Yacht Rock: A Love Letter

I come not to bury Yacht Rock, but to tell you why it’s fucking awesome.

And no, I’m not joking, this is not a parody post, and I ain’t takin’ no shit from any haters, here.

So get yourself a tall glass of something refreshing (preferably with an umbrella in it), make sure you know your iTunes password (’cause you’re gonna be buying some music) and get comfortable, because we’ve got a lot to talk about, and there’s no point in wasting time.

The term “Yacht Rock” first surfaced for many of us some twelve years ago, as the brainchild of a handful of SNL-wannabe millennials on a site called Channel101 (before YouTube swallowed up all the also-rans that swam in its wake in those days). They made a mockumentary series that chronicled the birth and eventual death of what they deemed “Yacht Rock” – their term for the highly polished soft-rock music popular from the end of the seventies and into the pre-“Thriller” early 1980’s.

The term eventually caught on in spite of (or maybe because of) the amateur fratboy-prank footage that comprised the series and before most of us realized what was happening, the term “Yacht Rock” had managed to elbow its way into the musical vernacular.

So, since it now actually means something, let’s first agree on the definition of the term, shall we?

Yacht Rock (n.): A subset of popular (largely American) music generally released between the years 1976 and 1983 whose practitioners generally valued highly sophisticated chord changes, lush arrangements to include a very dry drum sound with very little decay and no bottom heads on the toms, usually a prominent Wurlitzer or Fender Rhodes keyboard sound, generous use of strings, horns and layered vocal harmonies. Practitioners of Yacht Rock from a production standpoint included Ted Templeman, Mo Ostin, Lenny Waronker, Kyle Lehning, and others.

Yacht Rock actually has an extensive (but thin on actual content) Wikipedia page, which defines it as:

“… broad music style and aesthetic identified with soft rock. It was one of the commercially successful genres of its era, existing between the mid-1970s and early 1980s.  Drawing on sources such as smooth soul, smooth jazz, R&B, funk and disco, common stylistic traits include high-quality production, clean vocals, and a focus on light, catchy melodies…”

As time has passed and the term has become evergreen, misconceptions about the term have grown over time. Many folks have used it as an umbrella to cover everything from Cat Stevens to Kenny G to Coldplay and, frankly, folks, that shit needs to stop.

LET THE RE-EDUCATION BEGIN

The single biggest mistake people allow themselves to make is to lazily categorize bands as being “Yacht Rock Bands”.

While it is true that some bands spent far more time in the Yacht Rock Mines than others, there is one universal truth that we have to acknowledge here, or this whole missive is pointless.

SONGS are “Yacht Rock” before BANDS are. BANDS can have SONGS that fit the category without being a “Yacht Rock Band”.

THE SONG ALWAYS COMES FIRST.

Shall we take a look at some examples?

AMERICA – “Horse With No Name“? No. “You Can Do Magic“? YES.

STEELY DAN – “Reelin’ In The Years“? No. “Peg“? Absofuckinlutely.

EAGLES – “Already Gone“? Not even close. “I Can’t Tell You Why“? YES.

HALL AND OATES – “Sara Smile“? Nah. “You Make My Dreams“? YEP.

KENNY LOGGINS – “I’m Alright“? No. Damn never everything else? Well…

you get it by now, right?

What we’re establishing here is that even the most conspicuous practitioners of the form are capable of stepping outside the Marina – just call up Steve Perry, record “Don’t Fight It” and shake off that stigma!

WHAT CAME FIRST – THE YACHT OR THE ROCK?

You may ask yourself – how did we get here?

Well, when looking at the music of that period in time in context with what came before, it’s not terribly hard to see how we landed our craft on this particular dock. The decade or so that preceded the advent of Yacht Rock was one of the most creatively fruitful in the history of popular music, and you gotta know that shit ain’t gonna last forever. But some of the explosions in the fabric of popular music that occurred in the early Seventies laid the groundwork for the delicious evolution of the Smooth Monolith that was Yacht Rock. If you factor in the fusion chops of Return to Forever and Mahavishnu, throw in a healthy dose of Gamble and Huff and the Philly Soul/TSOP catalog, a little Motown arrangement sensibility, and the accessibility and harmony of the pop music of the time – the only thing that could come from that casserole would be Yacht Rock.

Sure, that period in pop music history could be described as a lull between Woodstock and Punk if you need to call it something…but man, there were some great songs, some great singers, and some great bands turning out records during Yacht Rock’s heyday.

So let’s jump into the water, shall we?

