Thursday, June 12, 2008

Zoukfest 08 04: Bringing it all Back Home

Zoukfest 08 Day 04

Yesterday afternoon, O'Shaugnessy Performance Space at the College of Santa Fe, a chilly, high-ceiling room with great acoustics. 24 bouzouki players in concentric circles in a room, instruments in hand and audio recorders at the ready. Luke Plumb, the Aussie mandolin virtuoso who's been solid as a rock for three Zoukfests running, and who's assembled a remarkable, meticulous collection of transcriptions of Planxty's seminal debut, the "Black" album, off to one side, nodding and laughing his distinctive deep chuckle. Roger Landes, commander-in-chief at Zoukfest HQ, sitting next to him, grinning from ear to ear.

And on the stage, 8 feet away from a circle of players some of whom have been imprinting on the Black album for as much as 30 years, Andy Irvine launched into his titanic solo version of "The Plains of Kildare," the tour-de-force that is the opener and the centerpiece of the watershed 1976 Andy Irvine / Paul Brady record.

Nine years of Zoukfest snapped into focus at that moment. Because this, this concatenation of players and instruments and musics and plans and hopes and dreams, was always, in Roger's head (I'm convinced) intended to come to fruition in this way. To put this man, whose music many of us grew up as musicians upon, even while tearing out our hair at its complexity and at the impossibility of hearing everything that was going on in those LPs (not all of us are Luke Plumb, that's for sure), on a stage in front of those beginner and intermediate players. To see them holding their breaths; to see their eyes get bigger; to see their conceptions of the limits upon their instrument shattered. To hear him say, "well, this is my teaching piece. I've taught this piece to so many people: Paul Brady, De Dannan, Gerry O Beirne", and to know the emotional impact upon the students of realizing that they were about to enter the same lineage.

Many years ago I hosted a symposium of West Texas songwriters, during a symposium, and I hit the jackpot with the cast: Jimmie Dale Gilmore, Butch Hancock, Terry Allen, Joe Ely, Delbert McClinton, Jo Carol Pierce, Marshall Crenshaw, and Peter Guralnick as moderator. At one point, someone asked "What is it about West Texas? How come so many great musicians come from there?" It's a common question and all the artists on stage had their own pet answers: Ely said "it's the wind," Terry said: "it's from following the DDT-spraying trucks on our bikes in the '50s."

But the best answer came from Tommy X Hancock, the cowboy dance-band guru who gave Buddy Holly his first gigs, introduced Jimmie Dale to Zen Buddhism, and for 30 years has led his "Supernatural Family Band" at dance-hall gigs around the world.

In response to the question "How did this great music happen here?", Tommy X said simply:

"I think it's luck. Or maybe Grace."

That is the motherfuckin' truth.

Last night's concerts brought more of that same grace: the goofy, gentle poetry of Stanley Greenthal's stage presence, the generosity and selflessness with which he played guitar, lavta, and lauoto (and, as a bonus, covered what is surely one of Robin Williamson's most beautiful love songs), joined by wife Kip and Zoukfest stalwarts Polly Ferber (percussion) and Paul Brown (double bass). There is so little ego in Stanley's stage presentation that it's almost as if he's standing next to the stage himself as he plays, equally humbled by and grateful for the beauty of the music as is the audience. For a man of such comic self-deprecatory skills (ask him sometime about his gypsy-jazz guitarist alter ego "Ringo Djanghardt"), he plays some firebreathing music nevertheless, and never more so than the closing set from his disc Melodie, for which he was joined by mandolin maestro Landes.

