North Sea Gas

Three gentlemen from Edinburgh, Scotland – one in his thirties and the other two probably in their sixties – strode onto the stage.  After a few songs, the young guy said “If you like our music, ask us back … [glances at his companions] … but don’t wait too long!”  And such is the spirit of North Sea Gas.

Guitar, fiddle, banjo, brilliant vocal harmonies, and outrageous humour – what a recipe for audience fun.  There was just no way these fellows were going to let us have a ho hum evening.

Mr. Banjo introduced a song written by a great Scottish poet named Tannahill.  “Unfortunately he was overshadowed by the brilliance of Robert Burns.”  To which Mr. Guitar sighed “I know a thing or two about that.”  Right on cue, Mark, the lighting and sound guy, dimmed the lights.  We laughed and laughed.

Then there was the tender ballad I Don’t Look Good Naked Anymore.  “Now when the wife and I dance, we look away from each other … sort of cheek to cheek.”  Or how about the song about a fellow whom the women cuddled when he was a baby, but not so much anymore.  No more rubbing the chest or rolling in the clover.  Ahh, the elusive male self-esteem.

“How many of you have been to Scotland?”  >  About four hands go up  >  “And why exactly did you come back?”

“Now we’re going to sing … [Mr. Banjo starts choking up]
“Now we’re going to sing … [more wringing of the hands] an English song”
[Mr. Fiddle hurries off stage in a huff.  We cajole him back]

North Sea Gas are on a six-week tour of North America.  After a few days back home, they head off for a month in Germany.  They are marvelous instrumentalists and the blending of their voices is otherworldly but the deepest joy comes from their fun.  They’re not politicians, spiritual leaders or musical superstars … but they are teachers.  Their simple message?

Lighten up, folks

Day Three: The Ocean

I’m on a huge ferry, taking six hours to cross from Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia to Newfoundland. Before boarding, I sat with a fellow from Newfoundland at a Tim Hortons in North Sydney. I had asked a friend of his if I could look at the sports section from his newspaper, and had received an enthusiastic “yes” in response. So I offered to put the gentleman into my will. He seemed pleased with the prospect, but soon toodled off to another table to woo a woman.

So now we were two. I asked my new friend how folks from Newfoundland feel about being called a “newfie”. He smiled and said “depends on the attitude.” As I struggled with his accent, I had no problem with his being. We chuckled together … and then said goodbye.

On the ship, I sat with a mom and daughter from Digby, Nova Scotia, off on an adventure together before the younger begins her university adventures. Taylor was the Prime Minister of Student Parliament in high school and seems to have a firm sense of what leadership is all about. I marvelled at her commitment to contribute and wished for a time machine to view the adult she’ll become.

Now I’m in the forward lounge, facing a straight line of water and sky. Not a ripple of land at the horizon. The simplicity is sweet. I want to be alone with my beer, on a break from human beings. A bit of yin, a bit of yang … and so we go.

Finally the land – Port aux Basques – pastel-coloured houses on a mass of rock. The beauty of the sea bounding the end of the world is stunning. Welcome to Newfoundland, Bruce.

My hotel is on a hill facing the ocean and I sit on a bright yellow chair, taking in the horizon. Way below me I hear music – guitars and accordion punctuated with voices cranking out newfie songs. I go down to investigate. A outdoor dance floor is surrounded by colourful bleachers, and a couple are strutting their stuff. She especially is smiling her way through the twirls.

Now the band moves into a tender one:

Put me in your pocket so I’ll be close to you
No more will I be lonesome and no more will I be blue

The dancers flow and the audience nods in approval. We’re down home together. Nice. I chat with a few folks and lean towards bed.

Goodnight.

Mamma Mia

I want my writing to be “good”, so that my thoughts will reach people.  Usually that’s what I want.  Tonight I don’t care.  I have a simple message:

Go see Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again

I cried.  I sang along.  I applauded at the end.  Truly one of the finest movies I’ve ever seen.  Naturally I’m biased.  Your take may be different.  So what?  Go see it.

