The Wandering Scientist

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Impermanence of music

Written: August 16, 2016, in New Orleans, LA

About: New Orleans, LA

There is a certain bar in New Orleans. It is a hole-in-the-wall with a short bar, a few small tables, and a band crammed into a corner. In this respect, it is like many other bars in town. This one just happens to be among the best.

Yeah.

So come here. Squeeze onto a bar stool, or screw yourself into one of the diminutive tables. Order cheap drinks. Watch Frenchmen Street flow in and out of the bar. Listen to some of the best electric blues you will hear anywhere. And remember – you cannot take any of it with you.

Even though the guys playing this spot have been doing it for years, they do not really seem to think of themselves as a band. They do not have a stack of CDs out front. No Bandcamp or iTunes pages. The outfit that has got your heart and your throat in its cool hands does not even really tour outside these stained and peeling walls.

You can never listen to this music again, take it apart phrase by phrase and bar by bar, loop it over and over on your commute, or thrust the earbuds at your friends – “Take a listen to this!” The only way to share this music is to drag your friends to New Orleans, find this spot, and be there on the right night and at the right time.

Once the strings and drum skins are still, their music is gone forever.

Then again, maybe this music’s impermanence and immediacy are part of its power.

There is no divorcing yourself from the moment. If you miss a note, there is no chance of coming back for it. You have to be there, plugged into every instant. You cannot be listening to it with half an ear. This music will not compete for your attention with the glowing screen of your smartphone. No, you have to be right here, right now, so shake off your drunken haze. I know this whole place got your head spinning with a deluge of lights, alcohol, and music, a carnival of wide-grinning inebriated strangers looking for an experience.

So settle down. You have found the experience.

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The Christmas Mass, in three acts

Written: December 25, 2014 in New Orleans, LA

One

The façade of the Spotted Cat has been torn down, replaced with a mesh of bare plywood and sagging tarp. The only way you’d even know the place was by rote memory and the crowd of people busily stuffing themselves through the door. Let us go, out of the cold and into this temple.

Inside was warm and drunk and merry. Drinks came easy, and the jazz was laid back and smiling. Everyone – from the stage, to the crowd, to the bartenders – were friendly, and the shots of whiskey grew larger with every order. The Spotted Cat is an institution so deeply steeped in the jazz and the ghosts of a myriad musicians and travelers, that even if they razed the place, you’d still get a headful of swing just standing in the rubble.

Another whiskey and a grin for the road, then back into the cold.

Two

This act was unexpected.

Wandering around Jackson Square, a beautiful voice drifted from the top of the steps across Decatur. Her hands nervously grappling the banister and leaning forward over the vacant street, she sang Ave Maria. Halting, barely audible and shy, but unyielding and powerful in its sincerity, she lofted the vibrant notes in the clarity of the Christmas night. It seemed the very wind had stopped to let the song go on.

I stood, transfixed, at street level beneath the singer until she let go of the last night and retreated. I climbed the stairs to thank her, and found her overcome and embraced by her friends. She sang for her grandmother, for the first Christmas without her.

I gave my brief and embarrassed words of gratitude and retreated.

Three

The hall of St. Louis Cathedral is large, pure, dressed in white, accented with gold and candlelight. The holiday crowd overfilled it, with every pew full and people standing along the walls, in the back, and even in the atrium. The people were silent, only daring to impinge on the choir with only the politest of whispers.

The choir was on the balcony above the entrance, so it remained invisible for majority of the people in the cathedral. Its presence, however, was inseparable from the experience of the place. Its unassuming, unpretentious voice filled the hall with the potent, sourceless voice of the divine.

I find it very moving to see people of faith perform their rituals with simple, earnest genuineness. A countless number of people in the cathedral hall prayed and sang the hymns with expressions of genuine peace and quiet joy in their eyes, even those who found difficulty in the physical acts of standing and kneeling.

The sermon spoke for the need of peace, for the whole world, nations, cities, communities, and individuals, of the heartbreaking violence that takes people away from us daily. Peace means different things in different contexts, but there is an underlying desire for harmony and kindness. It also spoke of the need for silence and reflection.

