Thursday, October 19, 2017

Reckless Thoughts

It was chilly, no doubt about it, but it was a magical evening to sit outside and listen to sad songs.

There aren't many people who could entice me to the bowels of southside - don't ask me where, I was in no man's land from German School Road on - but Jonathan Vassar and the Badlands have that power over me.

Maybe it's because my appreciation for Jonathan dates back to those first Listening Rooms back in the dark ages of 2009, before Richmond was an "it" town. It didn't hurt that our hostess had invited me to her other house shows, albeit when she was living a quarter mile away in Monroe Ward, and I knew she always creates an exceptional environment for artists to play in.

But mainly it's the wonderful memories I have of a 2010 show that Jonathan and the Speckled Bird had done one evening over on Grace Street, when they'd played music to accompany watching scores of chimney swifts swoop and swerve as they settled down for the night. It had also happened in October and been chilly enough that some of us had to huddle under covers to watch and listen.

Tonight was huddle redux. So with chair, blanket and shawl, I joined friends and strangers for an evening of music outdoors under a blue velvet sky with only a few stars punctuating it.

First came seasonally-appropriate red wine and socializing, which took an unexpected turn not long after Jonathan's sweet dog Dolly began alternating eating grass and vomiting.

Our hostess shared that her former tenants had decided to put down cheap wooden flooring (and poorly, too) over the hardwood floors in one bedroom, prompting someone to observe, "He probably murdered someone and wanted to cover up the blood."

Or the sperm, someone else conjectured. Or blood and sperm, posited another. What our hostess needed was luminol to detect bloodstains, we agreed, like what police use at a crime scene.

While it seemed like a hell of a tangent, we weren't though yet. My former Jackson Ward neighbor said that she'd love to do CSI work, that she'd always been attracted to that sort of thing (a fact confirmed by her friend since age 12), but had also considered being a vet were it not for all the math.

Then she casually mentioned she currently has two fox paws packed in salt in her refrigerator. Naturally, this led to a discussion of why (she plans to integrate them into a sculpture) and how she became interested in tanning but it turned out to be more challenging than she expected.

Her first attempt involved a road kill squirrel. "I cut him too far up the butt," she explained nonchalantly and we roared with laughter. Seems she did a better with the fox that yielded the paws currently in cold storage next to the milk.

Tragic as it was that this conversation had to wind down, the band was ready to begin playing, so I fetched my chair and set up camp between two girlfriends, both singers, and both dating back to the Listening Room days. Dolly was just left of my feet.

With Jonathan on guitar and harmonica, Curtis on pedal steel and Nate on upright bass and harmonies, the trio began with "Oklahoma Rose," with the sound of the instruments wafting on the crisp night air. You could practically see the sustained notes of the pedal steel hanging in front of us and winding their way around the audience.

The visuals, too, were lovely, with the band playing against a backdrop of the brick of the house with candles lining the window sills and twinkle lights strung on potted plants, the deck, the instrument cases, just about everywhere.

For that matter, Jonathan and Nate had a string of lights in their chest pockets, sort of like a lighted pocket square for the occasion.

Songs like "You are Gone" were beautiful and sad - Jonathan doesn't write any other kind - and soon people swayed and moved their heads or leaned into each other as they sat on chairs and blankets around the back yard.

A guy near me passed out hand warmers and I slid one into my glove. Yes, gloves. No judging.

Jonathan said that they were playing the same set they'd played last month at the Bristol Rhythm and Roots Reunion, where he'd been amazed to learn that Bristol's Main Street separates Virginia and Tennessee. Since I'd only learned that fact last month at a moonshine lecture, I could relate.

"If you see a look of pain on my face," he warned us, "It's because my beard got caught in my harmonica holder." Ouch.

Referring to the song, "What I Talk About When I Talk About Us," he joked, "That's as jammy as we get," providing Nate - the bagel-maker extraordinaire who's about to open his own bagel shop - an opening for a bagel joke (he tried).

A song such as "Darken My Door" sounds like it'll be terribly sad, but a lyric like, "Please darken my door, just to be sure that you're nigh" sounds pretty romantic to me. Other times - "When things fall apart, don't let it harden your heart" - he sounded downright hopeful.

We kept it so close to the chest
I always had to second guess

The show had originally been scheduled for last week and been canceled because of a forecast for rain (which never materialized), so Jonathan thanked us for showing up this week despite the chill. "It was too hot last week!" a friend called out, but I disagreed just as vocally. I'd rather be hot.

She who was swaddled next to me concurred. "I could have worn something cuter last week!"

"This feels like fall!" one of the men said, as if that were a good thing.

The band announced that their final song would be "The Truth," after which Jonathan thanked our hostess and said it had been a lot of fun playing these songs and a nearby dog began barking relentlessly, causing Dolly to sit up and stare into the darkness.

I think back to way back when 
All it took was the mention of your name
Change is the only thing that stays the same
It's the only thing

For me, there was no more sublime way to be reminded of that than with music, surrounded by lovers and other strangers outside on an autumn night.

Nevermind the blood stains inside the house.

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