12 July, 2008

Taking Flight With Blackbird Raum... "Cause & Effect" Magazine, July 2008

“Drink wine, this is Life Eternal.
This, all that youth will give you.
It is the season for wine, roses, and drunken friends.
Be happy for this Moment; this moment is your life.”

-Omar Khayyám



It’s the last day of my weekend, meaning it’s all downhill from here. From the big front window, I observe my poor garden flowers being choked-out by those damn early-spring weeds, but the weeds are winning the battle today—just coming out of my winter weariness, I’m much too lazy to deal with choking flowers. I have only the energy to stare back at them from the couch and send them good vibes... “Be strong! You can do it! Just get through today, and I promise I’ll have your back tomorrow.” I offer them an encouraging thumbs-up, and in response a worn-out pink snapdragon flips me off in disgust.

Ignoring the gesture and the anthropomorphic drama playing out, I turn my gaze to the park across the street and the usual goings on. Children pulling reluctant dogs through the grass, homeless sun bathers, young couples contorting themselves to cuddle whilst enjoying their picnics, Frisbee players, and the random body asleep beneath the billowing, languid trees. Often these sleeping bodies are found near an overturned bike, as though it was just too much to go on and they had to jump off mid-peddle to grab a nap. Under the huge gazebo centerpiece, a few young men sit along the railing and pluck softly at acoustic instruments, providing an aptly half-assed soundtrack to the day’s lackadaisical events. All in all, a typical Sunday in Mitchell Park.

A half-hour later, I at last muster the enthusiasm to walk two blocks to the grocery store, my regular Sunday chore. Cutting through the park on my way home, I hear a vaguely bluesy music and marvel, impressed by the acoustics of that little AM/FM radio the bums sometimes huddle around. But as I approach the gazebo, it becomes clear that the little radio is not responsible for this at all. A handful of tattered musicians and their equally tattered instruments emit something completely unexpected, and completely out of the ordinary here: music. Real music. Something at once soulful and light-hearted, it’s so good it stops me in my tracks. And I’m not the only one. About two-dozen spectators are slowly creeping toward the impromptu concert. Even the napping cyclists are sitting up to take notice. I’ve stumbled upon the very first chords of something truly special, and the opportunity does not escape me. Milk be damned, I set my groceries down on the painfully hot bench, and watch as this neighborhood surprise party unfolds.

Not unlike the musicians, the first wave of onlookers are young, a little dirty, and grinning widely, as if in on a secret. The tempo is slow and soft in the heavy air, and it draws them in gently with that classic acoustic charm. They’re playing guitars, spoons, a banjo, and an accordion, and the energy emitting from them is so palpable you can practically taste it.

Though the instruments have seen better days, they are perfectly paired with these young men. Whatever the musicians lack in life, practice, or ability, the instruments are happy to compensate for. They are rich with the patina of experience and happy to share. They are soul mates. It’s a gorgeous push and pull—a dance perfected between them, and it’s affecting to witness. It reminds one of depression-era musicians—devoid of all possessions, save an instrument that becomes their best friend, meal ticket, and greatest love. In fact, with their suspenders, high waters, ragged edges, and unwashed hair, you could have plucked these musicians straight out of the Dustbowl of 1938, or maybe even the Civil War.

They are timeless and ageless. And these guys aren’t just looking the part, they’re living it; in what seems an unnecessary suffering for both, the instruments cling to the musicians by ratty, thin ropes. But the clothes, the venue, the make-shift guitar straps… they all serve as both a statement and testament to the fact that anyone can do this, and hand-me-downs aren’t just economical, they’re fucking cool.

The crowd is enraptured. They all realize what a treat this is. Inhibitions are put aside, and the musicians are not afforded the least bit of separation from the crowd. Some of them begin to dance; all of them are smiling. Bear in mind, this is not the polite smiling, head-bobbing modus operandi of other such San Luis Obispo happenings. This is heads thrown back, mouths open wide, and arms outstretched, as if worshipping their own release.

