Wild(wood) weekend – Poco in Steelville, MO

the extended Poco family lost one of our own recently – Claudia Upton. I made Claudia’s acquaintance online at first, as I did with most of this particular extended family, but then eventually met her at a show in the mid-nineties – although I don’t remember specifically when, or which show.

At my age, they all start to run together after a while.

Claudia was always dressed in black, usually with a camera around her neck, and has been responsible for some of my favorite photos from the time I’ve spent around the band over the years. She was, as was well known within “the family”, especially fond of Paul…as were a few other gals who turned up in the extended collection of folks who were often recurring characters in the extended “Poconut” gang. She adored my youngest, Danny, and was there at Danny’s very first Poco show when he was less than a month old (in King of Prussia, when Poco and Idlewheel appeared on an outdoor double-bill).

I got word that Claudia had passed via a Facebook message from a mutual friend as I was getting into my car in a parking lot outside the Mercy Lounge in Nashville…I think it came as a shock to a lot of us, even though those dark visits seem to become much more regular at this point in ones’ life. Her mother (who survives her) lives in an assisted living community and Claudia never missed a days’ visit – so when she hadn’t shown up for a few days in a row, folks became concerned and initiated an investigation and discovered that she’d passed, presumably peacefully, in her sleep at home.

Photo by Claudia – Tommy Geddes, myself, and Paul Cotton a decade or so ago

When word finally got out, someone had posted online that there’d be a memorial for her at the bands’ annual weekend of shows at Wildwood Springs Lodge in Steelville, MO this year. I commented on the post and tagged Jack Sundrud (Idlewheel bandmate, Poco bassist, and Nashville neighbor) and jokingly said that “if you need a ride north, I’ll drive” (most folks aren’t crazy about riding with me for some reason…can’t quite wrap my head around that)…but to my surprise, Jack messaged me back and said that if I wanted to come along, they could use some stage help…would I be interested?

I had worked this gig before with the guys, when Poco split a few Loggins and Messina dates back in 2009 or so. I had to change a broken E string on Richie Furay’s hollowbody Gibson, and got it done in just under two minutes…which won’t qualify me for anybody’s Roadie Olympics, but I thought it was pretty good for a rookie. I know how long it took because I clocked the time from the moment I took Richie’s guitar until I brought it back out on a YouTube video of the show someone had posted.

So I had the necessary experience, I guess.

I replied and said sure, I was game for helping out any way I could – so he circled back with Rusty & company and we confirmed everything for the weekend and it was written in pen.

I had just lost my ex-mother in law, and had made a trip to Pennsylvania the weekend prior, and had done the best I could to help my kids through that – so once I was back from that excursion, I swapped out the clothes in my bag and met Jack and drummer Rick Lonow at the car rental counter and we saddled up to head north. I volunteered for the first (and what I figured would be the only) shift behind the wheel…I fully intended to drive the whole stretch, but after managing to catch a speeding ticket in Metropolis, Illinois, the guys voted me out of the drivers’ seat for a spell.

(Fun Fact: If you get a speeding ticket in Metropolis, IL – you cannot just plead guilty and pay your fine online. You have to either show up for a court date or hire a lawyer to appear on your behalf. It’s easy to dismiss the stuff we hear about how corrupt and ridiculous the state of Illinois is, but there’s plenty of evidence that they’ve earned their shitty reputation.)

We got to Steelville just as it was getting dark and went to the venue to unload gear, meeting up with Rusty and Mary Young when we got there…it’s been a few years since I’ve seen either of them, and I was thrilled to see the two of them and catch up for a minute. I’m not unconvinced that Rusty doesn’t have a Dorian Gray oil painting aging away in the attic of his house…he’s managed somehow to steer this band through the past forty years and a full 80 percent of their lifespan and somehow appear outwardly to be none the worse for wear. I’ve been through a fraction of a fraction of what he’s been subjected to by this business, and I’m one of the most cynical bastards you’ll ever meet…but he still manages to remain gracious and kind and I’m honored to call him a friend.

