Friday, May 1, 2009

Day four hundred and eighty six ... Sitting at the feet of the giants.

Stravinsky, Brian Eno, Genesis, Return to Forever, and The Mahavishnu Orchestra. 

These are the five artists' records--vinyl records--that Jodi, my girlfriend, brought over to my house on our first "real" date on February 10 of this year.

Those who know who these artists are will surely understand how unusual this grouping is from a typical female music listener's perspective. All except for the Stravinsky fall into a category called "Progressive Rock". This category of music is typically enthusiastically enjoyed by a predominantly male demographic. Not that there aren't plenty of women who like the stuff, it's just a bit unusual.

Those people who know me will undoubtedly understand that this was a biggie--a landmark discovery in my life. A shocker like this doesn't go by without notice--not from a progressive rock geek who grew up wearing out his Mahavishnu John McLaughlin records sporting a Brian Eno t-shirt, while breaking up weed on a Return to Forever gatefold.

Let's just say that things went well mostly from the get go. And when, on February 20, I spied an opportunity to buy two front row center seats to see John McLaughlin and Chick Corea (Mahavishnu Orchestra guitarist and keyboardist for Return to Forever, respectively) and their Five Peace Band live at the Berklee Performance Center in Boston, I just couldn't say no. 

I held on to the tickets and kept my mouth shut for three weeks before I sprang the news on my then new lady friend. When I ceremoniously gave the ticket to her (uncovering post-it note after post-it note revealing the date, seat, and artist, respectively) she nearly fainted.

I knew then that we had a good thing going.

Yesterday--five weeks after giving her the news--we drove to Boston to see this momentous show.

Funny thing though, the tickets, when they arrived in the mail, were not what you might expect to be bringing to a concert. They were not small rectangular pieces of stiff cardboard with perforations on either end. No. Instead, what I pulled out of the Priority Mail envelope was merely two sheets of computer paper with an "e-ticket" printed on them. Basically a bar code with some promotional ads surrounding it. It's enough to make a guy worry, especially when he pays a bit above face value for a ticket whose seat demarcation seems worthy of the most lucky man and woman in the world.

And so, we took our good karma, our I.D.'s, and our two pieces of paper with us in my Subaru as we hit the road like a couple of true badasses.

Between Mapquest, Google Maps, the Berklee website, and our iPhone GPS's, we managed to find the place no problem. We found a cheap lot to park in ($12 max for the night) and headed out into the world.

We ate at a pretty good Indian restaurant right down the street. Then we had some delightful cupcakes at a place Jodi can't believe she didn't see before me. The important thing is one of us saw it.

Yes, I know, they look good. The bottom one had chocolate sauce in the middle. 

I give the joint high marks for the quality of the food. However, the lack of public bathroom will force The Phantom to give the place three out of a potential five stars.

Back to Berklee for a gratuitous couples shot in front of a map of the campus. Then it was off to try our luck at the ticket window with our printed out 8x11's with the name of the show on it and a seat assignment that just smacked of a rip-off.

A fifteen minute wait at the door and we were up to the ticket taker. A couple of people in front of us had the same kind of tickets; most did not. Most people actually had hard, small, official looking tickets. But we advanced, and Jodi gave hers to the guy with the scanner.

It worked!

Next was me and that one worked too! We were in. But now it was time to see if the seats were really "front row center."

They were.

They were the most front row centerest tickets you could possibly expect. Twenty seats on one side of me; nineteen seats on the other side of Jodi. It was unbelievable. And when a guy came up hesitantly, with a ticket in his hand, and asked us what our tickets said, I almost swallowed my gum. But he had the wrong row and I just sat back and took it all in. I smiled. Jodi smiled. And then, of course, we publicly and dramatically high-fived each other.

And then the lights dimmed and the show began.

The applause crept in and swooped the room up as one by one the band made their way to the stage. Kenny Garrett on sax; Christian McBride on bass; Brian Blade on drums; Chick Corea on keys; and the one and only Mahavishnu John McLaughlin, one of the best--if not the best musicians to ever play a stringed instrument on guitar. He approached the front of the middle of the stage--ten feet directly in front of me--and held his instrument up humbly as if to offer it to the audience who were ready to accept, graciously, and unabashedly.

It was time to go.

The photographers crept in from either side to take pictures as they knelt down in front of the front row. I didn't take a lot of pictures, but that was only because the performers were so close and could see anything I was doing that I didn't want to offend them, nor did I want to annoy the people around me.

The music was amazing. Long, intricate, emotional, spider webs of songs that gave each musician space to come out to play. Kenny Garrett, on sax, laid back for the beginnings of most tunes--almost to the point where you forgot he was there--and then he'd step up front and just dive in, weaving string after string of beautiful and dramatic runs and bursts. 

Christian McBride, on bass, just wowed everyone with his amazing low key playing. He was sometimes frenetic but never out of control. He could let a low D rumble and make the whole room shake for a few seconds. He was in control whether on five-string fretless, or stand up double bass.

