Jann

I was in a gorgeous theatre last night in Kitchener, Ontario.  The Centre in the Square hosted Jann Arden, a singer-songwriter from Alberta.  A friend of mine at the Belmont Diner had seen her in London last week.  She and her daughter cried when Jann spoke and sang about her mom, who has Alzheimer’s.

For a long while as her mother waded the murky waters of dementia, Jann tried to convince her that “the orange men on the patio” weren’t really there.  Orienting her to reality seemed like a smart thing to do, but it wasn’t.  Jann had always been competitive but finally decided to let go … the illness wins.  The key moment came one day when Jann walked through the door and mom put up her hands as a shield.  Was she thinking that Jann was about to hit her?  That was it.  Jann changed from shooing the orange men out of her mom’s mind to suggesting that if they’re on the patio, they should at least pick up a broom.

The woman on the stage showed herself to be a full human being.  I enjoyed that even more than the singing and the songs.  A group of women in the front row held up images of Jann’s face in front of their own.  Groupies!  Jann laughed with them … and with us.

At one point she talked about a failed relationship.  “If you’re going to be with a singer-songwriter, and everything starts going to *****, you better expect that you’re going to end up in a ***** song!”  I wouldn’t have chosen some of her words but so what?  Jann was thoroughly herself for 2 1/2 hours.

The woman was transparent.  Her father was an alcoholic and her brother was often beaten up by the man.  The younger one fell into a spiral and ended up murdering someone.  He’s been in jail for many years and every month she visits him, setting aside her judgments again and again and returning to love.

Jann wrote a song for her brother – Hangin’ by a Thread.  It was inspired by something their mom said as mother and daughter walked out of the prison: “I’m so tired of looking at my feet.”  Jann goes inside him and honours what’s there:

When I cry I close my eyes
And every tear falls down inside
And I pray with all my might
That I will find my heart in someone’s arms
When I cry, cry
When I cry, when I am sad
I think of every awful thing I ever did
Oh, when I cry, there is no love
No there is nothing that can comfort me enough
When I cry, cry, cry
All the salt inside my body ruins
Everyone I come close to
My hands are barely holdin’ up my head
I am so tired of lookin’ at my feet
All the secrets that I keep
My heart is barely hangin’ by a thread
Hangin’ by a thread
Oh, look at me, at all I’ve done
I’ve lost so many things that I so dearly loved
I lost my soul, I lost my pride

 

Thank you, Jann, for being with us.  It was a privilege to share the concert hall with you.

The Hip … A Step Forward

It’s intermission time at London’s Aeolian Hall. I’m here to see The Strictly Hip, a tribute band for Canada’s great rock group The Tragically Hip. It’s been decades since I’ve been to a rock concert (other than dancing to Five Alarm Funk at Sunfest) and here I am in the front row.

Straight ahead of me, fifteen feet away, a young man wields an impossibly long bass guitar, his head bobbing and weaving. The lead guitarist plays some incredible licks with a macho flair that has the girls swooning. The drummer is brilliant. Still, the star of the show is the Gord Downie lookalike, complete with cowboy hat. I can barely make out the words but he’s belting out the hits as folks wearing Hip t-shirts move their bods in front of the stage.

Sometimes I close my eyes and feel the pulse of the drum in my heart … it moves right through me. The guitar runs, the deep bass parts and Gord’s strident vocals flood me with the juice of life.

***

And now it’s later. A little girl is jumping up and down by the stage and Gord reaches down to shake her hand. She bounces giddily back to her seat. The way ahead of me is crowded with dancers. A couple slow dances for a slow song. Friends jump straight up and high five for the fast ones.

I don’t know the songs but clearly just about everyone else does. I don’t feel like dancing and I wonder if that’s because of my recent ankle and knee problems. I take a second to poop on myself and then that smallness magically disappears.

I’m loving the energy in the room but then a thought comes: this group surge is nowhere near what I feel when I’m online with members of the Evolutionary Collective global community. That energy bubbles up from within. Tonight’s source is the wild band in front of me and their songs – some raucous and some tender. The truth is that I don’t need rock concerts to expand. Just give me a few open-hearted folks and I’ll bring forth love. A subtle and yet immensely powerful surge.

I continue to change in the world. Old versions of me are honoured and included in what’s emerging. Thanks, Gord and friends, for being on the journey with me.