THE SONGS, THE SINGERS, THE STORIES

My single biggest gripe with most of the know-nothings who like to throw the term around, on social media and elsewhere, tend to fall into the same trap. They all name check the same handful of artists over and over again, and while some folks have earned the label, other acts who deserve it seem to endlessly dodge the label and are left out of the conversation.

We’re gonna fix that today.

OK, let’s review the typical name-drops first.

STEELY DAN

Listening to Steely Dan’s landmark AJA album, it’s hard to argue that they haven’t earned a place at The Marina with the rest of Yacht Rock’s finest, and I seldom bother to argue about their inclusion. But if we accept the premise that the Yacht Rock Badge is awarded to songs over artists, we have to look at their catalog and consider songs like “Dirty Work“, “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number“, “My Old School” and others and admit to ourselves that they don’t really carry the typical Yacht-like benchmarks. So sure, they dallied – perhaps much longer than they should have – at the docks and created some classics of the genre – “Hey Nineteen“, “Deacon Blues“, “Peg“, “FM“, and many, MANY more.

HALL AND OATES

Hell, they even made the original mockumentary, as did The Dan. And yeah, some of their material lives up to the descriptors of the genre, hands down. But dig a little further back into their catalog and take a look at songs like “How Does It Feel To Be Back” (an early single from their “Voices” album – one of their first to dip its toes into the waters of The Marina) or just about anything from “Abandoned Luncheonette” and it becomes clear that they had more depth and dimension than could be considered fair to be pigeonholed.

THE DOOBIE BROTHERS

This one makes me fucking crazy.

I have to assume that the same folks who consider the Doobies to be a Yacht Rock band probably would drop cash at the record store for a copy of Genesis’ “Wind and Wuthering” expecting to hear Phil Collins ballads on it.

Not unlike Genesis, we have to acknowledge that there are really two bands by the same name in both cases – just as there was Genesis before and after the Phil Collins Non-Hostile Takeover, we have to acknowledge that there are two separate bands – the Michael McDonald Version and the Other Band.

This might be an odd point in this diatribe to introduce this sidebar, but if you’ve bothered to read this far, it’s vitally important that you recognize, accept and acknowledge the Singular Universal Truth of Yacht Rock.

THERE IS NO YACHT ROCK WITHOUT MICHAEL MCDONALD. HE IS THE JESUS, ELVIS, MICHAEL JORDAN AND MUHAMMAD ALI OF YACHT ROCK.

The Doobies are often stigmatized in the genre due to the fact that the Messiah spent a few albums’ worth of his career as a member of the band – and also because the fucking National Anthem of Yacht Rock still carries their name on the sleeve:

Record of the Year at the Grammy awards in 1979, folks. Written by Michael McDonald and Kenny Loggins (the Lennon and McCartney of Yacht Rock) and a classic, undeniable hit record if ever there was one, this song put the genre on the map and is still one of the most perfect examples of everything that makes Yacht Rock great.

So that’s definitely a thing that happened.

BUT….BUT – before this, there was “China Grove“. There was “Jesus is Just Alright“. There was “Long Train Runnin’” and “Listen To The Music” and “Rockin’ Down The Highway” and DAMMIT I SHOULDN’T HAVE TO POINT THIS SHIT OUT TO PEOPLE, FOR CRYIN’ OUT LOUD GO TO THE MALL AND STOP PRETENDING TO GIVE A SHIT ABOUT MUSIC….

OK, sorry. I had to get that outta my system. Now…let’s get to some of the folks who have EARNED the Yacht Rock distinction.

YACHT ROCK HALL OF FAMERS

Some folks have carried the Yacht Rock banner high and proudly over the years – maybe not necessarily embracing the title, but staying true to their musical stripes and proudly plying their trade…in some cases, playing the old songs alongside new material that they’ve continued to release in the time since the apex of their popularity.

One of those is Christopher Cross.

A short medley of what makes Christopher Cross a true badass.

Christopher Cross hit the ground just as the Yacht Rock Revolution was hitting its stride and carried the momentum into the 80’s with one of the classics of the genre, “Sailing” – which may be responsible for the label in the first place. His first two records (his self-titled debut and the stellar followup, “Another Page“) are absolute must-haves. His debut contains his first single, “Ride Like The Wind” as well as “Never Be The Same“, all radio staples. The follow-up had singles in “No Time For Talk“, “All Right” and “Think of Laura“, but every song on that record is amazing – the duet with Karla Bonoff, “What Am I Supposed To Believe” is achingly beautiful, as are “Nature Of The Game“, “Talking In My Sleep“, and the album closer, “Words of Wisdom“.