Jack, Rick and I went to a BBQ joint in Cuba, Missouri that was right up the road from the hotel we were staying at before turning in for the night – we had a noon load-in at the venue, so we decided to try to get there a little before then, to wrap up getting the stage together.

I met Lex Browning in the car on the way to the show – Lex is the new guitarist/multi-instrumentalist who replaced Michael Webb, the departed keyboard player. Once we got to the venue, we got down to the business of getting the stage in order.

Not long afterward, though, the special guests showed up.

I hadn’t seen George Grantham’s wife, Debbie, since driving to Nashville almost fifteen years prior when his daughter and I were helping to set up a fundraising effort to generate cash for George after his stroke…Jack and I had gone to lunch with George here in town not long after I moved to town, but it had been a few years since I’d seen him at that point.

Not only was George getting up to sing during the show, but he was going to play drums for one song as well (Child’s Claim to Fame) – so that was something to look forward to.

Then Paul and Caroline came in.

The last time I saw Paul was in New Jersey in 2010 when I backed him on pedal steel, mandolin and dobro for a set he did at the first (and, to my knowledge, only) NationalRockCon event there…I had tried to coordinate a tour with Paul when I released Friends and Heroes in 2013 where I’d assemble a band, we’d open for – and then play behind – Paul as the headliner, but we never managed to get it off the ground. I ended up moving to Nashville the following year and we fell out of touch.

After landing in Nashville, 800 miles and a time zone removed from my old Northeast Corridor Poco family, I fell out of touch with the band for a while as well. I still did the occasional shows with Idlewheel (and Jack), and living in the same town as Jack, I’d occasionally try to connect with him as well, but I ended up hunkering down and shunning society for the past three years or so…OK, so not entirely, perhaps, but…I don’t get out much anymore.

So, flash forward to the present day – here was the current band with all my favorite members of the band over the years in the same room, getting ready for soundcheck. I assured Paul that I was behind him and that I had his back for the weekend – I don’t think he was expecting to see me, and certainly wasn’t expecting me to be there in a working capacity, so I think he was (at the least) relieved on that level. I won’t make any assumptions about whether he was happy to see me or not, but he sure seemed to be.

Rusty and I went over the technical particulars for the weekend – instrument changes, tuning, signal flow and the like – and reviewed the setlist. There’d be an initial set with the current band, and then after a short intermission and stage plot change, then Paul would come up, joined later by George who’d be playing drums on one song…we got all our traffic control details worked out, and they started soundcheck.

Why steal a setlist when you can just take a photo?

George and Paul both hung in patiently while the core band worked out monitor levels and the like, and then Paul came up to work through some of the songs he was doing: Indian Summer, Magnolia, Heart of the Night, Legend, Under the Gun, Bad Weather – it was as if I’d made the damn setlist myself.

As they played through the set, I remembered sitting in the audience in Lancaster, PA at the American Music Theater – it was a show they’d done with America right after Paul had come back from his health crisis during their then-recent European run, when we were all legitimately worried that Paul might not be coming back at all. They played Magnolia as I sat there in the audience, in the dark, with tears streaming down my face – thinking about how very close I had come to never hearing that song again the way I’d always heard it. That moment was some fifteen years past now, and there sat Paul Cotton right in front of me…again, after all these years, reminding me of two very important things:

  1. Never say never.

2. Don’t ever take things for granted that may not pass this way again.

Claudia’s ghost was hanging heavy in the air for me the entire weekend, alongside Naomi Elkins and several other folks who’ve fallen off this plane of existence in the time since I came into this eccentric group of music loving geeks over twenty years ago. As such, it was hard not to think on an almost constant basis – how many more of these do we have in us? Will this be the last time I ever hear these songs from these people again? Paul and George, specifically, who’ve had pretty public health issues over the years – how many more shows could they have in their tank?