Epilogue

I walked home feeling wonderfully, thinking on what I had seen and heard this night, and how it all fit together. Life is rarely if ever neat. Sometimes we need to get drunk on sin, and sometimes we need to pray for grace. Sometimes we need the humanity behind us, and sometimes we need the solitude of a cold night. Neither one makes sense without the other.

New Orleans is a city that looks in the dusty corners of your heart to find what you need, rather than what you want.

PS The sin link is NSFW. Of course.

Uncanny New Orleans

New Orleans has uncanny powers. Things and events touched by this city seem to become more heavily symbolic and meaningful. It produces coincidences that are charming and mischievous.

It was two years ago that I fell in love with New Orleans. It’s odd to know the exact date, but I do. On December 24th, 2010 I walked into the Spotted Cat and saw Meschiya Lake perform, and my heart was marked ever since. Though I did visit it again soon after, I have not had the opportunity to go back there until just recently. I have been trying to go again, but nothing worked out. Until a peculiar sequence of events conspired to bring me back.

The first was my college friends having a combined birthday and end-of-the-world party at the end of December. Lake City is about thirteen hours driving from DC, which is reasonably manageable. The drive from Florida to New Orleans is even shorter. The drive from New Orleans to DC, however, is much longer. While I was trying to figure out how to complete this route, a friend of mine mentioned that she was staying with her parents in Knoxville, TN for Christmas, and that I would be welcome to stop over. Knoxville is almost exactly half-way between DC and New Orleans. It could hardly be located more perfectly. At this point, I simply could not refuse the trip. As scheduling worked out, I arrived in New Orleans on the 23rd of December. On the 24th, I was again at the Spotted Cat.

Preparing for the trip, I messaged my friend whom I had met that first time on Frenchmen St. While she wasn’t going to be in New Orleans, we were going to overlap for a night in Tampa, FL. So we met and had dinner.

The above coincidences are not that unusual, given that everyone travels around during the holidays, I have friends in many parts of the country, and I think everyone has parents in Florida. However, the last touch was much more precise.

A couple months back, my dryer viciously attacked most of my dress shirts, ripping off many of their buttons. I have only repaired one. So when the time came for me to pack for this trip, I only had two shirts suitable for dancing – a black one and a blue one, the latter being the shirt I wore two years. I brought both, then lost the black one in Tampa.

I have two black vests I like to wear to dances. The newer one turned out to be in dire need of cleaning, so I had to pick the older one. The same one I had worn two years ago.

While I did recently buy a new pair of dance shoes, they did not work out very well, and I had to revert to my old pair.

So when the time came for me to dress to go to the Spotted Cat, on the exact two-year anniversary of my first visit, I was down to a single choice of outfit. The exact same one.

The Black Keys at Merriweather

Date: May 18, 2012
About: Merriweather Post Pavilion, near Baltimore, MD

From the moment They came on the stage and touched those holy string and drum skins, no one sat down in the whole place. Everyone was up on the feet, their very toes, reaching for the roof and the skies. The music performed a miracle. It made the seats disappear.

They played a few songs where it was just the two of them, Dan Auerbach and Patrick Carney. Just two guys set against a huge stage, a wild array of lights, and a mad crowd squeezed into every inch of the place. Yet in this picture of fame and rock glory they still seemed like two guys playing a tiny stage in a no-name bar back in Akron. It must take a mile of humility to maintain such a delicate balance of presence. On the one hand, it is just two dorky guys doing what they do because they love it, come fame or mortal obscurity. On the other hand, it is such fire, such intensity that it blows you right down like a hurricane.

They came up to every single one of us, opened our chests, and politely rifled through our hearts until they found that string, that memory, that feeling that rang true. Then they plucked it and let it sing the whole night. What happened on that stage was the raw sound of love.

Steel City Blues 2012

Written: April 2, 2012, in DC

About: Pittsburgh, March 2012

I have recently taken an extended break from blues dancing. It was not for the lack of love for the dance, or an injury. In months prior, I have found myself drifting along a bland trajectory through the dances, often feeling powerless to change my direction. This experience was even more frustrating because I had been feeling more connected to the art and the music. Yet the dancing itself seemed to be slipping away.

