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…
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.
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.