Tomorrow?
A delightful mystery

Next year?
Perhaps a Bruce I can’t even imagine

Bring it on

Friends of Fiddler’s Green

This is a folk music group which was founded in 1971.  Last night at the Cuckoo’s Nest in London, Ontario, five fellows treated us to accordion, guitars, keyboard and a tiny squeeze box, as well as impassioned singing.  The musicians used to play at the old Fiddler’s Green folk club in Toronto.  They played songs and tunes from wide in the world, some raucous and some tender.

I got the last chair in the place, back and to the left of the keyboard player.  I was immersed in sound.  Closing my eyes and tapping out the rhythms on my thighs came naturally.  And so did watching Jeff’s fingers fly over the keys.  Propped up in front of him was a little notebook, with only a few hen scratches shown for each song … and yet he played such beautiful runs!

Usually there was a chorus where we the audience could sing along.  What joy to reach a harmony or two amid the sweet melodies.  I love the blending of voices – it both sends me away and drops me inside.

Our choir throbbed inside an old Tom Paxton folk song – “The Last Thing On My Mind”:

As I lie in my bed in the morning
Without you, without you
Each song in my breast dies a-borning
Without you, without you

Are you going away with no word of farewell
Will there be not a trace left behind?
I could have loved you better, didn’t mean to be unkind
You know that was the last thing on my mind

Oh my God … we were so fine.  We knew the humanity within the words.  And the instruments soared with us.

Alistair Brown is a very funny guy.  Between his singing and playing, he peppered us with jokes:

(A man and his young son)

Daddy, why is the sky blue?

I don’t know, son.

Daddy, how do birds fly?

I’m really not sure, son.

Daddy, do people live out there in space?

I really don’t know, son.

Daddy, do you mind me asking you all these questions?

No, son.  If you don’t ask questions, how are you ever going to learn things?

It was a delightful evening.  From my angle, I got to look at a lot of glowing faces in the audience.  We stood at the end.

 

Close

I went to hear the Barra MacNeils last night.  They’re a Celtic musical family from Cape Breton Island in Nova Scotia, Canada.  And I got to see them from the middle of the front row.

Often the folks featured in a song stood at the front of the stage, and their faces loomed above me, maybe eight feet away from mine.  It was intense.

When Lucy sang “Caledonia”, I fell deeply into me.  Her eyes were open, and the little white dots at the centre shone.  All was liquid, and her soul reached the words:

Let me tell hou that I love you
That I think about you all the time
Caledonia, you’re calling me, now I’m going home
But if I should become a stranger
Know that it would make me more than sad
Caledonia’s been everything I’ve ever had

All was well

Later Kyle strode to a spot right above me with his fiddle.  He played a soulful Scottish air, with his fingers gliding so sweetly on the strings.  The violin purred into the love song and Kyle would often close his eyes in response.  I would have such beauty linger forever.

Then it was a rousing drinking song, soloed by Stewart.  On the chorus, four brothers were only a breath away from me, blasting out the melody and harmonies.  The whole was greater than the sum of the parts, with the tones vibrating inside my heart.

Towards the end, Lucy did some fancy Irish dancing and I watched her feet fly.  The taps on her soles beat out a brilliant rhythm and her feet twisted this way and that at supersonic speed.

All happened in my very near presence and the immediacy was a huge gift.  Human beings blissing a fellow traveller in the front row.

Legendary Love

I went to a concert last night at the Port Stanley Festival Theatre. “Legends of Memphis” was the story of Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins and Johnny Cash. One day way back when, they were in the same recording studio together. Yesterday they were together again, enjoying each other’s smiles and music. Jerry favoured us with “Great Balls of Fire” while Johnny told us about the travails of some fellow called Sue. Elvis contorted his hips throughout “Jailhouse Rock” and I don’t remember what songs Carl sang. He could sure play guitar, though.

Many of us were moving and grooving, clapping our hands, singing along. It was so much fun but the best was yet to come.

Near the end of the concert, Elvis walked to the front of the stage and announced that he’d like to sing the next song to a lovely lady. He stepped down and stood in front of a woman sitting in a wheelchair in the front row. She wore a smart green dress for St. Patrick’s Day, and a tiny emerald hat was perched on the side of her head.

Elvis reached towards “Jennifer” and held her hand as he started singing “Are You Lonesome Tonight?” She wore a huge smile and her body shook throughout the song. Elvis wore a pretty big smile himself.

Does your memory stray
To a bright sunny day
When I kissed you and called you sweetheart?

