Sunday, June 6, 2010

NASHVILLE BLOG 2010

5/31/10: Dad has fallen asleep so it is Blog Time.

I hadn’t been on an airplane since I was fourteen years old. I am now twenty-seven. I asked my camera to capture beautiful scenes for me to enjoy later because I was too busy trying to relax and contemplate how it could be that I was THAT high... Above weather. How were all these people OK WITH THIS?! Why were the two little girls in front of me calmer than I was?

We arrived and my cell phone magically fell back one hour. I was in the desolate Nashville International Airport for three minutes before I excitedly realized, “I’M GONNA HEAR SOUTHERN ACCENTS!!!” I focused my attention on the airport staff sitting in a waiting area… only to hear a JAMAICAN accent. That’s one of my three favorite accents, but, C’MON, MON.

There is a grand piano in the lobby of the hotel. I played Neil Young’s “Philadelphia” on it in order to attract any Rusties (Neil Young fans) in the vicinity. No Rusties materialized. But someone’s vehicle in the parking lot has “Neil Young Twisted Road” painted on it. If I find and follow the scent of pot smoke, I’ll surely find him/her…

There is a picture of Webb Pierce above my dad’s bed. There is a picture of Loretta Lynn above mine. I think this is fantastic.

There is a harmonica used by Bob Dylan in the hallway. And lyric sheets. And Chet Atkins posters, and quotes from Don Everly.

I wish I had plans to hang out with Don Everly this week. Maybe I’ll find him downtown tomorrow.

The girl working at the bar informed me that I’m not yet in the “real” south.

I should try to fall asleep. Good night, hotel stationery.

6/2/10: The first two Rusties I chatted with saw Neil Young at Woodstock, The Fillmore East with Crazy Horse (supported by Miles Davis and Steve Miller Band) in 1970, and at the infamous Bristol and London stops of the 1973 UK Tonight’s The Night tour. And that was just the first two!!

Anyway, on the second day of the trip, we arrived in downtown Nashville at about 10 AM, looking for anywhere with a cup of coffee (or espresso transfusions… I hadn’t slept much), and breakfast. But it turns out that NASHVILLE DOESN’T EAT BREAKFAST!! I mean, I know it’s a musician town, but I’M a musician and you have my word that I like pork roll, ham, eggs, bacon, and such. But the downtown area was a total ghost town until flocks of tourists with cowboy hats and Japanese accents spilled from buses to the sidewalk.

We went to a hotel for lunch, then wandered across the street to the Visitors’ Center. As I purchased the coolest Chet Atkins shirt on the planet (and ogled the guitar he played on his 1986 TV special, which I’ve watched hundreds of times since my childhood), the man at the counter told me that Neil often plays a song or two at Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge when he’s in town. Naturally, we popped our heads in about seventy-eight times to see if Neil was on-stage.

Later, I was drawn in yet again by the beautiful sound of pedal steel and chicken-pickin’ guitar wafting through the air and headed up Broadway, and I just stayed and watched. An amazing country band played on the front stage (about the size of the interior of my Honda Civic), and I grooved to the music along with several dozen flies. It quickly dawned on me that the average Nashville bar band can cream the best band in most other regions of the country. I later walked past the rows of bars TRYING to hear a single flat note coming from someone’s throat or guitar… but it was not to be. A petite young lady, beautiful but otherwise unassuming, was invited on-stage and sang country classics with this band of pro-level old-timers with star-quality swagger and chops.

(Side note: Swagger And Chops MIGHT be the name of a BBQ place somewhere in the American South, but I’m not sure.)

We went to Gruhn Guitars and I played, perhaps, $20,000’ worth of guitars and banjos (even though I only played about five!), each with perfect playability and excellent sound (my hometown Guitar Center could learn a thing or 524 from them) echoing off the hardwood floors. Neil was spotted here the following day, trying out some guitars upstairs.