And Brian Blade, on drums, was unspeakably good. John spoke on an auxiliary microphone a few times during the evening. As he introduced the band one time he said, "And can you believe Brian Blade on drums? I mean, look how skinny he is ... and look at that tiny kit ... "
(my apologies for the fuzzy picture, Brian).

It was pretty funny to hear John speak like that--candidly, and a little more gregariously than I would have expected. Nonetheless, Brian was a whirlwind on the little six or seven piece kit he had on stage left. Moving continuously up and down and side to side, he seemed to be sparring with his drums. It was masterful to watch and simply maddening to try to keep up with.

Chick was stellar as well. Organic sounds flew from his keys. He played some actual acoustic piano, but mostly he played a couple of Yamaha Motif keyboards. I couldn't see him so well with them in the way, but he'd occasionally stand up and get in on the action grooving and smiling a bit

And John was just breathtaking in his mastery of his instrument. 

For twenty-five years I have been in awe of his playing. There are plenty of guitarists that I have managed to replicate, somewhat, in both sound, as well as playing style--Gilmour, Clapton, Page--but McLaughlin has always been the one guy that I could never touch. He is and always has been so unbelievably in tune with the way he conveys his musical passion through his hands via six strings (and occasionally 12, but not tonight). To watch him so close gave me a bit of a better understanding of how he does what he does, but that really doesn't help me in the actual execution department. I have so much to learn to even begin to approach his style, which seems to come from a place where key, time signature, pitch, volume, and tempo are merely tumblers in a safe's lock which only he can open up. They move up and down and around in a seemingly limitless number of combinations, but he can open it up like nothing with a turn of his hand. His band has been taught the combination and have been given permission to enter the world created by his ideas. And, not to downplay Chick, who wrote many of the compositions, but I have a feeling that if asked even Chick would defer to the great Mahavishnu on many levels.

The show was two long sets, with the first one being a little over 90 minutes long. The two headmasters chummed around on stage talking about how they had known each other for 40 years, and how Miles Davis had got them to play together on "In a Silent Way" in 1969. There was way more banter than I expected. Even to the point where Chick talked about how this was the second to last night of the tour that had gone on for months and traveled to so many countries that he couldn't even remember if they had played Hong Kong. He said, "... but tonight is really the last night of the tour ... tomorrow we play in Burlington and we're just going to screw around ... ", which got a nice laugh from the lucky ones in the hall.

He even mentioned how they booked the show in Boston because he has relatives in the area and gave them a little shout out. Earlier--as Jodi and I were waiting in line--a woman with bright red lipstick, big, perfect hair, and hoop earrings was joking amidst a group of similarly well dressed older people (and a few kids) about how "... you'll see ... when Chicky calls my name ... you'll see ...". And so it went.

"Chicky"??  ... how adorable is that? Once again, right place, unbelievably right time.

Being in the front row for this show was a surreal experience for sure. The capacity--which was full--is 1,220. That said, I barely looked behind me more than once. It was so engulfing to be so close with an equal distance to the end of the front row on either side and a mere ten feet to where the giants of this great music stomped their respective feet. 

To be there and to be where I was was one thing, but to be there with Jodi, the most amazing woman I have had the pleasure to have met, felt like there was nothing else that could possibly come close to being as perfect an experience. 

The encore was uplifting, and it felt as if the whole place could have erupted into a dance floor. But this was a jazz show and, of course, we all behaved ourselves. It was uplifting, as I said, but it was also a reverential experience--not one to be taken flippantly--and though a couple of people that had been sitting to our left departed before the encore opening up the seats for a couple of younger dreadlocked kids that might have otherwise been a bit loud, we all just sat there transfixed until the lights came up, the instruments came off, and the giants retreated to the hills of the backstage.

And so, we rose with the other 1,218 people in the hall and I hugged Jodi and expressed my joy for being able to be with someone like herself at an engagement such as this that meant so much to the both of us.

We walked outside and around the corner as if it was understood. We took the corner around the back of the building and there was the big Prevost tour bus. There was about fifteen prog-geeky kids waiting on one side of the entrance way with album covers and Sharpie markers in their hands. The other side was practically unoccupied ...

... so we occupied it.

We waited there for about twenty minutes. I looked at my phone and remarked, "Happy May", to Jodi (May being an important month to me as it holds my birthday, my dear late mother's birthday, as well as Mother's Day in its bookends). The security guard was pretty strict with the kids in t-shirts and cargo pants; he left us alone. It's funny what you can get away in a little formal wear.

It was 12:01.

This was the scene directly across from us:

Kenny Garrett was the first to exit. He came out with both hands full--classic. Nobody was going to make him put his stuff down; he looked like a busy dude.

Brian Blade came next. He ended up talking to a couple of people who he knew that, I think, were from New Orleans (Brian is from Shreveport). We shook his hand and thanked him for a great show. Jodi got his autograph and I, for some strange reason, didn't.

Christian McBride came out after that and signed both of our playbills. A really nervous dude (who you can see in the far left against the wall) had a bunch of albums with papers and posters in the jackets that he couldn't get straight and ended up having Christian sign an album he didn't play on, I think.