What do I say without spoiling it for you?  I don’t know, but I’ll give ‘er a go.  We long for friendship … it’s here.  We long for community … it’s here.  We long for romantic love … it’s here.

The biggest smiles, the deepest sadnesses and the most profound joys.  A few moments that I will play over and over again once I get the Blu-ray.  Moments that stop the world and break the heart wide open.

Good writing tells me to be specific.  Paint the emotional scenes with great detail.  Well, sorry – not tonight.  You’ll just have to trust me on this.

We get to see folks who are young adults, and then decades later.  The souls still shine.

We get to hear the blessed Abba songs that weave into the lives of this story.

We get to celebrate the ecstasy, tenderness and sorrows of life because they’re onscreen, right in front of our noses.

Chiquitita, you and I know
How the heartaches come and they go
And the scars they’re leaving
You’ll be dancing once again
And the pain will end
You will have no time for grieving
Chiquitita, you and I cry
But the sun is still in the sky
And shining above you
Let me hear you sing once more
Like you did before
Sing a new song, Chiquitita

Staying Put

I went to a concert yesterday afternoon.  Yuja Wang is a world-renowned pianist from China.  At the tender age of 31, she wows audiences all over the world.

I was not wowed.  Yuja played pieces from composers such as Rachmaninoff and Prokofief.  What all these works had in common was … no melody.  Just a whole bunch of notes flurried together in a variety of ways.  I soon found myself close to nodding off, which isn’t the coolest thing to do in a fancy concert hall.

My heart wasn’t in it, not at all.  Yuja’s technique was astonishing.  All those runs at the speed of light!  But in my oh so biased mind … “So what?”  I want to be touched by life and the fine human beings who populate it.  I want an ecstatic “Oh!” to escape my mouth.  My eyes were closing, all right, but not for the best of reasons.

Yuja was very pretty and wore a stunning yellow gown.  From my vantage point, I could see her legs, her feet and the top of her head (occasionally her soft eyes).  The rest, including those flying fingers, was hidden behind the grand piano.  Her glowing dress and pumping feet didn’t do much to send the wearies away.

There were folks sitting on the stage.  From my spot in the front row, I could look under the piano and see them, from the neck down.  And I zoomed in on one couple.  They saved me from unconsciousness.  Throughout the concert, they held hands, in various configurations.  My favourite was when she was rubbing her foot against his calf.  So sweet.  This is the human contact I so desire, whether in physical touch, the meeting of the eyes, or the soaring expression of music.  I watched them a lot.  And then it was intermission.

I talked to the woman next to me about my troubles.  She knew exactly what I was talking about.  And then Yuja reappeared, this time wearing a short emerald dress that sparkled in the lights.  So sexy!  My neighbour leaned over and said “This should help.”  I smiled.

So I got to see gorgeous legs in the second half.  And got to hear no melodies.  (Sigh)  At the end, I was surrounded by wild cheering and rising bodies.  Not me.  I was not moved and so I didn’t move.  I applaud Yuja’s brilliance but she didn’t reach me.

I turned to my new friend and said “The legs didn’t really help.”  She laughed.

Out There

As in throwing myself out into the world, gracefully or awkwardly. On one level, it doesn’t matter what I do with the throw. It’s just happening. And actually I feel launched … by some unknown force.

I went to a concert last night and found such a person. Carlos Nunez is from Spain. Five musicians had gathered on the stage, along with an empty chair. All instruments were at the ready but the troupe didn’t bring forth music. They just sat there, looking to the back of the hall.

And then! The wail of bagpipes filled the space. A tall man, dressed Western, and looking remarkably like Pierre Trudeau (former Prime Minister of Canada), strode majestically towards us. The music was loud. Onto the stage he climbed and walked slowly towards my front row viewing spot. So tall, so passionate, so much air being moved, so there.

I could only gape. Charisma is too small a word for this man. I couldn’t take my eyes off him. His final note was a high squeal, and then he stood in front of us – eyes flashing and mouth widening. Carlos was amongst us. I know that sounds like I’m bowing down to God, but that wasn’t it. Here simply was a human being whose cells seem to burst out of his body and shower us with blessings. But still … merely one of us.