As the last chord faded, Elvis kissed Jennifer’s cheek and she returned the favour. Time stood still … and then we burst into applause.

Old sweet songs. Inspired musicians. Great voices. But none of that held a candle to Jennifer and Elvis.

Heart Wide Open

I lined up in the dark last night in front of the Aeolian Hall in London.  There were about twenty people in front of me and I wondered if I’d meet any of them at the concert.  We were here to see Irish Mythen, a singer-songwriter who’s transplanted herself from Ireland to Prince Edward Island.

The room was set up as a quilt of small round tables.  I strolled to the front and saw a couple sitting at one of them.  They were happy to have me join them.  I enjoyed talking to Elaine and Neil.  They’re world travellers and embrace the word “adventure” with all their being.  I told stories and they told stories.  We inspired each other.

And then there was Irish, a short firecracker of a human being with a voice that’ll rattle the dishes in your cupboard.  Loud and pure.  Her newest song is Maria, who I think was Irish’s aunt, and the recipient of great affection:

When I was a girl, you were a God … You were love, you were laughter

And I believed every word, such was the power of our singer.  Irish blasted her way into my heart.  Right at the beginning, she said “I promise you a hell of a show.”  And she’s a woman of her word.

Irish told us about an Irish priest who’d walk around with a paper cup of tea, with the tag from the bag falling over the side.  Most people didn’t know that the content of the cup was liquor, not Earl Grey!

And here are some quotes from this most “out there” human being:

She was talking to an Australian politician about being proud of her dual heritage – Irish and Canadian.  Last night, she flashed us some skin just below her collarbone – a colourful map merging the two countries.  “I didn’t show him my chest.”

And from a song whose title escapes me:

I want to dance with you
We’ll go laughing and howling at the moon

Oh, Irish.  You’re definitely a moon howler.

To us audience folks: “How are you?  I like to keep the audience happy.”

“I want to admit to you that I’m a … Catholic.  Not many lesbians would tell you that.”

Near the end of the concert: “Let’s pretend that was the last song.”  Big smile.  And we onlookers stood as one, applauding wildly.  Irish bent over and covered her face.  She was crying.  Gathering herself, she told us the stories behind each of her final three songs (“to save time”) and then proceeded to launch them at us, rapid fire.

We stood for her
We loved her
We marvelled at the divine entity standing before us

Australian Folk

I’m sitting in the main room of the London Music Club with about 40 other folkies, awaiting the songs of Daniel Champagne.  He’s from Australia, and clearly well thought of:

“Daniel Champagne exudes a natural ease onstage, as he sings poignant lyrics and beautifully crafted melodies that invariably whisk the heart up with grand romanticism.  Coupled with an exhilarating guitar talent that transcends mere acoustic playing to replicate a whole band, Champagne is just magical.”

Wow.  I want to meet this guy.  And now five folks have joined me at our table for six.  I don’t know them.  They’re all friends.  Plus they’re all friendly.  The way life should be.

Daniel smiles his way to the microphone and starts hitting his guitar with a whirl of hands – one sound on the wooden back, another on the neck, and an atonal strumming of strings way up by the tuning pegs.  And it’s all amplified!  Almost like gunshots.  I’ve never heard anything like it.

Often Daniel jumps up and down as he plays, and stomps his feet.  Then he’ll hoist the guitar skyward, the strings vertical.  He’ll look way up and still crank out the melodies.  My jaw dropped, again and again.

Daniel wrote a song called Nightingale.  One time he was playing it at a venue in Australia.  A woman who was at the concert wrote him later that the chorus of that song inspired her to go home and tell her boyfriend for the first time that she loved him.  Years later, Daniel sang the song as she walked up the aisle on her wedding day.  Lovely.

Sometimes when he played for us, Daniel would twist a tuning peg to gradually change the note of a string, and then start singing in that new key.  Often I couldn’t hear the words but his whole body seemed to exude joy – the voice forced itself into my mind while his head and body jerked here and there.  Getting the lyrics wasn’t important.

Daniel’s grandmother liked drinking and partying.  His friends loved partying with her.  And she loved Don McLean, the American songwriter who penned American Pie.  Daniel sang us another of Don’s songs – Vincent, an ode to the painter Vincent van Gogh.  When he sang “This world was never meant for one as beautiful as you,” I melted.  Lost in the moment.