Grantham, Sundrud, Young and Cotton – Friday night show

After Friday nights’ show, we went back to the hotel to a dining room full of Poconuts, and I stayed up until the last of us left at around 2am – the Leavys, the Behlkes and myself. I got to my room and couldn’t sleep…I had my laptop and a couple of notebooks in my bag, so I started scribbling in one of my lyric books. I thought of the notion of mashing up as many Poco lyrics as I could into a brand new song, just for fun – TV in central Missouri at 2am doesn’t exactly capture the imagination, and I was completely distracted by everything I’d been thinking all day long. Russell Hammond’s words to William Miller in Almost Famous came back to me:

“…This is the circus. Everybody’s trying not to go home.”

The first four lines were pretty easy:

In every day that passes us by
Indian summers, come and gone
I can still hear that nightbird’s cry
Singing straight on through until the dawn

The next four, though, came from somewhere else:

Now, none of us are young men anymore
Can’t ignore the writing on the wall
Maybe that’s what the stories and the songs are for
A chance to take our eyes off of the ball

Now this had turned from a fun little exercise into an actual song…

So many years have passed, but I still wanna hear that sound
I wanna make it last, another time around
Sing a picture of the days gone by, with a gentle aging hand
Because tonight, my friends, all of us are living in the band

This much of the song had taken maybe ten minutes. I didn’t have an instrument with me, I was writing words for a melody in my head at the moment…but the words started writing themselves – a healthy dose of outright theft of Poco lyrics, tied together with whatever I needed to add to clarify where I was going with this love letter to the band and to the friends I’d met along the road who shared this irrational love for these musicians, these records, these songs that bound all of us together.

In the beginning, not so long ago
For a thirteen year old kid from Tennessee
There was just a little magic in that music they were singing
And I could hear them calling out to me

They left a trail of love and glory
As they crossed the southern sky
My life would be a sadly different story
If that harmony had somehow passed me by…

I added a slightly amended repeat of the chorus and a tag line…a repeat of the last line of the last chorus –

“..because tonight, my friends, what’s left of us – are living in the band.”

It’s both deceptive and disingenuous to take credit for writing the song, as the majority of the lines of the song are either direct lifts from Poco songs, or heavily – HEAVILY – paraphrased versions of lines from Poco songs…my job was essentially to put them in order and add what I needed to add to tell my story.

Lex Browning, George Grantham, Paul Cotton, Rusty Young and Jack Sundrud at soundcheck

I was absolutely certain that I’d forget how it went by the time I woke up the next day. We stopped for a bite to eat on the way to the venue the following afternoon and once I got the stage set, I grabbed Rusty’s acoustic guitar and hunkered down in the green room and recorded a demo of it so I’d have a record of the song (while Lex busily went about working on his pedalboard next to me).

They didn’t play Bad Weather the previous night, and I wasn’t sure whether they’d bother to add it the second night or not – the first night had been a little ragged in spots in the second set, and I wasn’t sure how that would end up informing the set on Saturday night.

I saw Paul briefly before we dropped the house lights and made sure he had everything he needed, checked off everything I needed him to know – your guitars are tuned, your pedals are powered up, your amp is all set, and I’m ten feet away if you need me. Caroline, his wife, handed me his glasses (which he hates) and I gave him a hug and told him I loved him and we took a photo together before the show started.

Rusty and I had gone over the set – there’d be a couple of changes from the night before, nothing major, just be alert and ready for whatever might end up happening. We double and triple-checked the signal from his acoustic guitar, which had dropped out during the Friday show…it was fine a mere 30 minutes before the show, but we ended up losing the signal again on Saturday night (happy ending: we figured out what the problem was).

The current lineup’s set at the beginning of the night was just plain badass. There’s definitely an alchemy with this group of guys, and it makes me happy to see it. We broke for the second half, I moved the pedal steel into place, struck the dobro and got everything ready…Paul came out and did Magnolia, Indian Summer and Under the Gun in a straight shot. I thought they were going to bring George up next for Child’s Claim to Fame, but Rusty called me over to ask where the clipboard was (I had put it on top of one of the speaker columns to keep fans from stealing the setlists) – he had made a chart for Bad Weather as a safety net (he hadn’t played it in well over a decade by this point, so that made sense)…

….they were gonna do Bad Weather. Just Rusty and Paul.

I checked in with Paul – he was originally going to play it on acoustic when we ran it at soundcheck, but he decided to stay with the Gretsch…I patted him on the back and got out of the way.

