When I was fifteen I was in a band. Unlike anything else I had done up until that point in my life, music was something that set me on fire. When I saw Springsteen in Greensboro, North Carolina for the Born in the U.S.A. tour on January 18, 1984 I knew all the words to nearly every song in his three and a half hour set. Witnessing the way he connected with all the people in that stadium - making each of us feel like the distance from where he stood and where we did was merely a matter of steps. I will never forget that. I started songwriting in ernest after that show and I really haven't stopped.
There have been other people throughout my musical life that made me feel that way to varying degrees, some of whom I even considered to be friends for a time when our paths ran in parallel. What I saw in each of them is what I saw that January night so many years ago - an unlikely mix of vulnerability, passion and determination - a drive to capture a moment and share it with someone else. There's an intimacy when you are inside a song with someone else. You don't have to know that person or ever exchange words - that shared experience of being inside of a song is always what drives me.
In college, that person was David Wilcox. I was enamored by his consumate showmanship and flashy guitar playing, but really drawn in by the spiritual longing in his early music. After a time though, it became hollow to me, unattainable, even for him I think. He was projecting something that was not grounded, not soiled by the realities of what most of us struggle with every day and after a time, it no longer spoke to me. But it was through David's music that I discovered John Gorka and something about John's quiet, unassuming resonance seemed closer to the mark. There was a vulnerability and an honesty in his work that made me feel like maybe I could someday do what he did. In the tape deck of my old VW Bus, I wore out my copies of Temporary Road and Jack's Crows as I was pursuing my own dreams of music which eventually brought me to Atlanta.
It was there in Decatur at Eddie's Attic that I came to know Kristian Bush. I caught him literally the day before his band Billy Pilgrim was about to go on their first big label tour. It was like meeting someone with a golden ticket - we were both just twenty-three years old. We talked in the small bathroom after his set there and I could feel the glow still radiating off of him. He was humming with that connection he had just made with an audience and in the midst of all that, he still had the ability to be kind and present. I never forgot that. Kristian was and is a good listener - that is his real gift. Our paths would cross again many times in different ways over the years, sometimes on stage and other times in the real world as we each grappled with the realities of trying to be an artist and support a family. He wound up being a lot better at it.
Eddie's attic was also the place where I first heard Shawn Mullins with his big, wide-open voice, his prominent, furrowed brow and his determined jaw. He had a fire and an anger that was potent - like a force to be reckoned with. We were friends for a time and I will never forget the lessons he taught me about the perils of getting up in front of people to make your own music. Before we played at a noisy coffeehouse in D.C. once, he said, "All these people talking are either going to shut up, listen and leave here with my CDs, or they are just going to leave." True to his word, by the end of the night the coffeeshop was half empty, but the half that remained are probably Shawn Mullins fans to this day. For me, always asking permission from an audience to play my songs, this was a revelation. I have never been able to pull it off like he could. When he was on stage, he was like a man fighting for his life and in many ways, I think he was. He told me once that he had no choice - it was all he knew how to do.
We played together at Eddie's a few times and a few times on back porches. I saw in this kid something I would never have, no matter how hard I practiced or how much I wanted it, but that's a story for another time.
At 46, In my grown up life where songs have a prominent place in my heart, but are not reflected in the hours of my day, I have come to savor performing in ways that my 23-year-old self never could. I have a weak stomach for the business side of music so I tend to take the gigs that chase me down or fall in my lap. The stars aligned this past weekend and I played three outdoor shows in some of the most beautiful Fall weather we've ever had here in Atlanta.
Saturday, early afternoon found me on the porch of a charming couple I'd never met in Oakhurst as part of this year's PorchFest. I set up my small rig, tuned my guitar, drank a foamy beer off the keg in the front yard and played my songs for folks who walked up and those who set up camp chairs in the yard. I watched the kids chase each other and jump on the min-trampoline in the sunshine, the cool breeze blowing against my back. People smiled and nodded, they clapped and laughed in the right places. Some even bought some CDs or a copy of my novel. After an hour, I packed up, finished my beer, graciously accepted a paper plate of chicken wings hot off the grill and hopped in my car to head North for gig number two.