Unlike some of the other band who richly deserve to be filed under the Yacht Rock category but seldom come up in conversation, Christopher Cross seems to have earned the designation for his namesake song, but his early work is a rich vein of smooth goodness.

Now, let’s talk about some other bands who are richly deserving of the Yacht Rock moniker, but who seldom come up in conversation.

How about Ambrosia?

It could be argued that Ambrosia tripped and fell backwards into the Yacht Rock pantheon, as they had a long and storied history before the series of records bearing their best known songs were released in the late seventies.

A sampling of Ambrosia’s best known songs…

Lead singer David Pack had an expressive, distinct voice and their songs carried all the hallmarks of classic Yachtness – keyboard-centric arrangements that featured catchy melodies and densely layered harmonies over a tight, understated rhythm section. They created some incredibly memorable songs, but people seem to have complete amnesia when it comes to who recorded them.

So let’s move on to the two bands that are most deserving of Yacht Rock stature that NOBODY EVER SEEMS TO MENTION IN THESE FRIGGIN’ CONVERSATIONS BECAUSE THEY’RE TOO HUNG UP ON KENNY LOGGINS FOR SOME GODDAMN REASON:

The runners-up: England Dan and John Ford Coley!

Nobody…and i mean NOBODY – was smoother than these cats.

If you’ve ever ventured into a record store in modern times, one of the things you’ll invariably notice (whether it actually dawns on you or not) will be the sheer volume of albums that some artists have in their discography. I swear to Buddy Christ, I can’t think of a single reason for there to be so many damned Uriah Heep albums, but if you ever find yourself digging through the bargain bin at your local used record store, YOU WILL PONDER THIS QUESTION.

This can be said of a lot of acts for whom chart success or radio play was either fleeting or elusive altogether, but England Dan and John Ford Coley had one hell of a run. From their breakout hits like “I’d Really Love To See You Tonight”, “Nights Are Forever”, “Falling Stars”, “It’s Sad To Belong” and “Gone Too Far” through their latter chart hits like “Love Is The Answer” and “We’ll Never Have to Say Goodbye Again”, it seemed like there was always a song on the radio by these guys for a solid six or seven years.

So why don’t people mention them when the heavy hitters of Yacht Rock are being discussed? Is it the name? Is it too much to remember?

One of the mysteries of life, man.

But our grand prize winner – I’ll never understand why they’re not mentioned in the same breath with King Michael when the roll call happens.

Pablo Fucking Cruise.

Seriously, click this goddamn link, because you need to hear this.

If somebody went to Central Casting and said to the lady behind the desk, “Hey, listen…I need a prototypical Yacht Rock band…smooth grooves and lush, layered arrangements played by dudes in sandals and hawaiian shirts who sing great together…and they should look fuckin’ happy to be everywhere they go!” – she would’ve reached in her top desk drawer and pulled out an 8 x 10 glossy of Pablo Cruise and you’d be so happy you made that call that you’d jam a straw into the nearest pineapple.

Seriously – these guys created some of the most straight-up, unadulterated Yacht Fodder of the entire era, but people are too busy looking like idiots by trying to jam the Doobies down our throats to remember that these dudes deserve at least Thomas Jefferson status on the Yacht Rock Mount Rushmore, but for way too many people, they barely manage to earn Grover Cleveland status…which doesn’t get them on the mountain, but they damn well deserve to be.

Go back up there and listen to that clip if you haven’t – absolute Sailboat Gold, right there.

SAILING IN OBSCURITY – YACHT ROCK’S UNSUNG HEROES

Now that we’ve got you thinking – and hopefully, questioning everything you thought you knew about Yacht Rock – I’d like to take this opportunity to introduce you to a few folks who may have flown under your radar, some amazing songs that never got their due and should be considered classics in the genre, save for the fact that they just never managed to achieve critical mass.

(Amy Holland’s “How Do I Survive” from 1980)

You’ve likely never heard of Amy Holland – if you have, you may know her as Mrs. Michael McDonald, as they’ve been married since 1983 and have two children (who will inherit the Yacht Rock throne someday, whether they ever sing a note or not. It’s just how shit works.) This song barely made a ripple when it came out, but it’s textbook Yachtness is delicious.

(Chris Rea – Fool If You Think It’s Over from 1978)

I challenge you to try to get the chorus of this song out of your head after listening to it all the way through. Hypnosis might not even work. Rea enjoyed a long career as a recording artist in Europe, but this song was his lone American radio single…and it’s a great one.