It’s a release from conformity, stereotypes and expectations, and this little performance has opened a floodgates. As dancers spin one another along while moving round and round through the circular structure, I’m reminded of an 18th century costume ball. The independent turning of the couples and the collective turning of the assembly leaves me half-hypnotized. Twenty minutes pass before the music breaks for a moment and I’m startled to discover a man, equally enthralled, sitting beside me. We manage to shake off the spell just long enough to exchange pleasantries and remark on our good fortune in stumbling upon such a spectacle. “Paul” is a museum curator from San Francisco, in his early 40’s and has been a frequent visitor to San Luis Obispo for about twenty years. Happily, just as our conversation reaches the inevitable crescendo, before plummeting into awkward valley, the music starts again and we are transfixed. Without taking our eyes from the stage before us, we marvel aloud at the totally unexpected talent of the band. Suddenly one of the musicians breaks off and brandishes a microphone seemingly from out of nowhere. In that moment it occurs to me that this has been their plan all along. Like pied pipers they set out to charm the crowd toward them, coaxing it to a careful simmer and now, having their full attention, they would stoke it to a boil. Effortlessly, a young man perches himself high atop a railing, where, overseeing the pulsations of the collective, he begins to organize them into partners.

Mind you, throughout this transition, the music does not falter. It is growing faster and louder, breathing in time with the crowd. It rises and falls and fills the gazebo, spilling out low over its sides and rising high into its rafters. The participants happily acquiesce, pairing off at random—some friends, some strangers, all sharing in this rare moment of unselfconscious freedom. The mood is reminiscent of a tiny Woodstock, except that it’s not. It’s nothing so significant, and nothing so overdone. It is intimate and sweet, a civic love affair… a little, unexpected gift to the town, with no reciprocation necessary. And there is no reason for it—not money, promotion or notoriety. Here in this moment, it is all that exists.

Under the direction of this anonymous band, and the man with the microphone, the crowd shapes itself into a jubilant, fast moving, square dancing mass. He leads them, step by step, and they are laughing their way through the motions. Eventually, the square dancing gives way to a waltz. The crowd is carefully guided through every stride, and they are clearly appreciative of the lesson. In fact, it’s become impossible at this point to discern who is gaining more pleasure from the experience—the crowd or the band—as they seem equally enamored with each other. And as if the music weren’t enough of a tribute to this little fling between them, suddenly- randomly there is food, and lots of it. As though they had willed it to happen this way, a few kids stop dancing just long enough to pull out bags full of watermelons and pies, and offer huge slices of each to the unsuspecting crowd.

It’s not until now that I realize an older man has joined in with the band. He’s appeared from out of nowhere to accompany them with his large, steady hands and his heavy, white beard. In fact, I’d guess that the beard itself is older than his fellow musicians- but he has melded perfectly with them. As if in a trance, neighboring residents begin to emerge from behind picket fences and make their way into the park, drawing ever closer to take it all in. Women in their 50’s are laughing, and being swung around by stinky teenage boys. Some are pulling out mobile phones to call friends and family, and “You have to get down here!” is the general consensus. A conservative-looking couple timidly joins in, and within 20 seconds they are separated from each other and paired with strangers—he, with a teenage girl, whose dreadlocks, bare feet, and braless breasts move in contradiction to gravitational law; she, with a young man, whose age and appearance are in direct contradiction to his ease and good manners. He offers a wide, genuine smile, and taking her gently and respectfully by the waist whisks her around the room so carefully that it may as well have been choreographed.

It may as well have been just the two of them dancing on that cramped stage—the entire group seems gracefully and subtly aware of each other. The dancers move around and through and together and back again, like magnetic energy, incapable of clumsiness. Couples exchange partners, young women hold hands, and grandmothers twirl their skirts into knots. Impervious of classes, stereotypes and social constraints, awkwardness does not exist in this moment.

Paul leans toward me, his eyes fixed upon the dancers. “Can you believe this is happening here in San Luis? This town needs this so bad,” he admonishes, and he is absolutely right. For all its big trees and open spaces, clean parks and cultural potential, San Luis Obispo—my adopted hometown—is so in need of raw, spontaneous expression that the city itself is like a pent-up and ignored housewife, a fertile woman convinced of her own barrenness and panting at the possibility of passion- however dirty and unplanned. This music… this entire affair, is a fantasy fulfilled.