We went to Ernest Tubb’s Record Shop and I was awestruck by the presence of the pedal steel guitar that Pete Drake used on George Harrison’s “All Things Must Pass” album sessions, including “I Live For You,” one of my favorite pedal steel breaks ever.

While searching Tootsie’s for Everly Brothers memorabilia, I was spotted by a group of Rusties, including the lovely and highly talented Karen “Fluff Mama” (whose writing has been featured on Neil’s LincVolt site). This brief encounter was the first of about fifty-eight spontaneous and semi-spontaneous RustFests.

6/1/10: pink post-it note update: Found a sliver of shade outside the Ryman Auditorium. AND back support. Continually refilling water bottle with Nashville tap water from such places as the Tootsie’s men’s room, the Ryman men’s room, and the Visitors’ Center, trying to beat the 90 degree heat.

I’m worried that THAT person and THAT person and THAT person could be a Rustie with whom I’ve exchanged thousands of online words but am accidentally snubbing because I don’t recognize them in person.

6/6/10: Soon after that, I said hi to some Neil fans and leaned against a dumpster (Godson Of Grunge?), waiting for a chance to see Neil and… well, I wasn’t really sure what else. I only wanted an autograph on my autograph guitar (first signed by Don and Phil Everly at Valley Forge Music Fair in Devon, PA when I was about six years old), and I left that on my wall in Pennsylvania. I decided the goal was a photo with him. That sounded like a nerve-wracking proposition, though, especially as I’d probably have to awkwardly take the photo myself. He eventually emerged from his bus, and some fans moved in for autographs. I stayed in my spot, smiled, and flashed a peace sign while I snapped a photo. I captured a photo of Neil waving at me and a small group of fans in front of his bus.

On the advice of my pianist/singer friend Caroline, Dad and I stopped in Jack’s BBQ for lunch. Caroline gets 923 points for that call. And I got… pulled pork, sausage, green beans, beer, and the most delicious hot spiced apples in the WORLD (have hyperbole, will travel). Even the American South would prove incapable of making me fat, but I was sure gonna try my best.

Apparently, Neil ordered lunch there, too. Not long after hearing that rumor, Elliot Roberts, his manager since 1968 and a rock & roll character of great importance in his own right, walked past us and up the stairs. I knew a RustFest was planned to occur around that time, so I made my way upstairs to join the party (and see if they had somehow persuaded Roberts to do the same). Turns out that Elliot was just using the restaurant’s back door as a shortcut to the Ryman’s side door, but I had the great and surreal experience of joining a party consisting entirely of faces I’d never seen before in person, yet feeling like I was with a comfortable group of friends. After all, I’ve been following Neil’s career, and the related internet message boards and web sites, with great interest and enthusiasm for eleven years! Just ask all my friends, family, and ex-girlfriends… The group was only about twenty people strong, but was stocked with Rusties from the UK, Australia, Hawaii, northeastern U.S., and even Italy!

Anita, the aforementioned Woodstock attendee, and I decided to orchestrate a group photo. Shortly after that, we all made our way to the Ryman Auditorium, the spiritual home of country music and former site of the Grand Old Opry. Neil was last seen here while filming his 2005 concert film Heart Of Gold. The film did not prepare me for the beauty of the room, nor the intimacy; just over 2,000 crammed seats represented by numbering on the PEWS that were installed when the building opened as a church in the 19th century! The Ryman was spared any damage following the recent floods that devastated parts of the city earlier this spring.

The show started about half an hour later than our tickets suggested, beginning with a 45-minute set by Bert Jansch. Unfortunately, I was antsy because of the long wait time – and the knowledge that my favorite musician of all-time was coming up next - and not able to devote as much attention as I otherwise would to the legendary fingerpicking guitar player. I made a mental note to seek out an audience recording of his set so I could eventually give it the focus it deserved.