I walked over to the side of the stage and got my phone out and recorded it from my vantage point at the side of the stage and tried to hold the camera still without letting everything I was feeling wash completely over me. The first time I opened for the band (over twenty years ago), we all went back to the bed and breakfast that the band was staying in, and Paul played that song in the hotel bar while I sang harmony with him at God-knows-what-time in the morning. That song is in my DNA, and while Paul maintains ownership of it…it’s not complete without Rusty playing steel on it. For years, it was Paul’s solo moment in the set, and I understand that. But that song, in my mind, will always be the sum of those two parts. And again, I couldn’t get out from under the notion that had hung over my head the entire weekend…

…this could be the last time.

Could this be the last performance of Bad Weather with Rusty and Paul? Could this be the last time George sits in on the drums for Childs’ Claim to Fame?

George Grantham – the backbone of the group – as Rick Lonow looks on from the wings.

I know how fatalistic all this sounds. And this is something of a new outlook for me that seems to have descended on me within the past year or so – perhaps as a result of the rash of tragedy that’s passed by my window in that time. I typically don’t dwell on these things. Certainly, fate could well dictate that this could be the last time I post anything on my journal…tonight could be the last time I watch my youngest son dress up for Halloween. The unfinished songs on the hard drive in my studio downstairs could be the last songs I record. None of us knows how long we’ll be here, and we don’t get to know the answer to those questions. Faced with all this, though – I choose gratitude over some morose preoccupation with the darker side of it all. I got to be in the room for all this, and I’ve lived over half my life in the company of this band, this music, and these people.

Curtain call: George Grantham, Paul Cotton, Rusty Young, Rick Lonow, Jack Sundrud

I can’t help but feel like Claudia was tapping me on the shoulder the entire weekend, reminding me to soak this in, because you just never know.

You just never know.

George Grantham and Jack Sundrud after the Saturday night show at Wildwood Springs

After the show that night, I said my goodbyes to Paul and Caroline and we packed up the stage and loaded everything to get ready for the drive back the following day and we went back to the hotel…

…to another dining room full of Poconuts.

Keith Leavy, Rick Lonow, and Bob Behlke

And no, there was no way I was going straight up to my room. I was gonna stay there with George and Debbie, with Jack and Rick and Lex and the Poconut family who’d travelled from Seattle and New York and Eastern PA and any number of places in between and celebrate the weekend. Jack had brought his guitar inside, so I asked him if it was OK for me to play a song.

I got out my notebook and played “Wildwood” for the first time, for the absolute perfect audience…the best of all possible debut scenarios for what I’d co-written with my unwitting collaborators.

“…sing a picture of the days gone by
these crazy lovers understand
because tonight, my friends, all of us – are living in the band…
yes tonight, my friends, what’s left of us…are living in the band…”

Mugging with Paul before starting the second set

May we all someday arrive back here…at the beginning…not so long ago.

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.

Solo Acoustic show, opening for Michael Martin Murphey at Sellersville Theater

for those keeping track, this would be show number 37 for me at Sellersville Theater – but who’s counting, right?

soundcheck - longer than usual, even - before the MMM show at Sellersville.
soundcheck – longer than usual, even – before the MMM show at Sellersville.

one thing that had been unbeknownst to me prior to walking into the theater was that WHYY (the philly PBS affiliate) was there that night, taping the headliners’ show for their series, On Canvas – which made me chuckle somewhat, since i had been looking all over the house earlier that day trying to find my videocamera so i could record some footage to put up on my YouTube channel.   (turned out, that wouldn’t have gone over very well, anyway…under the circumstances.)