(Terence Boylan – Did She Finally Get To You from 1980)

There are three versions of this video on YouTube, and combined, they have less than a thousand views – Terence Boylan isn’t exactly a household name, and only made a couple of records, including this single that came out on Elektra/Asylum in 1980. I found it in a box in the attic of a radio station I worked at in high school (along with Florence Warner’s brilliant Epic debut album from 1973 or so, but that’s a whole ‘nother diatribe for another time). Great chorus, very understated arrangement and maybe barely only qualifies for Yacht Rock status, but it’s my blog so I make the goddamn rules.

(Robbie Dupree, Steal Away – 1980)

1979 and 1980 were magical years for Yacht Rock – so many classics from the genre surfaced during those two years…it was like 1967, but with cocaine instead of LSD. Actually, it was nothing like 1967, so let’s abandon that premise and take a minute to appreciate a masterfully crafted recording with a cameo by Michael McDonald in the bridge. Swooning is both allowed and encouraged.

(Lauren Wood, Half as Much (1981)

Lauren recorded two albums for Warner Brothers, one in 1979 and the followup (which contained this near-perfect example of YachtRockery) in 1981 before vanishing for almost fifteen years, only to resurface with a song on the Pretty Woman soundtrack called “Fallen“. Her voice is an amazingly distinctive instrument and nearly every song on her two Warners records is a textbook example of the genre, but this one is something special.

(Jim Photoglo, “Fool In Love With You”, 1981)

Fool In Love With You” was the title track from Jim’s second record on the UA label in 1981, released after his first album managed to chart two songs, “We Were Meant To Be Lovers” and “When Love Is Gone” in 1980. As a label, UA had a short lifespan, but turned out to be the Motown of Yacht Rock, siring the careers of Photoglo, Robbie Dupree, and Christopher Cross.

(Franke and the Knockouts, “Sweetheart” (1981)

This song was literally everywhere the summer it came out. Maybe not where you lived, but between the rivers in West Tennessee, it seemed like it was on EVERY radio station multiple times a day. The band went on to make three records for their label (Millenium) before folding in the mid eighties. Drummer Tico Torres went on to play with a struggling hard rock outfit called Bon Jovi and lead singer Franke Previte wrote an obscure song called “I’ve Had The Time of my Life” for a movie that had some success called “Dirty Dancing“.

(Cliff Richard, “We Don’t Talk Anymore”, 1979)

Cliff Richard enjoyed Ricky Nelson-esque status as a pop star in the UK dating back to the early 60’s, but this song (along with his hits “Dreaming” and “Carrie“) were his Yacht Rock staples of the late seventies in the US.

(Greg Guidry, “Goin’ Down” from 1982)

By 1982, the smooth sounds of Yacht Rock had peaked, although you’d have a hard time arguing as much looking at the pop charts – but within the space of the next two years, the world would have to contend with Madonna, Michael Jackson’s Thriller, Prince’s Purple Rain, Bruce Springsteen’s Born In The USA, and the slowly turning tide of influence as MTV began to dictate what radio played instead of the other way around. This song, Greg’s only chart hit, reached the top 20 in 1982 as Yacht Rock’s reign began to fade.

YACHT ROCK’S TRAGICALLY OVERLOOKED SUPERGROUP

Rock and roll is cluttered with tragedies – artists who died at their creative peak without ever achieving any tangible success, records that were born of some magic combination of timing and talent that fell on deaf ears and never saw the light of day, musicians who couldn’t set aside their personal differences in spite of undeniable chemistry, and we’ve canonized some of the legendary stories of some of those artists over the past seventy years of popular music history.

Yacht Rock has its own tragic story of a blockbuster success that never was, a band whose recorded output culminated in a third album that has never been equaled in terms of sheer songcraft, musicianship and production qualities.

Nielsen Pearson was the Big Star of Yacht Rock.

They made three albums before disappearing into obscurity and oblivion, culminating in Blind Luck, their masterpiece that came out on Capitol in 1983. Unlike the Memphis power pop band who managed to achieve critical acclaim years after their dissolution, Nielsen Pearson never managed to harvest the success that the quality of their final album deserved. Their Wikipedia page is – quite literally – two sentences.

Seriously, TWO SENTENCES.

A long-abandoned MySpace page, linked at the bottom of their uncomfortably bare Wikipedia entry, rounds out the remaining information available about them online. Reed Nielsen passed away in 2014 after settling in Nashville and having some songwriting success here, and there’s no trace of Mark Pearson whatsoever (unless he and the Folksinger Mark Pearson are the same person, which seems preposterously unlikely).