During the concert, Carlos played a variety of whistles as well as the pipes. Almost always, his eyes were closed as the melodies soared. And there was great stillness surrounding him. At the end of a number, he would often gesture towards the other soloists, willing our attention onto them. When his eyes were open, Carlos wrapped the audience in contact, seeming to make a connection with many individual faces.

Carlos is no better than me or anyone else. He’s found a way, however, to let the filters drop away, and to throw celebration to the far corners of the room. “Here I am,” he seems to say. “Love me or loathe me – it doesn’t matter. I’m here to show you me.”

What a fine job he did of just that.

Community of Music

Since I moved to Belmont 18 months ago, I’ve been creating communities for myself.  Now that the worst of my grieving for Jody is over, I need to be out there in the world.

I love going to the Belmont Diner three times a week for breakfast.  The horseshoe-shaped lunch counter means that I get to talk to lots of folks.  Then there’s the elementary school where I volunteer in a Grade 5/6 class.  Kids and adults know me there and being known is a blessing.

And there are more gathering places: the Barking Cat pub, the Belmont Library, community events in the upstairs meeting room at the arena.

I often go to brunches and concerts at the church on Toronto Island, 200 kilometres from home.  I’m a familiar face there.  Also in London at the Cuckoo’s Nest folk club, Wellington Fitness and the Aeolian Hall concert venue.

Last night was a new opportunity.  A friend told me about weekly folk music gatherings in an old house by the Thames River.  Why not?  I’ve thought for years how cool it would be to go to a Newfoundland kitchen party, where everyone shows up with an instrument and their voice.  But that’s thousands of kilometres from me.

I got out of Scarlet and walked a little nervously towards the lights and parked cars.  I reached for the door, crossed the threshhold and there was Christine, smiling at the newcomer.  She and her husband John have hosted Wednesday evenings at their home for fifteen years.

The living room was narrow, with a small stage set up along one wall.  Chairs and couches were getting full with music fans, and smiles were aimed every which way, including at me.  I felt warm, included, seen.

The first set featured Jake, a mellow pianist, who shared his melodies, his knowledge of how to play jazz, and the voice of his lovely wife Julia.

Then there were the Back Seat Girls, four women (sometimes 5 and even 6) who loved belting out the fast tunes, many of which were so singable.  I was in heaven, sitting there with instant friends, sipping ginger tea, munching chocolate chip cookies, and throwing in a harmony or two.

Wow.  What’s happening?  Another community … and so effortless to embrace.  I am blessed.

The music lasted till 11:00, the smiles no doubt much longer.  I got to drive a fellow home.  He just happened to be the king of trivia questions and how to coach people in answering them.  At red lights and beyond, I tackled this one: Name nine pro baseball, basketball or hockey teams in North America whose names don’t end in “s”.  Here’s one to get you started – the Tampa Bay Lightning.

So I got to do a good deed, stretch my brain cells and laugh a lot.  Earlier I got to sing, drum my fingers on my thighs and enjoy a lot of happy human beings.

Wednesday evenings sound good to me.

Unmoved

I love music.  All types of music?  Apparently not.

I went to a concert last night to hear Nicolas Altstaedt, a world-renowned cellist, and Fazil Say, a similarly honoured pianist.  Being an optimistic person, I expected to be enthralled.  I wasn’t.

On the surface of things, I should have been transported to heavenly realms.  Nicolas was outrageously handsome, in his 30’s, with longish hair that fell over his eyes as he played.  His fingers flew on the strings and his tone was of a virtuoso.  In his passion, he would lean every which way as the music took him.  Sometimes he would lift his eyes and stare long into the recesses of the hall.  Then those eyes would close as he bowed a tender passage.  He wore a black turtleneck and often pulled on the sleeves to let his hands flow free.

