Thursday, November 26, 2015

Lunch Will Be In E-Minor

I went over to Joe's in Raleigh on Thursday night a week ago so's I could get a bit of sleep and not have to drive an hour to the RDU airport and deal with parking and all that, at 4:30 AM. I did manage to sleep some, and we got going on time and were in line with enough time to make the flight to Atlanta, which was where Delta goes before going anywhere else. We switch planes in Atlanta for a string of MD-80s and -90s. The flight from Atlanta to Hartford, CT, was aided by strong tail winds and we got up there in less that two hours, with a fantastic fly-over of lower Manhattan plus various other sights such as the stretch of Long Island and Philly and Chesapeake Bay, a travelogue of the whole East Coast really, all for the watching, and I had a window. I didn't have a ready camera, or I'd have a great photo of Manhattan to post, postcard from the '50s. November golden light is nearly as nice as February's.

It was nonetheless an excellent moment when we touched down in Hartford, and found our gleaming white stretch limo and smiling driver waiting as expected, for the trip to Waterbury. The limo had a dropped glass ceiling. You had to crawl down the aisle to a bench seat facing a bar. Too low to stand. Was this a design flaw, or a plan devised by some oily hipster from another decade. The guy who sports a gold star in the center of a tooth, and has a habit of sniffing his fingers. We'll never know. We found out later that all the hire-cars were taken because Harvard was playing Yale on Saturday. This was the last one in the stable. The Harvard team was staying in our hotel in Waterbury. When I called a couple of them the Tide in the elevator, they looked at me blankly but smiled at the nice old man chattering at them in some southern dialect. The Crimson won the game I hear.

We had a couple of hours to lie down in our rooms, then it was off to a music run-through at the Palace Theatre, three walking blocks away. We got our sound set up dialed in and played nearly a set worth of music: Sally Ann, Rabbit in the Pea Patch, Hobo's Last Letter, Aragon Mill, School House on the Hill, Merchant's Lunch, Texas Gals, and Piney Mountain. That's a festival set for sure! Then we just hung out and had some of the catered food and listened to other parts of the show, GK working with various other guests and the house band and so forth. He'd given a speech at the Gettysburg Battlefield the day before and ridden a train up to Waterbury. He looked tired and a bit frazzled. I'm sure we did too, truth be told. We met with him in a stairwell of the theatre towards the end of the night. I'd put my fiddle up but told him I had a fiddle part on School House so not be surprised. He was going to sing along on that one, and also requested an old hymn we used to do a lot and probably did on his show back in the '70s, Daniel Prayed. After that little stairwell practice he said he had to go back to the hotel and write the rest of the show. We went back too. I went straight to bed myself.

Saturday morning I woke up to a couple of workmen swinging in a basket off a cable off a big crane, outside my 10th Floor window. They were doing extensive work on the hotel building. This particular work involved the edge of the roof, a floor or so above my window. I was quite happy not to have been in that twisting basket. I went down to the little hotel restaurant, which they had named the Bistro but didn't offer appropriate musical accompaniment, such as an endless loop of Reinhardt/Grappelli tunes. The breakfast was great, and $13.50 plus tip. Then we were off to the Palace.

This was the front door. We went in through the back, just past where the Prairie Home semi was parked:

Upon arrival we were issued a sheet with our selected numbers and their approximate place in the overall proceedings. They'd whittled our stuff down to what would fit. We ran through all of that, and at one point my g-string peg decided to slip. My fiddle, like most, uses the ancient principle of simple friction to hold the strings at pitch, with each string being ultimately connected at the rear of the instrument to a single point. My particular fiddle resides in our moist southern atmosphere. Last summer I had to take it into the air conditioned room because the pegs and their respective holes had grown so tight that they wouldn't turn. Suddenly it was the opposite problem. The bow works with rosin to create friction across the strings, so a white powder of rosin will fall on the top of the fiddle from the playing. I pulled out the g-peg and applied some of that powder to the end of the peg. This is a bit of fiddle lore. It seemed to work.