The Wire & Wood Festival in Atlanta was a last minute opportunity. There was a cancellation on one of the smaller stages so I squeezed in under the door thanks to my good friend and brilliant drummer, Kevin Leahy. I had, of course seen the bill a few weeks before and pondered all the names from my past - Shawn, Kristian, Gorka. I have seen all of them play over the years and it's always been bittersweet. Sweet to hear their voices and enjoy the journey of their success - bitter in the respect that part of me has always longed to be up there, not behind a desk at a job that "fills your clothes with keys and damned responsibilities" to quote John Gorka. To be on the bill, even if my name was taped onto the bottom of the signs was enough.
I checked in, got my lanyard, my modest check and the included $20 to buy some food then set up my gear a second time. I think the old, scar-faced sound man was hoping for the Steve Miller band or maybe reunion Journey. He was determined to slick up my sound with some righteous reverb and slap back delay which I'm not sure was in order given that I was playing in a brick-walled alley, but I smiled, nodded and said that would do. After sound check I walked over to catch the end of Shawn checking with his band under the big tent. The sound was big and full and his voice was at full strength. I listened and smiled, enjoying Gerry Hansen's big kick drum and when they finished, I walked past all the rows of empty white wedding chairs that put me in mind of when Shawn played at our small wedding over 20 years ago. He was sitting outside behind the stage in the sun pouring over a notebook with a set list written in his left-handed, Sharpie scrawl that I would recognize anywhere. He took a drag on his cigarette and looked up when he saw me give Gerry a hug.
We embraced and asked the usual questions you do when you haven't been in someone's presence for a few years. We compared receding hairlines and he told me about the farm he bought where he's restoring a cabin. We talked about our mutual friend Matthew and he said he missed seeing him. I told him I had written a novel. He finished his cigarette. I had to get back to play my five o'clock set. We hugged and I didn't see him again up close, only from the back of the crowded tent a couple of hours later as he banged out another night's work so he could get back to his piece of solitude somewhere west of town.
My older brother Jon and his wife Luisa had picked up the passes I left for them at will call and they were waiting in the front row of mostly empty seats in the little alley in front of the stage where I was to play. There are few gigs I've played in my life where some family member wasn't present and I count this as a blessing because on many gigs they might be the audience. When I was young this would bother me, the prospect of playing for empty seats, but I smiled and shouldered my guitar. I smiled when my guitar woofed with feedback during my first couple of songs. I played hard on my calluses, tinder from lack of use and I sang with conviction - like Shawn would. Before long the seats began to fill up. People nodded, and smiled. They clapped and laughed in the right places. A brief connection was made - a small exchange of energy before they got up to move on to the bigger events, booming in the distance like cannon fire.
After my set, I quickly packed up my guitar and got off the stage so the next guy up the totem pole could get set up. I grabbed a couple of the "green room" beers floating in the cooler by the stage and gave one to my sister-in-law. As we were walking over to catch John Gorka's set, I saw a familiar back across the way, toting a couple of guitars and walking towards the artist check-in table. Kristian. I excused myself from my brother and his wife and walked over. He was surprised when I tapped him on the shoulder, but embraced me in the way that only Kristian can - say what you want, but he gives a solid hug and always has, even back in the day when they were not so sought after. I helped him carry his gear and we went into the "green room" which was actually a dress shop that was being used by the festival. His brother, Brandon was there and it was so good to see him after such a long time. We barely exchanged a few words before a local radio personality came in and I knew that was probably all there would be. I gave both he and Brandon copies of my novel which they accepted with puzzled smiles and raised eyebrows. I dipped a pita chip in the humus at the craft table then I exited the "green room" as radio personality was taking selfies with Kristian on the couch. We promised to meet up later. The last I would see of Kristian that night was from the back of the big tent as he sang his humble version of "Baby Girl," a song I remember him playing for me as he read the lyrics off of an old white board in his little studio space in Decatur so many years ago.
John Gorka's sound was off. I think the sound man was expressing his disappointment in not getting to mic up a Tommy Lee sized drum kit. But John's a professional, he worked his craft just the same in the runner up tent, with the sound of Shawn's thunderous set echoing across the street. The seats were half full with an orderly gathering of sturdy and ernest people of which I was proud to be one. These were true John Gorka fans. He played "Where the Bottles Break" and I smiled at his modest genius as I did for every other song in his set. We had exchanged emails a day before and had a plan to meet up after he played so he was not unduly surprised to see me. We shook hands and he talked in his measured, thoughtful way about the logistics of what to do with his gear. We opted to take it back to the rental car because John has a famous story that turned into a song about getting a guitar stolen.