It was supposed to work.  Isn’t a young, handsome, brilliant male what society says the world is all about?  Well … not for me.  The bare truth was that I didn’t like the music.  I saw myself yearning for sweeping melodies, and they were not to be found.  Shouldn’t I be gushing over the brilliance of the musician?  No.  “Should” doesn’t fit in this conversation.  Either my heart opens or it doesn’t.  Either I’m swept away or I sit inert.

So I applauded politely for the efforts of the two human beings in front of me but the hands fell back into my lap quite soon.  And then the final piece.  At its conclusion, the performers bowed and my hands came together as my butt remained fixed to the seat.  Around me, folks gradually stood.  I felt the cheers begin to soar and soon I was virtually the only person near me who wasn’t standing.  I smiled.  When I’m moved, I usually stand immediately – the complete opposite of the current moment.  Nicolas and Fazil left the stage and returned three times as the hearty applause continued.  Mine had long since stopped.

There’s no right and wrong about all this.  I’m happy that I was true to myself.  Sweet melodies often lift my soul to the heights.  No harm, no foul if my heart isn’t moved to open.  It’s just the rhythms of life saying hi once again.  As one wise one said:

When you’re hot, you’re hot
When you’re not, you’re not

Standing O … No Standing O

It had been 50 years since I’d heard the Toronto Symphony Orchestra.  I played cello from Grade 6 till Grade 13.  Sadly, I told myself I wasn’t good enough to continue playing in university … and I believed me.

As a teenager, I loved going to the ancient Massey Hall to hear the TSO, and once, as a member of the University of Toronto Chorus, I got to sing with them in that classic concert hall.  Lucky me!

And now … it’s now.  Decades later, and the TSO resides elsewhere – in the Roy Thomson Hall.  And they’ve been there for 36 years!  Time marches on.

I went to hear my old friends last night, although none of the 1969 orchestra members were still playing.  The feature work was The Planets by Gustav Holst.  I sat in a concert hall that was brand new to me, set in a  circular arrangement with very steep seating.  I liked it but I wasn’t gasping.

And then the music.  The first piece was a funeral dedication from the composer to his mentor.  Such sadness in the melodies, but strangely I wasn’t moved.

Then a piece featuring a virtuoso trumpet player.  What tone!  What sublime moments!  Yes, I was moved.

After intermission, Mr. Trumpet walks to the front of the stage and says “Tonight is special.  One of our musicians is retiring.  You were very generous to me with your applause after I played for 25 minutes.  Gord has been playing for you for 41 years!”  And we stood as one to honour this man. He cried.

Finally, The Planets.  It celebrated the members of our solar system.  Parts I enjoyed, parts not.  Not once, however, was I transported to sweet worlds.

At the end of it all, many folks stood and applauded.  I sat and applauded.  Not touched, not standing.  Is there something wrong with me?  No.  Is there something wrong with the music?  No.  I stand immediately when heavens enter me.  Not this time.  And “considered” standing O’s, when you look around to see what other folks are doing? No thanks.

I learned more about me last night.  I’m glad.

Laura Smith

The written word doesn’t do a great job of sensing the beauty of sound.  But the beauty of sound is alive in my heart right now and WordPress is the vehicle I have to reach you.

Think of the moments in life when the human voice has transported you to a deep place, a spacious place, a place with little reference to our wake-a-day consciousness.  Months ago, I went to a tribute concert for somebody (I don’t remember who!) at Hugh’s Room, a folk music venue in Toronto.  Amongst the musicians offering cover songs was a woman in her 60’s or 70’s.  Nice enough to look at but really nothing extraordinary in her physical presentation.  It was her turn to sing.  The band started up.  She opened her mouth and something came out.  It was a something beyond the sweet voice, beyond the inspired lyrics, and beyond the pure emotion.  It was … heart stopping.  It was Laura Smith.

I sat there, stunned.  What was happening to me?  Laura was going way inside my body and shaking the foundations therein.  I seek the words to describe all this and they’re not there.  Melting, falling, embracing, vibrating, crying.  Like nothing I’d heard before.