Mystique abounds, however.

The masterful third album, Blind Luck, is somehow posted in its entirely on SoundCloud:

If you’re somehow still reading this voluminous love letter, then this record is my personal thank-you to you, dear reader. This record deserves to be mentioned in the same breath with Michael McDonald’s genre-defining solo debut, If That’s What It Takes or Christopher Cross’ masterful second album, Another Page.

This record captures two individually talented singers and songwriters operating in perfect harmony, both with easily identifiable voices but working together in sublimely complementary fashion. EVERY SONG is a textbook example of the genre – from the failed radio single “Hasty Heart” that opens up side one to “Carrie” that closes out side two of the record.

The only chart single the band would ever have was “If You Should Sail” from their Capitol debut, Nielsen Pearson…that song was a top 40 hit in 1980.

Obscurity claims so, so many talented folks – artists, writers, musicians, poets, actors – luckily for Reed and Mark, there was tape rolling while they were hitting their stride and these songs were preserved for those of us who know where to look.

So, fellow Yacht Rock lover, I leave you today to listen to this lost classic of the genre and ponder how we all missed out on a record that came so close to defining the entire genre, only to fall on deaf ears and almost disappear under the dust of years past.

Let us ponder the wonders of Yacht Rock for years to come…

…but seriously – don’t mention the Doobie Brothers if you want anyone to take you seriously.

Dan May at Sellersville Theater, Friday July 5th, 2019

anybody who has a passionate pursuit in their lives has an ideal – a mental picture of what their passion looks like when it manifests itself in its purest, most perfect form. for a surfer, it’s catching the perfect wave and riding it to the sand. bowling a perfect 300. pitching a no-hitter. a hole-in-one.

for musicians, there really isn’t a consistent answer, though, is there? nailing a difficult instrumental passage or playing something that was once impossible, maybe…or getting a gig you’d worked hard for, or maybe playing a show with a personal hero – there are probably as many definitions of “perfect” as there are folks who’d be willing to answer the question.

but i think it’s safe to say that for us creative types, the pursuit of our own personal definition of “perfection” is the consistent thing that keeps us coming back – the thing that drives us – the reason we get out of bed.

and let’s face it…it’s the pursuit itself that drives us. the desire to be the best we can be at whatever we’ve chosen. because nobody wants to feel like Brian Wilson hearing from Paul McCartney that “God Only Knows” was the greatest song he’d ever heard – as the story goes, when Wilson heard that from one of his songwriting heroes, he hid in a closet and cried because he took that as a sign that he’d never be able to surpass what he’d already done.

so maybe the pursuit of perfection is a lofty goal, but catching it is another matter altogether.

but boy, let me tell ya…when you get as close as we collectively came at Sellersville with Dan May last week, it’s intoxicating.

and when you’ve been at this chase long enough to know how rare it is to dance that close, and you can realize the significance of that fleeting moment in real time, maybe you’ll be lucky enough to soak it in as it’s happening.

i sure did.

it had been almost exactly a year since the last time i played at Sellersville (a solo acoustic show i did opening for Paul Barrere and Fred Tackett from Little Feat, which you can actually see in its entirety here). as stages go, it’s the place i feel most comfortable, the most at-home…the easiest place to play in the world for me. i’ve played some amazing shows there over the years, and there have been a lot of capital-M “moments” – it would take another entire post to catalog them properly and do them justice.

one of those moments in particular came up during dinner this night, in fact – we were playing an opening set and our long lost, lamentedly disappeared fiddle player, Lainey Wilson, was on the show. during the final song, our bass player (Kurm the Shoeless One) leaned over to her and said “Go Off!” his intention was that she take a solo over the end of the song while Dan was walking offstage, but she took her cue from Dan when Kurm told her to “go off” and left the stage instead.

i brought my friend Chris with me to the show, which meant that she had to endure load-in AND soundcheck, as well as suffer our collective company for the night – but she epitomizes the notion of “easy people” and took it all in with a smile…i had prepared her somewhat for what to expect so she was armed with distractions, just in case.

Dan’s band has never had a consistent stage plot, as there have always been different folks on different shows – but the band has solidified somewhat of late, with regard to the core. Tommy and Dan Faga have become the default rhythm section, and they’ve developed as a unit instinctively over time. Dan was a friend long before he outed himself as a bass player, and having him at eye level has been a gift. His wife (and fellow ST94 alum) Aly came out with their two girls during load-in and they came bearing gifts (a cake plate full of cupcakes). I remembered the fact that they had met there in that very room years before, not yet a couple…then a couple in secret, then all these years later married with children and – in my mind – fully inseparable from that room itself.