More than an hour has passed now since those first chords were struck and something has shifted imperceptibly. The music is reaching a climax. The honey-drunk, bluegrass waltz that seemed straight out of some Adirondack mountain cave has given way to something bigger, tougher, and reminiscent of a battle cry. The voices are straining, screaming in harmony, and rubbed raw—and they’ve never sounded so good. The entire park has emptied toward the stage now, just to be nearer to them. The gazebo itself has long since reached capacity and the rest of us must be content to watch from the side.

It serves us right. The musicians, the instruments, and the dancers… they are in another world. They’ve opened themselves up, and made themselves vulnerable. The rest of us, on the outskirts, we are the onlookers—voyeurs lucky enough to find ourselves in the right place at the right time. From the safety of the sidelines, we have nothing to lose—for those playing, and those being played to, it has risen above the ordinary, and they deserve their higher plane. If it all stopped right at this moment they’d be cruelly jolted from the intimacy of the experience.

But alas, it must draw to an end. Rather than the subtle fade to black, it happens suddenly and without warning. Maybe the voices gave out, maybe someone busted a rope strap and lost an eye, but I tend to believe that they accomplished what they set out to do and therefore their work was done here. The voices trail off abruptly, but the instruments, impervious to fatigue, beg to play on. And as a sort of compensatory cool-down, they are plucked and strummed and slowed to a crawl before finally being put away.

Once the final note had rung out and fallen away, the spell was broken. The people seemed to disappear rather than disperse. Thankfully, the band offered its own CD’s as parting gifts. Rushing home to grab my emergency cash I panicked thinking they’d sell out before I could get back. I flung open the door, threw my groceries on the ground, and rifled through my underwear drawer like the world’s most inelegant cat burglar. Cash in hand, I marched back to the park and up onto the nearly empty stage. As the young man handed me the jewel case, I let out a huge sigh of relief. I wanted to jump into his arms, give him a huge bear hug and thank him for what he did.

What they did… They roused us all from a self-imposed hibernation. We, a sleepy little community, happily lazing through our Sunday, confident that nothing short of an earthquake could shake us out of our routines. These men, and this amazing little show seemed to fall out of the sky and into our laps, setting hearts racing and senses afire. It’s difficult to find a worthy musical comparison, as everything that comes close stops short and goes cold. But if you closed your eyes and imagined The Arcade Fire, thrown back 100 years or so, and playing English pub songs to an encouraging little crowd, in an acoustically flawless venue, you’d be getting warm.

Restraining myself from a full-body hug and opting instead for a sincere “Thank you!” I couldn’t mask my obnoxious kid-in-a-candy-store grin. I clutched the CD close as I walked away, coveting the treasure in my hands. It was mine! The music belonged to me now, the band was no longer anonymous, and this wasn’t all a dream. And though there was no more reason to stay, I collapsed onto a bench and allowed myself a sort-of weaning off period before making my way home.

When at last, I shoved myself off of the ride, and back into the house, I wasted no time in getting to know Blackbird Raum. Their album Purse Seine has become a fixture in my home, and the song “Ars Goetia” can be heard with a particular frequency, to the point of compulsion. I can’t be sure if they even played it that day, but of all the songs on the album, that one just feels the most like that afternoon in the park. Warm and throaty, and sweet but with a pulse that seems to pound so hard beneath the surface, it could break the whole thing apart in an instant... it lulls and empowers at the same time, never failing to suck me back into that trance.

I can’t call it a discovery, because I didn’t find it on my own, but Blackbird Raum gifted me with a sampling of what I’d been missing out on—holed up in my quaint little house with my picturesque view of the park, and my stale old play-lists. They ruffled something out of me and woke me up a little. Even my disgruntled flowers took notice. Since that day they’ve grown not upright, but forward: straining toward the park, and keeping a watchful eye out for the band that welcomed us all into spring.

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