It may be that you were in the room that night and weren’t moved in the slightest.  But I doubt that you could have stayed stable during that short performance.  Yes, I was shaken.  Somehow Spirit or God or Grace filled me.  Laura Smith was a conduit for something immensely big.

Here are the lyrics to “My Bonny”, her adaptation of a classic folk song.  How can simple words on a screen shine on you?  I don’t know.  Maybe they can’t.  But here goes nothing:

My bonny lies over the ocean
My bonny lies over the sea
My bonny lies over the ocean
Bring back my bonny to me

The leaves haven’t even started falling
Already there’s such a chill in the air
Someone’s got a kite on the wind and their mate is calling
Well, I’ve got a tramp’s whisker that tells me you still care

So bring back, bring back
Ah, bring back my bonny to me
Yeah, bring back, bring back
Ah, bring back my bonny to me

Soon there’ll be no difference between the land and the water
I can walk on the ice to places I’ve never been
When I get as far as I can go
Oh, I’m gonna turn and throw my cares over my shoulder
Along with your memory
I’ll just let it all float down the Gulf Stream

And I’ll walk home singing
My bonny lies over the ocean
My bonny lies over the sea
My bonny lies over the ocean
C’mon bring back, bring back my bonny to me

Yeah, bring back, bring back
Ah, bring back my bonny to me
Yeah, bring back, bring back
Ah, bring back my bonny to me
Bring back my bonny, yeah
Bring back my bonny to me

Oh, the human longing for connection.  The sadness of loss.  The remembering.

The best I can do is point you to YouTube.  Enter “Laura Smith My Bonny” and see where your soul takes you.  I figure you’re more like me than different.  Perhaps you too will be stopped in your tracks.

Laura Smith is returning to Hugh’s Room on April 14.  I’ll be there.

Angel of the Piano

Yesterday afternoon, I sat down in Toronto’s Koerner Hall, anticipating the keystrokes of a virtuoso pianist – Sir Andras Schiff.  Beside me sat a young Asian woman and we got talking.  She’s a student at the Glenn Gould School of classical music performance.  We chatted about the beauty of Koerner Hall, especially the violin-like wooden sculpture that adorned the ceiling.  It reminded me of waves of energy, and I wondered if the love and peace I felt coming off me was anything like that.

I told Linda about my meditation retreat and I do believe she was enthralled.  “I’ve wanted to do something like that.”  She was one of very few people in such conversations that didn’t say “Oh, I could never do that.”  I mentioned the Buddha’s instruction “What you contemplate, you become.”  She seemed to see the wisdom of it right away.  Before Andras took the stage, we discussed more of life’s ups and downs.  It was a lovely time.

Sir Andras lived up to his billing, with exquisite runs, explosive passages and tender melodies.  I closed my eyes and a quiet crept over me.  Soon I was deep in meditation as his fingers created the magic.  I opened my eyes a few times, occasionally to see Linda leaning way forward, head down.  I wondered if I had something to do with that.

At the break, neither of us wanted to go anywhere.  We talked of love and peace.  Linda told me she was a pianist and was presenting a recital in the evening, in another hall at the Royal Conservatory.  I said I would come.  She smiled.  “But it won’t be as good as this.”  “Let’s try that again.”  I said I would come.  “Thank you.”

And so the evening.  Mazzoleni Hall was an intimate yellow brick and wood enclave.  Linda strolled onstage wearing a gorgeous cream-coloured gown.  Sadly, the audience was nine.

Linda launched into Haydn with a sometimes flurry and an often caress.  Her face was with the music … a passionate “Oh!” and then a sweet “Ahh.”  I was entranced.  She may be decades younger that Mr. Schiff but the heart was just as open.  Chopin, Bach, Brahms, Rachmaninoff and Tchaikovsky were cheering her brilliance for the rest of the evening.

I gave Linda a standing O, accompanied by a “Bravo!”  So richly deserved.

At the entrance to the hall, I said, “Thank you, Linda.”  We hugged.  We bowed.  “It was lovely.”  “Thank you so much for coming.”

And I was gone into the night.