Mr. Champagne was just so darned alive, and all six of us felt it.  As did the rest of the audience, judging by the standing ovation that he received.  Often the music was quirky, the guitar playing outrageous, and the words unknown, but Daniel truly entertained us.  We were in the presence of a full human being.

You Shine in a Very Lovely Way

Another day, another concert for me.  Hugh’s Room, an iconic folk music venue in Toronto, has reopened after financial trouble.  Saturday night was a gala fundraiser, featuring fourteen excellent musicians.  Being in the small hall was like coming home.

There were gentle songs and raucous songs, and everything in between.  I was happy.  Then Laura Smith stepped up to the microphone.  I’d say she’s in her sixties.  And here’s what she has to say in “The Blues and I”:

Everything is moving
So why am I standing still
Looking for a star?
Let there be a star …
Guiding me

The words are lovely but Laura onstage is inexpressible.  Her face has the hollows of an older person.  The eyes reach out, warm and wet.  The mouth holds the words gently.  The voice soothes.  But the whole is infinitely greater than the sum of the parts.

When Laura began, all of me stopped.  Only one other time in my life has a person filled the room like this.  She was a teacher at the Insight Meditation Society in Massachusetts.  And Laura was right there with her.

I said hi to Laura after the concert.  She smiled.

***

Wow.  There’s nothing to say.  The written word doesn’t get the job done.  You’d have to be there and listen.

Only twice in my life.  Has a human being of such transcendence ever come your way?  I think you’d remember if they had.  In fact, I know you’d remember.  Inside your head, you would have heard …

Oh my God!

Close

I went to a concert at Koerner Hall last night.  Two violinists, two cellists and two violists.  The ticket said that I was in Row AA.  And was I ever!  At the very front, virtually in the middle.  About ten feet from the performers.

It was astonishing.  I saw fingers smash against the strings … and then caress them.  I saw glances between musicians, and smiles.  I heard the worlds of Brahms and Tchaikovsky in sound surround.  It was all so vivid, so immersing.

***

I thought back to the Three Tenors performing in Toronto’s Skydome.  Jody and I paid nearly $100 per ticket (unheard of!) and took our spots way up high on the far side of the stadium.  Mr. big Pavarotti was reduced to Mr. tiny ant.  Several times during the performance, I pulled my eyes away from the JumboTron.  No way was I going to watch TV at a hundred bucks a throw.

Decades later, I’m a regular at the Cuckoo’s Nest Folk Club in London, Ontario – capacity about 60.  To hear Jez Lowe sing his ballads right in front of me, with the passion of the songwriter, is transporting.

***

I have many hobbies.  One is wandering down residential streets, looking at the furniture on the porch.  If two chairs sit there, I hope that they’re right next to each other, so the unknown occupants can hold hands.  Alas, there’s usually a sturdy patio table in between, or maybe just a swath of blank space.  Hands can’t reach that far.

***

Speaking of hands, many couples stroll my way, and so very few of them are holding each other.  Oh, there might be a brush against the other’s thigh every so often, but no real contact.  The exceptions include young and old who swing their arms together gaily, or reach the other hand over to hold the back of their lover’s, or just gently press the soul into the flesh.  I like that.

***

On the subway, some folks will stand rather than take the empty seat beside me.  Others will sit down, and our bodies are in contact for the rest of the ride.  I’ll take option two.

***

Life erupts all around us, sometimes with joy, and sometimes sorrow.  Or it flows like honey.  May I always face the action, and move towards it, where the sweetness (or bittersweetness) lies.

 

Not Necessarily So

Tonight I went to hear Archie Fisher, a British singer-songwriter, at the Cuckoo’s Nest Folk Club in London.  Here’s what I know:

1. It’s important to get there early.
1a. I got there at the last minute.

2. It’s important to sit near the front.
2a. I sat in the back row, virtually the only seat left.

3. It’s important to see the performer.
3a. I could see the back of Archie’s head.

4. It’s important to hear every word.
4a. I couldn’t understand a lot of the lyrics.

5. It’s important to remember the words and Archie’s comments that I loved.
5a. I’m sitting here not remembering any of them.

***

I loved the concert.  Archie’s spirit filled the room.  We laughed, again and again.  Occasionally I was close to tears.

I watched the people in front of me.  A man’s hand over his wife’s shoulder.  A young fellow singing along.

I bugged a woman in the next row and to the right.  “Would you please move?  You’re blocking the wall.”  She chuckled.

***

A standing ovation
Smiles all around
All is well