The afternoon wore on. We ran through all the material. We had a great meal of baked salmon and new potatoes at the caterers table. It was time to go back upstairs to the stage. They were opening the house. Then the show was starting, with a full cheering house and Garrison singing, as he does every week, "Oh don't you hear that old piano, way down the avenue..." We got to our first segment, Daniel Prayed, acapella with Garrison singing an extra bass part. Then School House. Fiddle played great on that, Garrison again sang a bass part. We exited and listened in the wings. Garrison talked about Waterbury's history. Then it was time for our second segment, which began with the song Mike and Tommy Thompson wrote back in '77, Merchant's Lunch, named for a dive in Nashville. Garrison allowed as how these days the place has been reborn as a tony and rather expensive, ummm, bistro. We ripped into the song, which starts with me playing a little jazzy figure rocking between the e and f notes, the tune being in a complexity circling around e-minor. Very few open strings from a fiddle stand point I should say. I got to the end of my little intro and was playing my usual fills and preparing my mind for some arpeggios which come next, behind the singing. When I started the first one I watched each peg spin itself into slackness, the strings acting like top-strings or yo-yo strings. I had no notes available and Jim wasn't even through the first line of this section. I scooted off the stage and tried to retune. With the key the song was in, there was no chance. All I could do was wait it out and then return for the next of the two numbers in the segment, which fortunately was another acapella number: no instruments required. Endless kudos to Rich Dworsky for jumping over to the organ and filling the holes the missing fiddle had made. That's musicianship!

I can't say I wasn't upset some. It was a big deal for us to get on this show, a national audience and a very nice renewal of an old acquaintance. We were as old as Garrison and the show, this band. When we'd started (under another and more well known name), Garrison was doing drive-time radio in Minneapolis and proving himself so original and inventive that he shortly built the first incarnation of this now national institution. Hell, Robert Altman made a movie about the Prairie Home Companion, with Meryl Streep no less. Now my wonderfully dependable fiddle had let me down. The world would not hear my arpeggios.

Possibly this was all related to the sad fact that the man who had sold me the instrument and helped me maintain it through the decades had passed away only weeks before. Nowell Creadick had been first a band mate in my first old-time band, before the Fuzzy Mountain Band even. He'd become a fiddle dealer, and had turned up this beautiful violin, made by an obscure Italian maker in the 1880s. What a sound. I was more or less a working professional at that point and I sprung for it. All through the years it had been stable, needing almost no tending, till about five years ago when the neck came unglued in the August NC heat, as I discovered to my horror when I opened the case on stage. Nowell came to the rescue, and after a few weeks had fixed her all up again, every joint tight, tiny cracks in the top cleated, a new bridge--it was if anything better than ever. Now, in the dark backstage of the Palace, was this the Grandfather's Clock story capturing me and my fiddle?

I went out in the hall with Jim, his mando using the same notes as the fiddle, and got back in tune. My e turned out to be right on. Lunch is, as I said, in e-minor. The other three strings were all set to notes in an e-minor chord. It might have worked if I was Paganinni, who liked to break a string for effect and then play on as if nothing had happened. I could have sawed the open chord I'd made till the song progressed to its next chord. That would have been about it. I pushed all the pegs in tight as possible, fiddle back in tune. The show continued, and we performed just fine for the rest of it. (You can go over to the PHC website if you like and listen to the whole thing, and we have a webpage up with pics and links):

Sunday morning we had a bus to catch to Hartford, and a ride back to Atlanta so's we could catch the connection back to RDU. You just have to stop thinking linearly when you decide to fly. On the ride down, which was slowed by headwinds (160 knots on the nose the pilot said) I found myself talking to a guy who had been born in NC, in Winston-Salem, and was a graduate of Bob Jones. When we got around to what I'd done for the weekend, he said that he never listened to Garrison, Garrison was far too left-wing. Thus doth the acid of current American politics eat the American heart. I always thought Garrison's basic sermon was simply, give everyone some slack, we're all just folks trying to do the best we can. We made our connection, though it was some work and required a little subway train under the airport. We flew over Sharon Harris, our own nuclear plant, coming into RDU in the afternoon. I was on the road back to the woods by 4:30 or so, and stopped at Bo Jangles for some chicken boxes for Libby and myself. The race in Homestead had been delayed by rain and hadn't even started when I got home. We ate chicken and fries and watched the preliminaries. Libby had started up a fire in the stove, which felt good.

To top off the weekend, Kyle Busch, my man, won the race and the Champeenship.

I set up a little shrine to the lad at my workstation on Monday. It all seemed like something of a dream, but fun. I looked up some stuff about the MD-80 on the google. You might or might not want to do that. I will say, however, that flying Delta was very nice--good pilots, very pleasant attendants in every case, all the necessary stowage was available, and we got down on the ground in one piece four straight times! I didn't open the fiddle case till last night. I was expecting all the pegs to be slack again, and maybe the bridge flopped over on the top as well. The instrument was perfectly in tune. It was born in Italy, but it has picked up a Piedmont drawl that sounds pretty legit.

To keep her in good spirits I resolved to check her in her bed at night, from now on. I will look in on her and whisper the little bit of Italian I know. "Arpeggio, arpeggio, mi bella," I'll say softly, and brush the rosin dust from her belly, then fold her back into her covers and close the case.

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