Second set came from Kaila Flexer, bowed-string dynamo, returning for her second Zoukfest in a row, once again wielding her arsenal of Turkish, Greek, and original compositions. Kaila is kind of Zoukfest's Earth Mother, who makes everyone in her classes feel safe; to feel as if they actually can learn and execute the spooky, twisting curlicues of the tunes she brings; to feel that if they love and care about the music with the depth and clarity she does, that music will take them the kinds of places it has brought her. Kaila provided a shout-out to Paul Brown, CSF faculty member, double-bassist, general technology and internet trouble-shooter, describing his printing, editing, chauffeuring, and money-lending for her most recent grant proposal as confirming his status as a "true mensch." Paul is more than a mensch: he's a musician of such depth, humility, and generosity that he makes everyone he plays with sound like that much more of a virtuosa. When I heard Paul play Kaila's tunes with Polly and vocalist Moira Smiley, all I could think of was the great double-bassist Charlie Haden, who found a way to marry the Baptist hymns of his Iowa childhood with the outest-of-out harmonic conceptions of Ornette Coleman. Paul's playing is that deep, that generous, that magical. Kaila was right: he is a true mensch. And she's one too. Kaila makes people safe and loved, just as they are. And then she pushes their musicianship to places they didn't know they had within them.

Third set (after the much-needed potty- and input-break) was mad-Professor Doug Goodhart, who of all the Zoukfest faculty might be persuasively and convincingly dedicated to the widest variety of musics. Cajun accordion, West Virginia long-bow fiddle, 16th century English lute songs, Afro-Cuban clave, Ewe percussion music of Ghana, Irish trad music, and, most crucially, the sheer human joy that links them: they are all grist for Dr Goodhart's mill. Particularly beautiful about Doug's set was that, for all that he commands such a wide diversity of music, he opted to play in more-or-less just one: inviting up the frighteningly brilliant old-time and bluegrass mandolin virtuoso Steve Smith, and our old friend Mason Brown on banjo and guitar, he played a magnificent set of Appalachian fiddle music. It was wonderful, and wonderfully evocative of a certain kind of deep-rooted calm, to hear a whole set of one kind of music, played with the groove, fire, and funk of which it's capable.

There's a certain kind of centering that results from hearing (or playing) simple music well. Those old-time tunes are not complicated, and precisely because they are not, the players--and the audience--can zero in on a whole host of other parameters. Most primordial in this music is simply the question: "does it feel good? Does it make me want to dance, in the face of Satan, hellfire-and-brimstone preachers, poverty, ignorance, and prejudice of all kinds"

Well, as a matter of damned fact: yes it does by-God make us want to dance. Even on the brink of the precipice.

F0urth set was that of Steve Smith, picking-up the baton from where Professor Goodhart put it down. There's a kind of freedom that emerges at the upper limits of virtuosity. Our old friend Dean Magraw could do it (didn't matter how much he'd smoked--in fact, the smoke just relaxed him and made him play with that much freedom); Jimi Hendrix could do it (you never really thought Jimi was worrying about how to execute something--he thought it and he played it), and Steve can do it too. When that level of pure-D technical facility obtains, you're not listening to the technique anymore ("what technique? I'm just thinking out loud over here"); you're hearing the ideas--and, really, the heart and soul and personhood of the player--flowing freely, unimpeded, hearts connecting as one.

[Finishing up at 1:15am--an early night for Zoukfest--after a pretty-much-transcendent concert and interview by the man of the hour. Sometimes, words cannot convey the profundity of an experience. But they can hint at it.]

Yesterday afternoon at O'Shaughnessy hall, watching those 24 bouzouki players as Andy led them, in the kindest and most gentlemanly way possible (the man is a master teacher), into playing something that most of them probably thought they'd never learn--much less learn from him--was to experience what happens when effort, Right Intentions, coming to each other's Aid, and using music as a way to try to help each other become human, all finally reach fruition. It wasn't luck that yielded Zoukfest, Andy's presence, and it wasn't coincidence that provided the tears of pure gratitude in their eyes as they played "The Plains of Kildare."

It was Grace.

It was to know that the life of every single person in that room had been permanently changed and enriched by this man's music, and to feel the pure, almost religious sense of gratitude that he was finally here--that was worth the last nine years.

In fact, it was a bargain.

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