there were going to be photos taken that night, and that inspired a truly comical exchange between dylan, christie and i before we’d ever left the house – over what combination of shirts i should wear for the show.  we settled on something that dylan had fetched from my closet that wasn’t even initially in the running…and it was actually a good call, in retrospect, but good as i might’ve looked in it, it mattered not – because due to the whole “TV shoot” situation, darrell (the photographer) wasn’t really able to move around during the show, and could only shoot from his seat – which was right down front…and didn’t make for the best angle to photograph a dude with a thick neck who looks down a lot while playing.  🙂

as it turned out, darrell got all his best shots during soundcheck – as i stood there on stage wearing one of my favorite old ringer t-shirts with my hair flopping down around my shoulders – but they were great shots.  not necessarily transformative, but they looked like me.  darrell’s photos of me are some of the only photos i’ve seen of myself that don’t make me uncomfortable.  i’m as aware – maybe more aware – than most anyone else of my assets and shortcomings, and i certainly know what my attributes are and aren’t…and darrell’s photos aren’t overly flattering, nor are they hard for me to look at.   i’m not terribly fond of looking at photos of myself typically, but i don’t mind his so much.

(i know that might not sound like an endorsement, but trust me – it is.)  🙂

listening intently to the front-fill wedges...soundcheck at Sellersville
listening intently to the front-fill wedges…soundcheck at Sellersville

anyway – because of the TV taping, there was a lot going on on the technical side of things, Dan Faga (the soundman/technical director) asked me to keep playing well after my soundcheck was finished…so i ended up playing most of my set and then a few more while they worked on levels, got the signal out to the truck and such.  in fact, i think my soundcheck was actually longer than my set was – but i kept playing while darrell snapped away and they worked out the kinks behind the scenes.

i finally stopped playing around fifteen minutes before the doors opened, and went upstairs to the green room – my friend rob nagy had arrived and was listening to my soundcheck, and my buddy skip bellus (a friend from the MTB run) had driven down for the show as well…so we all gathered in the green room for a visit, and bruce ranes (the talent buyer/agent) stopped up for a visit as well, and darrell came up and shared the soundcheck photos with christie.   it was good to have a handful of friends around, almost as much as it was to have a sizable crowd to play for.

i’d left everything on the stage, so when i wandered up to take the stage, everything was in place, plugged in and ready to go – i wandered up,

hey...had to get the shirt in here somewhere, ya know.
hey…had to get the shirt in here somewhere, ya know.

did my five to six songs (which seemed to fly by, as they typically do for opening sets), and quickly stowed my stuff behind the curtain so i could get out to the lobby and take advantage of the intermission face-time with the folks in the crowd – we sold a few CD’s, got a few names on the mailing list, and shook a lot of hands before the headliner came on…and while i was tempted to head down into the theater to listen for a while, i ended up heading back up to the green room to hang out with rob, skip and christie for a big chunk of the rest of the night.  we wandered downstairs at one point to find that there was some sort of impromptu intermission that had come up…we both initially thought the show was over, and that we’d totally screwed up our opportunity to press the flesh after the show, but it turned out not to be the case, so we stayed downstairs for the rest of the show (and got to know the On Canvas folks, who were very kind and encouraging as well).

by the time everyone had filed out to head home, it had gotten rather late – nearly one in the morning by the time i’d gotten home, and poor christie – she had another nearly two hours to go yet, and got home around three or so.

good night, though, overall….for number thirty-seven.

with Craig Bickhardt at Deer Creek Coffeehouse in Darlington, MD

 

so i called my hetero life mate – tommy geddes – to see if we could carpool for this one (since we’re down to one car at my house these days, it would be a load off my mind not to have to worry about being gone all day and leaving the gang without transport…it’s been interesting, to say the least, coordinating life these days where commuting and such is concerned, but that’s a whole ‘nother story. ) – we decided to leave around 4:30 or so, and i brought TG & the guys copies of the rough mixes from the record that i’d completed up to that point.

neither of us had played this room before (nor had craig, so far as i knew), so we weren’t sure what to expect from the room or the audience – and since i was a guest of tommys’ for the ride there and back, i chose to travel somewhat lightly…i brought the mandolin, the dobro, and the weissenborn, and decided i was going direct for the show and left my amp (and the baritone guitar, and the lap steel, etc) at home.

i LOVE playing the weissenborn – but i’ve always struggled a little with it in live settings…and i could wonder aloud about that endlessly, but i’ve settled on a theory of sorts.