Another half hour passed waiting for the stage to be reconfigured for Neil. Just as my OTHER favorite musicians, The Everly Brothers, did, Neil pumps Jimmy Reed through the sound system before his shows. I love Jimmy, but after about the sixtieth minute of him, I found that I had a Jimmy Reed Quota… and that it had been reached. But all this waiting probably made that euphoric the-lights-dimmed-and-everyone-in-the-crowd-becomes-ecstatic-and-goes-WOOOOOO moment that much more thrilling.

I read every detail about the previous tour stops that I could find, but I decided to not listen to a single note of the recordings posted on YouTube and elsewhere. Smart move. Even his old songs were beautiful and thrilling, especially as they passed through the stunning acoustical space that is the Ryman, and he opened with a trio of them: “My My, Hey Hey (Out Of The Blue),” “Tell Me Why,” and “Helpless,” a rendition that brought to mind the twisted version from the London stop of the Tonight’s The Night tour which featured Nils Lofgren on accordion, Ben Keith on dobro, and Jose Cuervo on insanity.

I don’t have any illusions that I am a close personal friend of Neil Young’s, but the news of the passing of his long-time collaborator and close friend L.A. Johnson this winter was a painful and unsettling thing. He met Neil while filming Woodstock, and was involved with nearly every concert film of Neil’s, films that I have watched over and over again, and are often as musically valuable as their corresponding albums. (Red Rocks Live and Prairie Wind – Sessions are just two of the killer accomplishments from this decade… and don’t forget Archives Vol. 1.) Neil’s role in my life is to move me with his art (occasionally moving me across the country!), but it’s hard to not also find him righteous and admirable as a dude… a dude who doesn’t need to be dealt any blows of that magnitude. But I suppose that’s life, and Neil’s latest batch of songs always reflects the emotional good, bad, and ugly that he’s dealt with since the last batch.

The first new song of the evening, “You Never Call,” was written to L.A. and was, somehow, devastatingly sad and lightheartedly funny. At the same time. I suppose THAT’S life, too. The song felt remarkably like a conversation between Neil and the audience. Line by line, we alternately laughed ("I saw your car in the parking lot / In-And-Out Burger fries all around") or absorbed the depth of some of the more poignant lyrics.

By the song’s halfway point, I already had tears streaming down my face. Well, only the right side, as I had my head tilted to see between the gray-haired couple in front of me. A small reservoir of tears seemed to remain welled-up in my right eye, slowly draining throughout the show like it was a faucet that Neil was turning on and off from the stage. I suppose that’s genius.

Neil dropped more lyrical bombs on us with “Peaceful Valley Blvd.” and “Love And War,” new songs coming from a very broadminded Neil reflecting on humanity’s long history of war and the long history of natural devastation in North America and elsewhere, both of which are painfully relevant in spring 2010. Several weeks into performing these new songs, Neil exuded a sense of confidence and seemed to be singing with the intent of filling all the space in every corner of the room.

This trio of new songs featured Neil on an effected acoustic guitar, a first for him, and perhaps a result of his current work with U2/Bob Dylan producer Daniel Lanois. They were followed by another first; a series of songs accompanied solely by his own, very loud, electric guitar. A hugely dynamic “Down By The River” started it out, followed by an updated version of an unknown legend from the mid-‘70s called “Hitchhiker,” the latter starting with the same aggressive power chords first heard in his Freedom-era track, “Heavy Love” and augmented by a strange, swirling phaser-like effect which was heard in many of the new songs. Neil also utilized a row of foot pedals to add booming low notes, in the absence of a bass player.

It was on these songs that I experienced a phenomenon I’d read about in reference to other shows: his guitars and rows of tweed Fender amplifiers are causing the theaters to SHAKE. You could feel some of those chords in your legs and feet. My new fedora may have rotated slightly. There was something metallic rattling in the back of the venue and the scenario of Neil Young breaking the famous stained glass windows of the Ryman with Old Black (his primary electric guitar) played out in my head.

