Saturday, August 12, 2017

Field Recordings

A non-native species is easy to spot in the wild.

After dinner in service of my hired mouth, my date suggested a foray to Forest Hills and a place called Cafe Zata to see some friends of his playing in a band called the Free Rangers. And while I'd heard of Zata, I had no clue where exactly it was or even what it was.

For us city dwellers, this sort of outing is what is known as field experimentation.

He warned me that every time he'd been to Zata, there were more people playing on stage than seated in the generous, high-ceilinged room. At least he did until we walked in and he had to eat his words since practically every chair and stool had a butt in it and lines snaked from the service counter and bar.

I was assigned to find perches for us while he set out to procure wine and almost immediately I heard my name called out. It was the landscape architect for whom I'd ghost-written a few articles, but more importantly, she's lately been posting old photos on Facebook of her, her friends and her Mom in vintage bathing suits.

Well, not vintage at the time the pictures were taken, but definitely dated looking now in a charming late '50s, early '60s way that predated the youth revolution and the swingin' '60s. She was thrilled that I'd taken notice of her youthful fashion choices.

I'd scored us stools at the end of the bar with a fine view of the band, who seemed to have a chicken theme - on their sign, on the stage and next to the old suitcase housing their CDs for sale - because, well, Free Rangers, get it?

I met a charming couple, friends of my date, who both teach at UR while he's also a musician. Looking around the room, I observed a lot of Friday night date action going on, albeit mostly middle-aged couples whom I'm willing to guess lived in the neighborhood. A bottle or two of wine graced most tables.

Then it happened. I couldn't have been more surprised (or pleased) when my former Jackson Ward neighbor showed up in the bar line. For years, he and his wife lived four blocks away from me and we ran into each other at shows and events regularly. I'd been to plenty of their pre-First Friday happy hours.

When they'd moved out there, they'd promised that they'd still be in the city often so we'd still see each other just as frequently. That hasn't happened much at all and I miss their upbeat energy and passion for live music.

He seemed as glad to see me as I was to see him and we wasted no time in catching up. I knew that, like my date, they'd been at Red Wing Roots Music festival, but they'd also gone to FloydFest, where our mutual friends Lobo Marino had played this year. He said local band Dharma Bombs had also played to great success, another band we'd seen together.

We were knee-deep in musical conversation when all of a sudden, he got a perplexed look on his face and said, "Wait, what are you doing here?" Apparently he didn't see Cafe Zata as my natural habitat.

Pointing to my date and introducing them, I explained that we'd come to see his friends play. Not surprisingly, he was also friends with several people in the band and from there, the mutual associations poured forth. The two of them had loads of people in common and not necessarily people I knew, either.

Leaving them to man talk, I headed over to the table where his wife was sitting with friends. Putting my hands over her eyes and making her guess who it was, it didn't take long for her to figure it out and squeal in delight. It had been way too long since we'd last seen each other and she was quick to say she missed me as much as I missed seeing them.

"Remember that time you invited me to iHop for pancake day and I said no?" she asked out of the blue. "I regret that now." I couldn't believe she even remembered - that had been almost 2 years ago while she was between jobs - but it was a terrific starting point for planning something for the near future.

"But I don't think I could keep up with you on your walks," she admitted, holding on to both of my hands. Not to worry, I wanted to plan a get-together to eat, drink and be merry, not walk our asses off.

Besides, I've got a couple people who like that from me.

From behind her came the woman who used to host house shows at her Franklin Street apartment (the one that once housed Mrs. Morton's Tea Room in the brownstone where Mrs. M. lived) and where I'd seen the Honey Dewdrops, Sons of Bill and Haze and Dacey in the candlelit intimacy of her living room.

She, too, has shifted home base and is now ensconced on southside, although she went to great pains to share that she feels lost and cut off on this side of the river. I didn't point out the obvious (move then) because everyone has their own reasons for where they roost. But I certainly understood her point.

She was trying to convey that she, too, was a non-native species here, at least in her soul.

The band - two guitars, bass, dobro - provided plenty of middle-aged entertainment, covering songs by Gram Parsons, Allison Krause and Crystal Gale, doing a song that involved yodeling (now there's a rarely seen skill set) and inciting an audience-wide singalong when they did "Teach Your Children," in addition to original material.

Also, it should be noted, a woman had brought her cowbell and used it liberally to add the requisite cowbell when a song screamed out for it.

And because the bass player and rhythm guitarist were married, there was plenty of banter about what a good cook and guitarist she was (cleaning not so much), what a showboater he was (see; yodeling and white Stetson) and a corny joke about him sucking in his stomach for two hours to be around a bevy of bikini-clad women.

It was all in good fun.

By the time we left, the place had cleared out considerably and we joked about why people had needed to leave before 9:30 on a Friday night. But of course the answer is obvious: this must be the typical sleeping pattern for natives of the area and who am I, an interloper, to judge?

For us, there was still plenty of evening left, so we decamped for his front porch swing, where we were promptly joined by the musician from across the street, guitar in hand. He told us Vespa stories, did a bit of strumming and asked for a summary of the show we'd just seen before disappearing into the darkness.

As we sat there in the sticky air, it suddenly became cool and breezy enough that we both got a chill, only to be followed by a blast of hot, humid air that announced rain.

And oceanfront aside, is there really a better place to watch a gentle summer rain roll in than from the recessed depths of a dark front porch within spitting distance of the river?

Depends on your species, naturally, but it worked for this urban bird.

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