Tommy is my champion – the other half of The Tommys, my bandmate in almost a dozen bands over the years, and often the air that holds up whatever craft we happen to be flying on a given night. his presence is buoyant and he makes damn near everything better just by being there to laugh at it…unless there are avocado wraps involved. don’t ask.

Anthony Newett became an instant soulmate the first time we played together. Ant and I are the musical equivalent of one of those old married couples you see at the diner who can sit together and have a meal and pass condiments and dishes across the table without exchanging a word and always seem to innately sense what the other is about to do.

One of the things that makes our relationship (musically, anyway) special is that there’s something of an unspoken understanding between us of what our personal strengths and weaknesses are, and Ant has a way of reacting to what I play in an almost telepathic sense. he’s a much better musician than I am, and he uses that ability to read my thoughts and play parts that complement what I’m doing in a way that – hell, maybe only I end up noticing, I don’t know. but when we play together, he totally takes advantage of this ability and will play something that commands my attention (often multiple times a night), and will – as soon as I react and look over at him – will look back up at me momentarily, raise one eyebrow (a la Belushi), give me a momentary smile and continue doing what he was doing.

I wish I could put into words what playing with Ant does for my spiritual well-being, but I don’t know that I can. Musically, he is inseparable from who I am – he’s my missing part.

But wait…there’s more. Get a load of what he’s done now.

I started hearing this name crop up relatively recently, and I wasn’t sure what the story was because I was on the outside looking in – her name appeared first in a couple random posts by Dan, and I found out a while back that this Claudia Terry would be joining us for this show.

I hadn’t met her, didn’t know anything about her, and wasn’t sure what to expect – I didn’t know if she’d be primarily a harmony vocalist like Heather had been, or if she had something else to contribute. Once I heard she was there on Ant’s recommendation, I immediately felt at ease, because Ant’s not about to bring someone into this orbit who couldn’t pull their weight.

Still, my acoustic guitar parts are pretty specific, and have a certain feel to them that other far superior musicians to myself haven’t really been able to cop in the past, so I was prepared to play my parts alongside the New Girl for the duration of the night, just to make sure that foundation was there.

Well, you ain’t gonna believe this shit, but lemme tell ya…

We had loaded in and were in the process of gravitating to our respective spots in the stage plot for this particular night, and we were discussing songs from the set during line check and she started playing the intro to “The Glory Years” – MY intro to “The Glory Years” – and SHE FUCKING NAILED IT. It was perfect!

Now she had my attention.

Claudia is 19 years old. That’s significant.

It’s significant because – even in this era of YouTube Geniuses – there’s a feel, a grasp of timing, a comfort level with an instrument that some douchebag with a British accent can’t teach you during the course of a video on the internet. And yet, here’s this girl with pretty limited experience in this setting just KILLING these parts that she’d only learned prior to this show.

And she SINGS! Holy shit, she sings – and her innate ear for harmonies blew my mind. It was as if she’d prepared for the fact that I’d be there to sing the middle third and she just automatically went to the high fifth on damn near everything – and that’s just not something that you can prepare for, really…you either hear it and sing the part reflexively or you don’t, and she reacted in real time to where she needed to go and landed there…

every. damn. time.

I fell in love with this kid on this night. I wanted to bring her home with me and get her a room and give her free reign over my record collection and the studio and stand back and watch her blossom and let her head explode all over the living room floor and stand back and see where she goes from here – and it only got better from this point through the end of the night.

When I was a teenager, I played drums with “the” band in my little hometown, the band that got all the good gigs in town, that everybody came to see…and this Friday night, I remembered something that Jerry “Opie” Opdycke said to me after a gig one night when I was 16.

“Tom, man…you’ve got the best chance of any of us to make something of yourself in this business because you’ve got your whole life in front of you. You’re damn good, and somebody, somewhere is gonna notice that sooner or later.”

Now, decades later, I found myself watching this girl barely old enough to vote and not yet able to drink or buy cigarettes at a convenience store standing across the stage from me and just slaying everything she played.

Maybe you’ve had a similar experience watching a kid play sports in high school or something to that effect and feeling like you were witnessing something out of the ordinary – the potential for greatness that maybe only you saw at the time?

Claudia is something special. I knew it the first time we played through an intro together on that stage, that night.