Forty years and several weeks after the murder of student protesters at Kent State, Neil played a unique solo electric version of “Ohio.” This led to one of many standing ovations. “Sign Of Love” followed, a slight but pleasing mid-tempo rocker. “When we both have silver hair and a little less time / but there are still roses on the vine… “ I hoped the aforementioned gray-haired couple in front of me (with their nearly identical haircuts) caught that. They did, and moved a little closer to one another and kissed.

A light and poppy song called “Leia” followed. Too light for some fans, but I can appreciate any musician that has the ability and desire to express the entire range of human emotion, all the way from yelling “DOWN BY THE RIVER, I SHOT MY BABY DEAD” over huge, distorted guitar chords, to a piano ballad lullaby so quiet that he’s made a habit of asking the crowds not to “scare it away” before he begins.

From here, he switched to the pump organ at the back of the stage, utilized only for this song and otherwise busy being an incredibly cool stage decoration. A unique version of “After The Gold Rush“ was played on it, with its lyrical update that, sadly, is more and more relevant each time I see it performed: “we got Mother Nature on the run in the 21st century.”

Another track from “After The Gold Rush” followed, “I Believe In You,” played on a grand piano with a psychedelic paint job. The aforementioned faucet was turned on again, recalling moments of raw pain when I clung onto some of those emotionally harsh lyrics for dear life. It feels good to know someone else has been there. “Now that you’ve made yourself love me, do you think I can change it in a day?”

“Rumblin’” was both a return to Neil’s reverence for the power of nature and to Neil’s reverence to the power of very, very, very loud amplifiers. “I feel a rumblin’ in the ground.” I heard a rattling in the display case that held a vintage mandolin from Marty Stuart! I wonder if any of those thin strings popped off, or if any buttons popped off of Johnny Cash’s huge black suit…

He closed off the set with two more hits. “Cortez The Killer” was treated exactly as it would be if he had a band behind him, but without one, it was as experimental and freeform as his instrumental soundtrack to the Jim Jarmusch film Dead Man. Then came a set-closing “Cinnamon Girl,” which initially had a huge segment of the audience clapping to the double-time beat of the song’s intro.

Neil walked off-stage to thunderous applause, but returned shortly for a new song called “Walk With Me,” a song with a familiar chord progression and strong vocals. It ends with a descent into flanged-out guitar feedback, over which Neil pines for “some friends I was travelling with” while, for the first time, facing his row of amplifiers rather than the audience, letting the notes swirl around him, before finally placing his guitar down, manually turning off two of the amps and waving goodbye.

“I said solo… THEY said acoustic,” read one of the t-shirts for sale at the show.

Our new friend Kathryn from Florida (who would eventually prove to be my personal Rustie Of The Week) gave us a heads-up about a post-show RustFest at a bar called Bailey’s, which, like, Gruhn Guitars, Tootsie’s, Jack’s BBQ, and other notable spots, were all on the same tiny block, right beside the Ryman. Soon after, Dad and I went back to the hotel after an exhausting fourteen hours in downtown Nashville!

We arrived downtown the next morning, and, on the advice of a local, ate breakfast at the Hermitage CafĂ©. We walked in and found a bunch of grizzled-looking southern guys not saying much, an autographed picture of Gomer Pyle, an autographed picture of Willie Nelson (there is a picture of Willie Nelson every seven feet in Nashville), an unattended pill bottle, country ham, sweet tea, and a bathroom that said “OUT OF ORDER” (“oh, just ignore that sign”), lacked soap, and lacked paper towels.

WE HAD FINALLY FOUND THE REAL SOUTH!!! Even if it was just one little restaurant.

Speaking of Willie Nelson, we couldn’t go more than about two hours without hearing someone talk about his recent haircut.