if you’ve heard the instrument and you’re familiar with the sound of the weissenborn, then you probably recognize it immediately – it sounds like an acoustic guitar, but it doesn’t…it sounds like a dobro, but it doesn’t.  the fact is, it doesn’t really sound like anything but itself.  BUT – it sounds enough like an acoustic guitar that it’s very easy to have them conflict and overlap with one another when one is accompanying the other – so you really, really have to tread carefully with the weissenborn when you’re accompanying the acoustic guitar.

i’m sure david lindley figured this shit out ages ago…but we all gotta learn our own way, i suppose. 🙂

i was pleasantly surprised with how well everything translated through a single channel of the PA, where those three instruments were concerned – i had the Fishman Jerry Douglas Aura pedal for the dobro, but had it running through the effects loop built into my active DI box, so i could bring it into the circuit when I was playing the dobro and bypass it for the other instruments…i was also a little blown away by how good the mando and the weissenborn sounded through the same channel, with the same EQ chain.   that was especially odd to me since one had a piezo pickup and the other had a magnetic soundhole pickup…but you wouldn’t have known it from listening to it through the wedges.

craig was still struggling a bit with his voice – and had been for some time – but it seemed as though he was on the other side of it, when he sang.  he still had a bit of a cough, but his throat held up for the show just fine.

tommy had posted something on facebook about the show, and had tagged greg and jen keller in the post in a lighthearted attempt to shame them into driving over from mount airy (in the vicinity of frederick) – and i’ll be damned if they didn’t come out.  they were the only faces in the crowd that we knew, which was interesting – it was a small room, maybe a capacity of 55 or 60, and it was roughly two-thirds full, but most of the folks who were there were regulars of the coffeehouse who’d come out because they were affiliated with the church that ran the coffeehouse or perhaps because that’s just what they did on weekends – but they were very kind and welcoming.  we played two sets with an intermission, and had a solid night, all things considered.

tommy and i rode back listening to the rough mixes from the record – some of them are verrrry close to being finished, others are still a little perplexing…but i’m workin’ on it.  🙂

 

at Sellersville Theater with Skip Denenberg

show number 36 for me at Sellersville Theater, in both headlining and support capacities, either solo or backing one of nine (!!) different artists i’ve appeared with there.

it’d also be the first time on the bill with the Marshall Tucker boys since we parted ways back in September – although i’ve been in touch with a couple of the guys via text once in a great, great while – but haven’t seen any of them since the York Fair show.

skip had submitted himself as an acoustic duo, but added dan faga on bass after the fact – and had tried to sneak a drummer onto the bill as well, but was predictably met with the obligatory stop sign.  i had tried to tell him when the subject came up that the stage was too small for support backline with all the MTB stuff set up, but sometimes ya just gotta find these things out for yourself. 🙂

we hadn’t had an opportunity to rehearse prior to the show, but most of the songs in the set were songs we’d played together before – so it was just a matter of running them in the green room prior to the show, really.   no sweat.

we coordinated transportation with our Sargeant-at-Arms, Mark Shultz, and drove up together – and got there well before we were expected, and certainly well before they were ready for us…so we walked upstairs to the green room and unpacked and ran through some of the songs while we waited for someone to come retrieve us for soundcheck.   the customary sandwiches came in and we had already run the set through once before it was time to head down to the stage.

we headed down and i ran into Keith and Daryl almost immediately, but barely exchanged small talk during soundcheck – Dibby came up behind me after we’d all but wrapped up and gave me a bear hug and asked if i’d brought my steel and my amp…and i said no, of course i didn’t – i hadn’t heard from anyone and i wasn’t going to chase anyone down – he seemed to be under the impression that i was going to be joining them that night, but it was literally the first i’d heard of it.

oh, well.  shit happens.

onstage with Skip Denenberg and Dan Faga in Sellersville, 2013.
onstage with Skip Denenberg and Dan Faga in Sellersville, 2013.