I was already elated when we wrapped up soundcheck and went next door to dinner – we ordered food and everyone fell into comfortable conversation..Ant sat on one side of me, Chris and Dan Faga on the other, Tommy, Dan and Claudia across from me – with occasional visits from Lisa and Adam (Dan May’s wife and son) and a few other folks who’d come to the show (Dennis Whelan and some of the May clan from Ohio, among others)…it was becoming clear to me that this was going to be a special night, whether it turned out that way musically or not.

I was struck there at the dinner table that this was once a pretty regular stop for me – that I’d sat at that table with a ton of musicians in the years past – and that being able to be here for this wasn’t something I could take for granted the way that I’d perhaps done in the past…I made an extra effort to look around the table at my bandmates, my friends, my fellow travellers and to appreciate the moment…Dan and Chris discussing parenting on my right while I interrogated Claudia about her musical background and introducing the concept that maybe she was adopted if her parents weren’t musicians, while Anthony told me their story and Tommy was busy being Tommy…then we broke out the cupcakes that Dan’s daughters and family had made for us and we FaceTime’d the girls and raised the cupcakes in a toast to them, back home at Faga Manor, before we settled up and prepared to head across the parking lot.

I think it’s fair to say that the seeds for what happened on the stage at Sellersville were sewn at the dinner table that night.

When we left to head next door to wait for showtime, there was already something in the air.

We parted ways with Chris, who went out to take her seat in the theater, and we all circled ’round the bench seating in the green room – there was a bottle of bourbon in there and someone opened it and I poured a little in the bottom of a plastic cup and filled the rest with diet soda while everyone else poured themselves a little and we raised a toast. We talked for a short while and after a few minutes, a folded piece of paper fell onto the floor just inside the stage door.

Dan Faga picked it up and saw that it had my name on the outside fold, and handed it to me. I opened it up and read what was written in pencil on the inside of the paper….

“…do you know Free Bird?”

So I explained to the rest of the band how some 22 years ago, Chris had come to the CD release party for an album I’d put out in 1997 and had asked the doorman to hand me her business card with the same thing – “do you know Free Bird?” – written on the back of it.

It wasn’t long before Lizanne Knott and her daugher Ciara came in, accompanied by Glenn Barratt (who played bass behind her for the show) – so Tommy and I accompanied both of them for their sets as well.

There wasn’t a ton of time between when Lizanne came off the stage and when Dan went on…or at least it didn’t feel like it. We were back on the stage within moments of having walked off – Tommy and me. Me and Tommy. The League of Extraordinary Sidemen. The Tommys.

“Ladies and Gentlemen…please welcome – singer, songwriter and freelance Supreme Court Justice – Dan May!”

OK, I’m going to be perhaps painfully frank with you here.

I don’t remember a lot about the set.

I don’t remember the order of the songs we played, I don’t remember who took solos on which songs, I don’t remember which stories Dan read from his books…it all ran together in a blissful cloud in my head.

That might sound ridiculous, but it’s true.

On nights when shit ain’t happening, I can tell you every mistake I made, and every mistake that everybody else in the band made in EXCRUCIATING detail.

this night, though…oh. my. God.

It was an orgy of amazing harmonies, of stoic raised-eyebrow glances from Ant, of sheer exuberance from Tommy, of flawless rock-solid bottom from Dan Faga, and…

Dan May.

I don’t even know if I’m able to talk about my relationship with Dan without getting emotional. I’ve been playing, singing, and riding shotgun with him for over a decade, and I’ve given him more than enough reason to abandon me for greener pastures and he’s stuck with me, and as such – he’s stuck with me. I love Dan in a way that I’m incapable of putting into words. He’s been a musical soulmate from the moment he sent me a copy of “Once Was Red” in the mail in response to a Craigslist ad that I answered a lifetime ago and I put the CD into the player in my old Isuzu Trooper and heard the strains of “Lights Out In Tupelo” blaring out of the speakers. He’s brought me on the road, he’s put me up with his family (who have, in turn, become my family), we’ve played shows all over the continental US and I consider him a brother – no, really, a Brother.

This show, on this night, was a blur.

It felt as though it was over before it started, and I was outside my body wondering what had just happened.

The house lights came up and shook me loose from whatever wave I was riding, so I walked down front and started talking to folks who’d come up to say hello.

What with hanging my hat in Nashville now, I didn’t get to see these folks as often as I once did, so tonight was A Thing.

Mike and Judy Morsch. Al and Carol Bien. Jack Leitmeyer. Dennis Whelan. John Woolley.