Unanswered questions: Why does Kid Rock get to be on the front of Tootsie’s? Why does Nashville have a White Castle and a Jersey Mike’s Subs? Why did I walk to Starbucks from the hotel every morning even though I was staying in the Millennium Maxwell House Hotel and had complimentary Maxwell House coffee available at all times? Does Angel the hotel shuttle driver think we tipped enough? How come I didn’t see Don Everly jamming in the back alley of The Ryman? What is the approximate value of the display case at the Country Music Hall Of Fame that houses a Bill Monroe mandolin, and Maybelle Carter’s, Jimmie Rodgers’, Chet Atkins’, Lester Flatt’s, and Hank Williams’ guitars?? Why is the Walk Of Fame so patchy and incomplete? And why is Kid Rock there?? Do country music fans, other than me, actually listen to Chet Atkins regularly? I hope they do.

But despite the strange Walk Of Fame, the Country Music Hall Of Fame is, indeed, VERY impressive. However, being the Everly Brothers fanatics that Dad and I are, the trip to the relatively bare RCA Studio B was even more exciting. During the brief bus ride, a recording of Dolly Parton told us about the studio, including the session to which she sped and then accidentally crashed her car into the building. I actually teared up slightly as we walked in and the tour guide put on a CD of hits by The Everlys and others, and I thought about how much of the past twenty-five years I’ve spent absorbed in the sounds created in that studio. To this day, the two albums The Everlys recorded in that room in 1960 with Floyd Cramer, Chet Atkins, Hank Garland, et al are among my biggest inspirations as a musician and music fan. I’ve never heard vocals recorded better, which is remarkable since the 10+ musicians all recorded LIVE, in the SAME room, to TWO-track tape machines! I think recording studios should go back to that format so we can weed out the less-dedicated musicians who fix-in-the-mix too much.

I was surprised to learn that many of Elvis Presley and Roy Orbison’s hits had been recorded there as well. I was also surprised to learn that My Morning Jacket had recorded there, although I believe I heard the sound of crickets after the tour guide mentioned their name.

I took a moment to play the studio’s tack piano, but found that it probably hadn’t been tuned since Floyd Cramer last used it. When we made it to the main studio, however, I found that all the instruments – reportedly original – were in good working order. The celeste… the vibraphone… the marimba… and most impressively, the Steinway grand piano. I didn’t necessarily want to stand out, and I was not permitted to take video, but I couldn’t help but steal about fifteen seconds to play a chunk of The Everly Brothers’ “So Sad (To Watch Good Love Go Bad)” on this historic piano. And I couldn’t help but bootleg it. That’s what I do. I got an unexpected round of applause.

For the first time in recent memory, I bought a large drink (the south is HOT) – iced green tea – and as we stopped outside to gaze at the Ryman, we happened to see Neil’s wife of thirty-two years, Pegi, walk by with the tour manager. Shortly thereafter, we saw the first of many sightings of their son Ben, a happy young man who is wheelchair-bound and profoundly affected by cerebral palsy, and also the inspiration for the Bridge School in California.

We needed to repeat the amazing lunch we had at Jack's BBQ the day before, so we wandered over and bought a similar meal and sat at a similar table. And just like the day before, Elliot Roberts walked past our table, but this time a little faster, with his friends Eric Johnson and NEIL YOUNG with him. I said, “woah… uh… hey Dad…. Dad…” “Yeah?” “That was, uhh…”

Neil is as tall as you’d think he is. Especially when you’re Beck-shaped, like me.

I texted my sister (and everyone else I’ve ever met) to say I saw Neil Young at a BBQ joint. She said, “Did you say hi?” I said, “No, he walks as fast as I do. ”

We walked upstairs to see if any Rusties had gathered and make sure that Neil wasn’t eating a pulled pork sandwich with them. He wasn’t, but Rusties had indeed congregated for another pre-show RustFest. We got to meet more amazing people from around the world (some of whom I’d previously corresponded with online), and reconnect with Kathryn and others. I stated that I wasn’t going to that night’s show. In retrospect, I don’t think they believed me. I think Rust Instinct™ told them otherwise.