at any rate, we went back upstairs to wait for the call for showtime and hung out with a few friends who’d come up to visit, but we were back downstairs on the stage in a few minutes.  for this set, i was playing mandolin on every song but one…and that one was a dobro song.  i was travelling light, and it made for a quick tear-down after we were finished.  in fact, i was probably packed up and ready to walk out the door within five minutes.  the only other person i saw the whole night was chris hicks, who poked his head up the steps and waved at me for a moment in between songs and was gone just as quickly.

after we finished up, i was back upstairs in the green room in less than ten minutes.

back upstairs, we sat around and talked for the entire length of the show…i walked downstairs right after the first song at the point in the setlist where “fire on the mountain” usually is, but they went straight to “take the highway” and i walked back upstairs for the rest of the night – a buddy had brought me brownies that his daughter had made for me for Christmas, and i didn’t want to pull him out of the show, so we hung out until afterward….we were on the road by 11:30 or so.

on the road and in the round: craig bickhardt, don henry, michael johnson and lizanne knott

y’know, i can still remember the very first time that craig bickhardt and i played together.  it was at chaplin’s in spring city, pa – we were doing a songwriter’s round, and i was there because skip denenberg and jim femino brought me along.  at the time, jim was developing an artist who was also on the bill named kassie miller, and he’d recruited me to back her instrumentally.   when jim was doing the rounds, he set the room up bluebird cafe style – with a table and a large lamp right in the middle of the floor, with everyone around the table…and tables and chairs were actually set up on the stage to minimize the impact of the stage and make the whole space feel like a stageless room that could’ve passed for someone’s den.

at chaplins' with craig bickhardt, jim femino, skip denenberg and kassie miller, 2007.
at chaplins’ with craig bickhardt, jim femino, skip denenberg and kassie miller, 2007.

craig and i kinda latched onto one another at that point, and we’ve worked together ever since – both with me backing him instrumentally under his own name, and then later as a full member of a side project he’d undertaken with poco bassist jack sundrud called idlewheel.

craig’s songs are understatedly elegant, and while they’re not terribly complex, they are a challenge to play properly – which is to say, there’s definitely a line of delineation between overplaying and playing what’s appropriate for the song.  his music requires a certain understanding of how much is enough, and how much is too much.  it’s not a gig for everybody…but that’s one of the things i love about playing with him.  if you understand that simple concept, you’ll look like a genius playing next to him – whether the description is accurate or not.

craig has also opened some doors and there are relationships that i’ve formed as a result of my association with him that would not have come about otherwise – many of them through the “On The Road and In The Round” shows we’ve done.  stellar writers and performers like don henry, julie gold, thom schuyler, jim photoglo, and others have done these shows with us – alongside great local talent like jd malone and lizanne knott…and i’ve gotten a lot of opportunities to join the crew and back everyone on the bill for a lot of these shows, and while the “trial under fire” aspect might be scary at times, it’s also a bit of an adrenaline rush.  and, thankfully, thus far there’ve been no complaints.

for this show, there was some new blood along for the ride – michael johnson, of “bluer than blue”, “this night won’t last forever”, “give me wings” and “that’s that” fame.  (fun facts:  michael johnson was the first guy in nashville to give jack sundrud a gig as a bassist.  also, “give me wings” was my ex-mother-in-law’s favorite song for many years.)

back row: tommy geddes, michael johnson, don henry front row: tom hampton, lizanne knott, craig bickhardt
back row: tommy geddes, michael johnson, don henry
front row: tom hampton, lizanne knott, craig bickhardt

i had never met or played with michael, but don henry was joining us along with craig and lizanne knott, so michael was the only unfamiliar face on the bill – and i was pretty sure that we’d all be ok…and i know when to play and when to sit back and fold my hands in my lap, so i had that going for me too – along with the fact that i was on my home turf, on stage at sellersville theater.

craig, don and lizanne were their usual entertaining, funny and brilliant selves – and michael was a great fit in every one of the same categories, as well.  he’s a great player, for one thing – sticks to nylon string guitar, a wonderful fingerstyle player…and played some funny parodies of standards like “you make me feel so…so” – and to the tune of “blue bayou“, he did a song about a toupee called “blew by you“.  but i did get to sing the high harmony to “bluer than blue“, and i got to play “beautiful goodbye” with don henry with his co-writer, mike moran, in the audience, as well as don’s song “all kinds of kinds” (a recent number one for miranda lambert) – and the usual assortment of awesome bickhardt songs, closing the show as we often do with “this old house” and “if he came back again“.