We chatted as we walked through the perfect Autumn evening. He was hungry so we stood in line at one of the food trucks and made jokes about the fresh, perfectly symmetrical lamb cylinder they popped up onto the rotisserie as we got up to the window. Unlike other conversations I had had with him in my younger days, when I was so completely enamored I could barely structure sentences, this one was easy. To be fair, John was always easy, it was me that had made it awkward in our previous exchanges. It was me that was trying to steal his soul, to capture in a bottle that magic that came out of his head and through his voice. After he finished eating, we caught a few songs by the night's headliner, John Oates and we both snickered and winced in the same moments. By then it was nine o'clock. He had an early flight and I was cooked myself. I gave him a copy of my book, mostly because he's actually referenced in it and I wanted him to have that for posterity.
My brother shouldered half of my gear and I cashed out of the merchandise booth, expressing no surprise when the surly tattooed merch guy informed me there was no cash to be had because no product was moved. There was a time that would have bothered me, but not this night.
The third and final gig of the weekend, was perhaps the best. I showed up around 1 p.m. at the little patch of wilderness off Scott Boulevard in the center of Decatur where I was to play. The air was crisp and the sun slanted through the canopy of trees as I once again hauled my gear out of the car. I set up in the gazebo structure where I would be performing, enjoying the sound of the birds in the open air and the warm smell of cedar. George, the kind gentleman volunteer who runs the music events showed up and I helped him set up the rows of folding chairs. My brother Jon showed up again, this time with my nephew Lucas. We took a stroll through the garden grounds until it was two o'clock and time for me to start playing.
My audience was to be the two of them along with George and his wife. I looked down at the set I had planned and recalculated. It seemed silly to come out strong and aggressive which is often the best play to kick off a set. I opted for a delicate song I rarely perform - a quiet, personal song I wrote for my wife and little boy when we started our family over twenty years ago. The acoustics of the room were like an extension of my guitar and the warmth of and resonance was like a drug. They clapped and nodded. I continued in this vein, planting my feet on the floor and digging deep - allowing myself to just be in the songs for their own sake, not for what they could do for me. My voice, though ragged and weary was still in good form and it found it's notch in the spectrum of my guitar like it does sometimes when I'm all alone.
After three songs, my cousin Lydia showed up with a friend and then some other curious folks came in and sat down with their kids and then another couple and a few stragglers after that. It turned into a concert and we were all in it together. At the break, Kevin Leahy showed up with his two adorable boys Dylan and Finn in hand. He looked harried as he divied up snacks between them, but smiled when I told him I would run back to the car and get the Djembe if he wanted to sit in. Kevin and I have played a lot together over the years and he is a truly great drummer with a natural feel and an easy temperament. Many of the songs in my second set were ones he had never heard and even the ones he had played on at one point in our history he had done so on drum set, so it was a complete experiment. When he came in on the first chorus of one of my newer songs, it was like the entire room opened up to the sky and everyone caught their breath, exhaled and smiled, taken in by the easy, resonate groove from the African drum that you could feel beneath your feet.
I played my heart out the rest of the afternoon and it was a nourishing feeling. It was the magic I have missed for so long. It was a connection, a shared moment on a Sunday afternoon. Kevin's boys ran in and out of the gazebo with groping hands and mischievous grins. They carried half the forest onto the porch and began assembling a fort just outside the door. Kevin joked that it would soon turn into Lord of the Flies out there. Everyone laughed and one of the mothers in the audience kept an eye out so Kevin could keep playing. It brought back vivid memories of my own boys when they were little and my music was nothing sacred, just the background - the soundtrack to their adventures.
I finished with "The Overall Distance," which is my Dad's favorite song. It was his birthday over the weekend and when we spoke, he asked if I would play it. I thought of all the years gone by since I wrote that song and all the times I had played it to different audiences on different stages, in good times and in bad. I thought of the journey of the weekend, and all the stops along the way, of seeing my old friends and heroes and of how we are all connected. I remembered all the words, my voice broke in just the right places and the chords landed as they should. As the last chord rang out-- the four chord, hanging as it does without resolving to the one, I opened my eyes and remembered, for a moment what it's all about.