There was the appropriate amount of suspense as we waited for the stars to appear from the tiny backstage door. I squeezed Jodi's hand each time it opened. It opened a few times with roadies and press people exiting.

Then it opened for real ...

John McLaughlin came out a few feet and was swarmed by the people in the above picture. One guy had five or six things that he had John sign. A couple of kids--real cute, like, fourteen year old guitar players--asked for his autograph. Then he finished with the immediate crowd and came our way.

I swallowed hard and cracked my knuckles.

"I'm a huge fan from a long time back, John," I said. He shook my hand and asked me my name; I told him. 

Then I said, "... and this is my girlfriend, Jodi. She loves your music as much as I do." 

"Well, hello Jodi," he said, "nice to meet you."

And Jodi shook his hand and said gently but proudly, "... I'm the only woman who listens to your music ..."

John McLaughlin smiled and stared at her. There was a bit of an awkward pause as he thought of how to react to that strange statement. Then he said, "You mean most women don't listen to real jazz, eh?" And he kind of chuckled.

Holy shit! I couldn't believe it. He knows he's the man! He knows!

And what's more, he gave us a freaking anecdote.

Mahavishnu John McLaughlin--possibly the world's greatest guitarist--said, "You know, you'd be surprised ... there's an old couple in England, that I'm friends with, who sit around in their house coats and slippers and just love it, you know. They just get far out and put on my tunes. There's a few women out there that enjoy it. Not many though."

And I just smiled at Jodi who was beaming and somehow managing to keep herself together.

"Could I get a picture with you John?," I said.

"Well ... I don't see why not ... everybody else does!"

And I put my arm around him--between his head and the guitar that he had in a gig bag strapped to his back--and pulled him in close. Jodi aimed my camera at the two of us ...

... as I hugged a giant.

And through it all--amidst the melee--I could see from the backstage door the unmistakable curly gray hair of the other guy in big letters on the bill, Chick Corea, who had managed to use his bandmate's fame and flurry of excitement to sneak by and get onto the bus without much fuss. I bet he's done it before.

As John was following suit, and getting aboard the giant hissing tour bus, one of the teenage kids approached him and I heard him ask:

"John ... um ... do you remember giving Jimmy Page lessons ... ?"

John just looked at him and smiled, as he stepped aboard, and said after a thoughtful pause, "Unbelievable, isn't it?"

And who could argue with that?

There was a man who was standing with us who was nearer our age. He was a big fan as well. Jodi asked him to take our picture together.

And as he handed the camera back to us he mentioned how it even had the tour bus pulling away in the distance. It's a nice pic, don't you think?

As I post this blog, on Friday, May 1 at 8:45 pm., the band is in the beginning stages of the last show of their world tour. Thousands of fans from around the globe have marveled at the passion, skill, virtuosity, and imagination that these five men have created. It goes beyond styles or studies, temperament and patience, and cuts right to the heart of why we do what we do. 

I believe that we, as humans, are on a never ending quest to express how we view the world and what we feel emotionally inside us to the rest of everyone we meet. Some of us can and do and, in the process, make the world a better place; some of us can not or will not and, in the process, either do harm, or sometimes, even worse, do nothing.

Tonight 1,218 people behind me watched in awe and participated in heightened emotion and powerful reverence. The woman who sat to my left made me feel like I have made every right decision, and, feeling that strongly hope I can continue to live life as such. The five giants directly in front of me gave me everything I needed to truly believe that music is the most common tool that can be implemented, and that there are some whose methods go beyond mere mortal skill and verge on tapping the energy and inspiration from outside the earth's opaque and insular sheath.

There are five records that sit together in my collection. They have laid tight next to one another for eight days shy of three months. They, together, symbolize my new bond with another. It, to me, signifies that there is a grand box of surprising connections within everyone's grasp--one that may have lettering which seems unfamiliar or confusingly unique. These records are the five that Jodi brought over on that precious night when my eyes started to work again. And, as if I were asked to pick two cards out of the deck, we, last night, laid witness to two of those artists that we so both love and revere, making them even more special in our lives as we do the same for each other.

Thanks for reading.


PS: My grandfather, Alex, had many stories. One of his favorites involved going to see Don Rickles in concert many years ago. He went to the backstage door after the show and knocked. When the bouncer opened up and asked what he wanted, my grandfather said, "Could you tell Don that Alex Johnson from Fall River is here?" The story went that the bouncer went and told Don, who immediately came out and hugged my grandfather and palled around with him for a few minutes before giving him an autograph. They did not know each other, and had never met before.

It's funny what a little confidence will get you.

Thanks Gramps. I miss you.

1 comment:

Running Hard Out Of Muskrat Flats said...

I'm telling you ... It was the suit. Okay maybe not.

One the first lessons in journalism my father taught me was, no matter what, always act like you are supposed to be there. This came from having to cover many events for which he had no credentials combined with an unwillingness to pay at the gate. A good lesson in confidence.

Excellent post! It was my pleasure that you and Jodi made it to both of my shows yesterday. I think the band is going to be called the Big Gulps. At least that was the last consensus. Nice job, again, on your post. Talk to you soon.