hearing most of the night. But here it was suddenly revealed. Split open. This was how it was supposed to be done. The lyrics were all heartbreak, but so was his voice, beautiful, cracked, burnt hard in an old fire, but clear. No dirge these songs, because on the refrain that voice of pain and age and sorrow turned. It soared up piercing and giant and sharp. The feeling filled up all the pain so high that for a brief second it floated into heaven, up to that place where something catches in you and your heart leaves the room. For one weird, soaring moment it leaves the world and it leaves all of time.
Then it comes back, drifting down. The old voice again. The old man, no polish or fame. No following. Everyone taking it for granted. This is how art usually is.
Nothing to see here.
He finishes up. We applaud. He unplugs his guitar and shuffles off. Just another one of the night's performers. Maybe in another world, a world more just, roadies are packing up his guitar for him. The limo waits for him backstage at Carnegie Hall or at the old Ryman Auditorium. Maybe in another world he got everything he deserved, and so did you, which, at the very least, is a little more than you have now.