Monday, September 27, 2004

one magical evening

Shake. Tap. Tap. Tap-rattle, shake.

I look up from behind the counter, down toward the long-hair tapping worriedly at the store's door window ...and sigh.

I'm working late, and the door's already locked ...I'm balancing up the books. Finally. Long day. I motion toward the "CLOSED" sign, but the musician (of course it's a musician: who else, at Two Street Music) has that oh-please look, and motions me to the door.

Sigh again. I walk over to the door, and thoroughly unnecessarily say "We're CLOSED" in my most exasperated manner.

...but I was already opening the door (of course I was opening the door, there'd never been any doubt that I was going to let the guy in exasperation was really with me, for being such a soft touch ...even for someone I didn't recognize at sight, "the customer is always right" is the rule, especially in a small shop in a small town ...that is, IF you want to keep your job).

"What'cha need? - I'm already buttoned down for the night."

"Oh man, thanks for letting me in. Sorry to have ta' bother ya. Name's Mike ...we're playin' down the street later tonight, at the Old Town Bar & Grill. I was tuning up, and broke a G string, and I don't have any spares in the case. They told me there was a shop just down the street. Would you have a loose G - for a bass - or a set? I'm desperate."

"Hi Mike. I'm Brandon. Yeah, sure ...strings are over here." I glance over at the picture on the small poster on the Events bulletin board by the door, announcing a performance by a Windham Hill group. Yep, he's one of 'em alright.

So we walk back to the counter, to the strings display ...him chit-chatting about his gig. Hmpf, nice guy, no ego at all (a pleasant anomaly in a musician, that). He picks out a set of strings and a few spares. Pays cash. I put the money in an envelope beside the cash register, to be rang up when I get to work in the morning.

As I let him out (Two Street Music is next door to the Rescue Mission - and it's after-hours - so I'd locked the door behind us as a matter of policy), he asks if I'm going to the show later tonight?

Well, no ...I hadn't asked Deb' to put me on the guest list for the evening, and I don't go out much anyways. Too cheap, for one thing. And honestly, I'm not all that much into the New Age-y music thing (I don't say that to him would be rude, for one thing, and he is a nice unpretentious sort and all).

"No ...hadn't really planned on it, Mike ...been a long day and I'm kind of tired."

"Okay. Well, thanks again Brandon. I really, really appreciate this. And uh, if you change your mind about the show, I'm going to add your name to the guest list. In case you change your mind later or something."

"Hey, thanks ...been a pleasure meeting you." I lock the door (for the third time), as he heads down the street the couple of blocks to Old Town B&G, to continue setting up for his band's gig.

...and the phone rings. Oh geez. What now! Am I ever going to get out of here this evening?

My ex'. What? -No. Why? -Just We argue. The temperature rises. She angrily hangs up, about the same time I slam down the phone. It's ...complicated ...but you'd think it would surely all be ancient history by now. I kick myself anyway. Again. I'm too old for this.

Damn. I would've been gone already (and "missed" the whole unpleasant episode), except for that one last sale. Double damn.

Tense. I select a guitar from the overhead rack, sit down on a stool, and automatically start running my fingers up and down the fretboard, through the usual scales. To help unwind.

And "works". As usual. A couple of hours of finger work, and my mind is off the day, off the last phone call anger gone, my soul settled. A side benefit of being a musician: assiduously practicing scales is positively meditative, almost therapy, always good ...and it's good for your technique, too.

Okay. Wipe the strings down. Rack the guitar. Lights out. Time to go home (where most likely I'll just practice some more).

But as I drive the aging Vee-dub past Old Town B&G, and note the line outside just starting to go in, and a car conveniently pulling away from the curb on my side of the street ...I think "oh, what-the-hell", and pull over and park.

Maybe I'll take advantage of that guest-list offer after all.

Who knows? - I might even like the band. At least it's free, and I can always split if it's as awful as I suspect it will be (this is no reflection upon the skill or professionalism of the musicians; I'm just really picky about what I'm willing to spend time listening to).

Mike is as good as his word, and I am on the list. Being on the guest list is cool. Aside from the free entry, you don't have to wait in the ticket line. (Not that the line was all that long; Eureka is a small town, and this is a mid-week show.)

