(thanks for fellow Poconut Claudia Upton for use of the photos.)
since i was a teenager, paul cotton has been an icon to me. one of the heads on my personal mount rushmore of guitar, along with david lindley, with dan fogelberg, with joe walsh, with lindsey buckingham, and a small handful of others – and as a near-lifelong fan of poco, his playing and songwriting were practically engrained into my DNA.
i’d loved their music as a teenager, and had been fortunate enough to have gotten to know them as acquaintances, then as friends, then later as peers during the course of my musical career. every so often, i’d gotten the chance to open shows for them as a solo artist, and then later as part of any one of several bands that i’ve worked with over the years.
so when i woke up one sunday morning a while back to my wife delivering the news that she’d just heard on facebook that paul had left the band that he’d been part of since jim messina’s departure in 1970, some forty years ago. i was absolutely stunned. not surprised, but stunned – if that makes any sense. not surprised in that it was becoming obvious that there was a rift, but stunned in that it actually came to the point where they parted ways.
the one constant in poco has always been rusty young – and rusty hired a replacement and has kept the band going – it’s not the same band, but then they’ve been through plenty of changes over the years…and it was to be expected that they’d weather this as well.
now, some time before this, poco had a date at penns peak in jim thorpe – paul’s flight came in late, and i picked him up at the airport in philadelphia and drove him up to the hotel for the gig. during the drive, we’d talked about some of the idlewheel dates that i’d done with jack (poco’s bassist) and craig bickhardt, to include a house concert we’ve done on pretty much every run that we’ve done at charlie and dorothy wade’s house in union, NJ (which we’ve since nicknamed “the casbah”). paul’s eyes lit up…”i definitely need to do some of that kinda thing,” he mentioned…”at some point.”
well, under the present circumstances, it became somewhat more of a priority to explore the possibility of doing some paul cotton solo shows.
not long after all this went down, i got an email from paul – he’d been asked to perform at RockCon, a weekend-long convention that featured live performances throughout…he wanted to have myself and tommy geddes accompany him for his set at RockCon, and we’d get some MP3’s of the songs we were going to do via email and we’d work everything out before the gig at the hotel.
for a music geek like me, it was a pretty cool thing – i could see where someone more cynical than myself (if there is such a thing) would see it as something of a star trek convention for aging rock stars, but there were a lot of folks there that weekend who i was familiar with. paul’s merchandise booth was set up right next to johny barbata, the drummer from CSNY and later, jefferson starship. i was excited to see him because i’d heard that he was in a pretty serious car crash some years ago, and wasn’t sure if he was even alive at this point. i was mighty pleased to find that not only was he alive, but that he’s still a hell of a player…and a nice guy to boot. al jardine from the beach boys was there – gene cornish from the rascals…and my new friend john ford coley, who i’d done a show with at the record collector in NJ a short time prior…it really was a nice collection of folks, some of whom i was familiar with, but many that even i had no idea as to who they were – people who were the 326th runnerup in season three of american idol, that kinda stuff.
now, as far as the performance goes – we were originally going to do a full band thing, but i heard from paul shortly after i started putting everyone together that we weren’t going to be allowed to play as a band, that we could only play acoustic instruments – which struck me as oddly as it’s probably striking you right now. so, we worked out a different set and discussed what instruments to play on which songs and the like…but after a while, i thought it might be a good idea to actually check in with someone involved with the event and see if i could get a bead on what the actual deal was. not because i didn’t trust paul, but because it just seemed like such an odd premise to begin with, and i wanted to make sure that everything had been properly whispered down the lane.
i called pat horgan, who helped put the event together, and got the scoop – apparently, the venue was in the jurisdiction of a stagehands local chapter, and they were exercising jurisdiction over the event. and what that meant was that, in order to comply with the union regulations, they had to set up the stage at the beginning of the event and it had to remain the way it was. that is to say that the amps that were in place had to remain in place, the drums that were in place had to remain in place – nothing that could be considered backline could be taken away or added to the stage for the duration of the event.
so we could’ve done the show as a full band – we just wouldn’t have been able to bring our own amps or drums or anything…we’d have had to use what was there.
armed with this new information, i gave paul a call and told him what pat had told me…and we revisited the setlist. first of all, for heart of the night, we’d definitely want to go with the pedal steel…it’s such a defining instrument in that song, and it really needed the hook. same thing with bad weather…it really needed the pedal steel to work in the trio format. i’d play mandolin for under the gun and barbados, and dobro for child’s claim to fame. there’d only really be three instruments from my perspective, changeovers should be easy enough, and we’d be in great shape.
so the day of the show, i picked tommy up at home and we drove up the interstate to east rutherford, new jersey – home of the new york football giants – to meet up with paul and caroline at the hotel and rehearse the set that afternoon. paulie seemed upbeat, he looked good…and we ran the set acoustically in his room (with the pedal steel through a small amp that i brought up to the room just to use for rehearsal) and everything sounded great. paul told me – “in thirty years, i’ve only ever played heart of the night with one other steel player, ya know….”
as we were headed down to the elevator to go downstairs for lunch, i took a minute to let that sink in.
we spent the rest of the afternoon before the set wandering around the conference rooms where the tables were set up, chatting with folks, and waiting to go on. we were set to go on after vince martell and vanilla fudge. the legendary new york disc jockey pete fornatale came up to bring us on, and began his introduction as the vanilla fudge guys were getting off the stage…as soon as he started talking, i knew we were in trouble. there was no way we were gonna get them off the stage and get the three of us set up and ready to play in the time it would take him to do paul’s introduction. and sure enough, he announced paul while we were still plugging in cords and situating instruments. thankfully, he picked up on what was going on and rescued his introduction and started talking again to give us a couple of extra minutes.
now, since we had to use the existing backline, i could bring up the pedal steel, but i had to use whatever amp they had onstage. my choices were a marshall solid state combo amp and a line 6 spider. i thought i’d be better off with the line 6, but after playing the first notes i played on the pedal steel, i got a knot in my stomach. it had practically no bottom end, and the sound of the steel through this amp was like someone jamming razorblades into my auditory canal. i know it sounds like i’m exaggerating, but it was truly, truly awful…from where i sat, anyway. that, combined with the fact that no one had bothered to bring any boom stands (which meant that i had to play pedal steel with a mic stand between my arms and legs, sitting between me and the pedal steel), made this set extremely uncomfortable. we got through it, though, and it was quite well received. for me, it was yet another example of how hard it is to turn in a comfortable, well-executed performance when so very little is going your way.
when we parted ways that afternoon, we planned on doing more of these shows down the road…we’ll see how that turns out. it’d be great if we could, but i also know that paul doesn’t want to head north in the winter, and with that being the case, it could be a while.
on the way out of the hotel, we bumped into charlie gracie standing outside, smoking a cigarette…charlie is a rockabilly legend, someone that paul mccartney still considers a hero. but here we all were, standing outside shooting the breeze. i mean, in this day and age, there’s really not much left of the mystique that used to be such a big part of rock and roll…but between the internet cultivating the perception that we should have full, unfettered access to the people who make the music we love and things like this, that mystique should be all but extinct once this generation of rock and rollers has passed on into the sunset.
and those who come afterward will have no inkling of what they missed.