i don’t think i’d ever brought the pedal steel out to one of the OTRAITR shows, but i fixed that for this gig – it was lap steel, pedal steel, mandolin and baritone guitar…and ran it all through the princeton reverb, turned with the speaker pointed towards the curtain behind us.  it would be this particular night that the reverb would decide not to work, though.  (note to self:  stop procrastinating and get the new pedalboard worked out yesterday.)

with jd malone and the experts, steel city coffeehouse, phoenixville PA

so it had been, as they say, a while.

 

the steel city gigs have always been jd malone‘s hometown shows – and we’ve always done well there, and this show was no exception.  a great crowd with lots of friendly faces – oh, and it was carolyn’s (jd’s wife) birthday, so that didn’t hurt, either.

the opener was a young guy from north carolina named sam lewis – usually, the opener gets drowned out by conversation and laughter in the green room…only because that’s inevitable when this crew is all in the same place.  now, i’m not saying there wasn’t plenty of both, but sam was an undeniable talent, and i sure did enjoy his set.  super nice guy, as well.  he was actually touring via Amtrak – taking whatever form of transportation he could get to the gig, which had to have been an interesting twist…i can vaguely remember being young enough to have the gumption to try something like that, but it seems so very long ago now. 🙂

dylan and jayda both came to the show, as did wendy – who cut a deal with carolyn’s kids to hang out with danny so she could get a night off to come out and hang out with grownups.

now, it’s been quite some time since i’ve bothered to update my perpetual life story, here – and to say that much has happened in the time since would be an understatement akin to calling World War II a “territorial conflict”.

a lot has happened since we last spoke.  a LOT.

and, frankly, it’s only been a few weeks since i had largely resigned myself to the notion that i might not be speaking with either of my older children again for quite some time, if ever.  things had soured that much.  i’m not certain right now to what extent the ship has righted itself, but it was good to have them both there that night, to say the least.  even if all the debris from the summer hasn’t washed away yet.

ANYway…

the last time we played this room, i brought “the toaster” – my ’57 gibson GA-20T amplifier.  i was promptly washed out and almost inaudible for the show.  i had it turned up waaaay past its’ sweet spot, and it didn’t respond particularly well.  i was thinking about bringing my deluxe reverb this time around, but with everybody riding together, space was at a premium.  so, i figured, the princeton did so well on the denver shows with boris garcia last year, maybe it wouldn’t be completely out of line to give it a crack at this gig.  plus, with the space issue being what it was, i didn’t bring the banjo, the 12 string electric, or any of the other toys – it was lap steel, baritone guitar, and mandolin and that was it.  so you could say i was travelling uncharacteristically light for this gig, and i figured that if worse came to worse, i could use one of the backline amps from the green room…which i always seem to forget about until i go downstairs to stow my cases and see them there. 🙂

JDjaydaSCCH3
jayda hampton onstage with jd malone and the experts, november 2013

well, the princeton made its daddy proud – i had it on 5 most of the night, and it sounded amazing – especially on the lap steel.  that’s definitely its’ sweet spot for that instrument.  the band was, this time as it was last time, pretty loud for a room that size.  i don’t know how many other acts that play that room are as loud as we are/were, but we shook the rafters, for sure.

jd debuted a few new songs during the show, with my personal favorite being if you pray…but we also shook up window painted blue quite a bit, as well.  i had made up my mind that there really wasn’t going to be an arrangement of that song that both he and i were gonna be happy with, but he proved me wrong.  and of course, jayda got up with us to sing black yodel and leave us alone…i couldn’t hear her vocal at all on the latter, and for a while thought that maybe she’d been doubling my part until the bridge came around and the dynamic died down enough that i could actually hear her voice.

jayda and JD singing "black yodel"
jayda and JD singing “black yodel”

next gig i have on the books with the guys will be burlap and bean later this winter.