I head for the upstairs and snag a free table right beside the railing, overlooking the small soundstage that Old Town B&G erects for acts (a necessary part of Old Town's occasional improve-the-bottom-line transformation from restaurant to night club).

Beside-the-upstairs-railing overlooking the stage is the prime location at Old Town to closely observe the musicians ...maybe I'll pick up on a new technique, or something ...stranger things have happened. I see one of my guitar buddies nearby with evidently similar intent, and motion him to the remaining free chair, and we exchange perfunctory greetings (Jeff is lead player in one of the more polished local club-bands, and also teaches guitar at Two Street).

A bar-maid comes by, and I order the obligatory glass of house red (I rarely drink, but I am taking up a table, and they're my friends, a single glass to nurse through the set is di rigueur, even though I'm driving), and settle down to await the performance.

It's pretty busy in here tonight. Noisy, too. Windham Hill stuff is increasingly popular, and everyone is probably familiar with the band; they were through town a few months back. The house lights dim, and Deborah Lazio steps onstage and asks for everyone to quiet down.

Someone from the band steps up and announces that they'll be on in awhile, but they've got a "special friend" opening for them this evening ...and this cherubic looking guy, long hair tied back in a frizzy pony-tail, walks over from the side-stage carrying an acoustic guitar, which he plugs into a small effects rack in a touring-case, aglow with a myriad of blinking LEDs, off a bit to one side of center stage.

Oh geez. Now what am I in for? What a topper to an already totally crapped-out evening ...I really-really-really should have just driven on home. I notice Jeff glancing over at me, and we both knowingly start eyeing the stairs leading down to the exit.

But ...not quite, yet ...wait 'til he starts playing. Fellow musician, after all. No point in being blatantly rude about leaving.

The guitar player smiles ...and ...just starts playing. A short first tune, really.

And. I, Jeff, well everyone ...Old Town just spontaneously erupts in thunderous applause at the end of that first piece.

...never seen anything like that kind of reaction to a performance before.

Jeff and I look at each other in wonderment ...and over the continuing roar of the enthusiastically appreciative audience, I rhetorically ask him "What planet did this guy come from? Where did he learn this stuff?" No answer is expected of course, nor is one proffered. Jeff is as stunned as I am.

Michael Hedges just smiles modestly at the audience. Calmly segues into his next song. Which is just as words-can't-describe amazing - and as musically original- as the set's intro (Hot Type).

Utterly concentrating on his instrument, both arms flailing apparently wildly up and down the fretboard - yet with that lovely precision that bespeaks to a fellow musician of the long years of solitudinous practice and immense concentration on technique - he rocks back-and-forth on his heels, swaying to the rhythms of his original compositions (hammering, plucking, tapping, pulling, and brushing , crossing one hand over the other in a syncopatic contravention of every conventional guitaristic technique I'm aware of), one exciting song following another.

And wonder just followed musical wonder to the end of his too-short set. I saw, and heard ...and yet had trouble believing my eyes and ears, that a lone artist could make so much pure music on stage ...yep, Michael Hedges was some kind of original, was he. A guitar god, come down to earth in mortal form.

I couldn't even imagine anyone doing on guitar, what this guy had done; in my fifteen years of intensive and eclectic study of the instrument, I'd no previous hint that such performance virtuosity, that such improbable techniques, were even possible on the instrument ...let alone the display of verve and pure energy he'd also unleashed.

...and typically undemonstrative, vastly unimpressed blase ol' me just shouted himself hoarse in appreciation that night, that long-ago far-away magical night in a little club long-since closed, in the improbable setting of a small coastal town in northern California.

That night, and that fabulously amazing and unutterably stunning performance, is some twenty or so years on now ...yet the wonder of it remains as fresh as just last night. Life has inevitably changed, with all the typical and usual twists and turns ...I haven't taken my guitar out of its case in years ...but that one night, ah, that one special night, I heard the Muse.

Michael Hedges' car slipped off a wet s-curve while he was driving, all alone, to his home from the SF airport. He was returning from Thanksgiving dinner with his family on the east coast was just another rainy Mendocino night, in late 1997. A highway crew found his car 120 foot down the cliff a few days later.

Wherever you may be now in eternity, my friend, please accept this inconsequential and belated thank you for that gift of a night.

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