And those are just the folks who bothered to stick around…I know from aftershow reports that Frank Friestadt (the custodian of my old Fender Deluxe Reverb), Liz Miller, and several other folks who needed to leave without saying hello were in that room on that night as well.

So I stood down in front of the stage after the lights came up and Alex turned on the background music and had a receiving line of sorts for some time…all the while, listening to what was playing overhead…

“Well I’ve been looking for somewhere to go
You’ve been looking for a place to roam…”

There were a few folks still wandering about the floor, some of them ushers and some of them friends who were still chatting with the folks preparing to start tearing down the stage.

“But I’ll be steady in your hand
If you’ll take me as I am
I’ll be your rock, if you’ll roll me on home…”

I finally said goodnight to the last of the folks who’d come down to say hello and saw Chris, sitting at the corner of the first row of seats. I walked over to sit down for a minute – she was beaming. I remembered having looked out over the audience at shows some twenty years ago and seeing that same face, and I sat down next to her and looked back at the stage for a short moment – now fully lit, with folks tearing down equipment as if nothing had happened there that night…

“We’ll build a house outta broken dreams
And find our way back to reality…”

I looked around me for a long, long minute…and I looked over at Chris…

and I just nestled my face into her shoulder and cried like a baby. HARD.

I’m sure I probably made some folks uncomfortable. If I did, I’m sorry.

But it was just too much.

Now, this is the point at which we should probably recap, a la Rob Gordon from High Fidelity:

“So, how did Tom go from being the gregarious guy in the band to being a blubbering emotional minefield in the space of a few minutes? Well, it’s probably the result of at least two, or maybe all four, of the following points coming to the surface…”

ONE – mortality.

When you’ve been doing this for an expanse of time, for a large portion of your life, chasing that momentary perfection that we talked about a bit at the top of this endless trope, you learn a few things. You learn that it doesn’t happen often. You learn that when it does, it’s usually fleeting. And, if you’re lucky…RIDICULOUSLY lucky…you learn to recognize it as it’s happening and try to commit as much of what’s happening around you to memory. AND – you realize over time that these moments are precious and that every time you experience it might be the last time.

TWO – comeraderie.

On this night, I was surrounded by exactly the right people, on stage with exactly the right people, and felt every ounce of the love that was in that room – from the audience, from my fellow players, from my artist, from my people in the audience…that room was awash in love from the moment we stepped onto that stage, and it was palpable.

THREE – the show itself.

I can’t even, really…it was just amazing. I got to put down my acoustic guitar and play other instruments, thanks to Claudia and Ant, I got to hear this amazing band play its ass off in front of an audience that loved us on a musical AND personal level, and we gave them back every ounce of energy they sent towards the stage.

FOUR – nostalgia.

Sellersville is my Home Stage.

It’s always been my home stage. it’s the room where I had my CD release for “Friends and Heroes”, it’s where I played with Marshall Tucker for one of the first times, it’s the room where I recorded Craig Bickhardt’s live record, it’s the place where I watched Dan and Alyson Faga’s friendship grow into romance, then matrimony, then a beautiful family. I played there with Robert Hazard, with John Lilley, with JD Malone, with Craig Bickhardt, with Pure Prairie League, with Poco, with Blake Allen, with Skip Denenberg, with Tracy Grammer, and with Dan May…

It’s a sacred place for me.

And what better place for a transcendental experience like what happened this night?

So, yeah…I lost my shit. Sue me.

I gathered myself long enough to start asking questions about this music that was playing in the background, and found out it was a Canadian singer/songwriter named Ken Yates – his 2016 album, Huntsville, had been playing ever since the lights came up, and EVERY FUCKING SONG WAS AN ARROW THROUGH MY HEART.

Ken Yates – Roll Me On Home

After I’d managed to gather myself a bit, Tommy and Dan came down and hung with us for a bit – Tommy had miraculously found a bottle of white wine and a few cups, so Chris took my car keys and we drank wine and talked while they finished tearing down the stage….until ultimately they turned off the music and it was time to go home.

Chris drove us back to Phoenixville and stayed up with me until after 3am talking about what had just happened…I think that what had happened in that room hadn’t been lost on anyone that night – least of all either of us.

It’s a rare friend who’ll forego five-plus hours of sleep to experience something like this with you, and to those friends you should hold on, folks.

Reaction on social media was swift and intense…those who were there, they know. Those who weren’t…I’m sorry.

I will forever be grateful that I was one of the ones who stood on that stage that night, with that group of musicians on the stage and that group of folks in the audience.