We wandered around the Ryman a little, and Kathryn convinced me to check for desperate scalpers, especially as we got closer and closer to the end of Bert Jansch’s opening act set and their prices may have begun to drop. We circled the venue and were astonished to find no scalpers! First we checked the alley, which gave us an opportunity to say hi to Pegi, Ben, and their dog, then we circled all the way back to the front door and asked a man on a cell phone if he was selling a ticket. He kindly said, “no.” We walked away and I whispered to Kathryn, “oh, wait; that’s ‘cause he’s Niko Bolas, producer of Freedom, Living With War, Chrome Dreams II, etc.!”

We then met up with our friends Robert and Kaz from Australia. Kathryn remembered that they had a ticket from an Aussie friend who couldn’t make it due to an illness in the family. I offered him the moderate amount of cash I had on me (well….actually… the cash that DAD had on him… thanks, Dad) and I picked up his front-row balcony seat. It’s hard to explain how good a balcony seat at the Ryman is, other than to say that, because of these three new Aussie pals of mine – one of whom I haven’t met to this DAY – I had the best seats to a Neil Young show I’ve ever had and I’ll be forever grateful. Thanks, Rod.

Night two of Neil was much different due to the last-minute ticket purchase… I walked into the room and the lights INSTANTLY went down. I was still finding my seat as Neil made his way through ‘My My, Hey Hey.’ I had a bit too much adrenaline flowing through me to focus as I did the night before, but it was still ninety minutes of my favorite musician playing the bulk of a newly recorded album of killer songs (and solid gold oldies) with total focus, heightened emotions, and in a deep groove that he didn’t seem to settle into until just before the Nashville shows. (Moments after he finished playing in Spartanburg, SC the previous weekend, two different fans posted the same one-word review: “WOW.”)

 I’ve said it many times and will say it once more: I am happy to be alive at the same time as an active Neil Young.

Another RustFest at Bailey’s. I got to hang with a gentleman named Andrea from Italy and hear about shows he attended during Neil’s infamous 1982 Trans tour, the highly-energetic 1989 acoustic ‘Freedom’ tour, and even the 1987 Italian show at which police used tear gas to disperse fans.

Thursday: The Lost Day. Storms in Washington D.C. meant we couldn’t hitch a ride from the U.S. Airways plane that was supposed to pick us up in Nashville and take us to Philadephia International Airport. I had a mild, quiet nervous breakdown in advance of the flight, and then for the rest of the evening, dreading another day of dreading. BUT, amazingly, we had a killer time in downtown Nashville the next day.

We took a guided tour of the Ryman, which included a walk on-stage, and a tour of all the dressing rooms. “So, this is where Neil Young was this week?” “Yes, he probably was.”

(I secretly snapped a photo of Dad and I in that room. Shhh.)

The tour guide pointed at the door and said, “This would be the spot where Chet Atkins heard two boys harmonizing in the alley and asked them to come inside and audition. They were The Everly Brothers.”

The Ryman on a sunny day is a thing of beauty and I scored some great photos of the sunlight pouring the stained glass windows onto the pews and floor. We also posed on-stage and had a picture taken by a guy named Buddy. Touristy and hokey, sure, but I’ll never forget it.

The flight home went perfectly. I sat by the window and forced myself to become comfortable with those moments when the plane suddenly feels somewhat sideways, and turbulence, and strange sounds that occur prior to landing (in the plane… not me). I want to see the rest of this planet, so I’d better get used to it.

I got home, checked my mail, said hi to my favorite dog… for ten minutes… and eventually found that I had memorized many of Neil’s new songs and could play them on guitar after just two listens. “Must be damn strong songs,” I thought.

I also found that being home is suddenly almost painful after having so much damn fun. I guess I now have the travel bug.

4,600 words later, I will summarize and close by saying I’m grateful to Neil for giving my Dad and I a great reason to take our first trip to Nashville (and our first vacation together in many, many years), grateful to the many rock-solid Rusties I met and almost met, and grateful to Dad for taking the initiative (and, frankly, putting out the $$$) to make it happen!

But really… Kid Rock???