I had also wanted to get to know the people with whom I had been spending all this time. In the midst of a dance party, when the music flows thick and loud until you are too tired to stay on your feet, it is all too easy to just slip from dance to dance. You get to know the beautiful intricacies of someone’s body, but hardly see the elegant folds of their mind.

I dubbed it my blues fast and intentionally went to dance events and did not dance. It was excruciating at first. I did not realize just how ingrained this routine has become. Sitting at home on a Thursday night as the clock ticked past the hours of Backroom Blues felt surreal. Then came the meditative acceptance. I would sip whiskey at the bar and chat with the dancers taking a short break. The last couple weeks were filled with practically childish excitement.

I decide I should come back with an overload, and so I decided to return to blues at the Steel City blues exchange. Two days of practically nothing but dancing, drinking, and friends, all else optional.

And Blues, she took me back without a moment’s thought. The draw was instantaneous. When I got to the first dance, the air was already thick and heavy. The walls were dripping with music and low lighting. I went up to the bar and asked for a shot of vodka. The old man on the other side looked around, picked up a wine glass and filled it half-full. She must have missed me, she really did.

I closed my eyes for a dance and the swirling time took me into the late midnight hours. It was all rhythm rhythm sway. It seemed like all it took to get through the evening dance was a single breath and a single pull on that vodka. Then it was off for the blues late night.

The place was pulsing. It was hot and sweaty and alive as hell in there, and no one would stop. Everyone was submerged in the music and the dancing even when they were not on the dance floor. The blues pooled and coiled on the floor, drawing everyone into the deep end. You could sit on a sofa with your feet drawn up, but the blues would snake up the furniture legs, wrap around your waist and shoulders and pull you back in, pull your head under into the sweet dream.

I switched to the whiskey flask in my back pocket. Beads of sweat roll over my eyes and my lips. I lean out the window and timidly kiss the dark beyond. She is cool and coy and lovely. Runs her fingers up my spine and through my hair. Before I can blurt out something about love and immortality, she silences me with a single finger tip on my lips and then slowly, deliberately, pushes me back on the dance floor, pushes me back under the swelling tide of blues.

Blues, that sweet junk, it flows into a familiar vein freely and easily. It never left. All along, I have been right here, in this embrace, on this breath, on this beat.

The heat and fire of the dance floor are hard to bear and I escape into the soft blanket of the deep night to cool off. We sit on the sidewalk and blissfully talk for what seems like hours. Or maybe just a few minutes. It is hard to tell the time. The mind wanders off in the company of someone close. Another dancer comes out of the building and starts playing a harmonica while meandering about place, between cars and people. Everything is framed by flashing marquee lights.

I have rearranged the time.

The trip does not end on the drive home. It does not end on the sweet goodbyes, or the midnight kiss, or the dinosaur Mr. Rogers. The breakfast of Elvis and pancakes is not the finale. Neither are the arresting Catholic cathedrals. These are all at the center of what happened. Warm layers wrapped tightly around the core, where all is good and peaceful and I am not alone.

I rearrange the time so that everything ends with me taking a rest on a shaded lawn on a clear afternoon. The grass is soft and cool and a perfect compliment to the flawless blue sky. A gentle conversation floats over us like a lazy balloon. The sun is enjoying its afternoon stroll through the clouds as much as anyone. We lay and we talk.

And then I am home.

A Santa at Mardi Gras

Written: May 16, 2011, in DC

About: Mardi Gras in New Orleans

“Time to pick myself out of this mud,” I thought. Mostly, in a metaphoric sense, but a bit in the direct sense, too. I had to walk through a muddy lawn to get on the highway. Yes. Walk. Highway. At about four in the morning, dressed as a jolly Santa Claus, I am crossing the Mississippi over the Route 90 bridge in the emergency lane on foot. In a few moments, flashing lights of a police cruiser will be upon me. I know I’m far from the weirdest that the NOLA cop has probably seen, but I’d like to think I have registered at least a few clicks.

About twenty-four hours ago I was about as happy and exhilarated as I could be. I had arrived in my new love – New Orleans – to spend the weekend before Mardi Gras with someone who had completely blown my mind. I rode in on a Greyhound bus with a crowd high on dreams of jazz. I was blues-dancing on a balcony on St. Charles. Over the next twenty-four hours, I will be completely crushed as my connection to this person is utterly shattered. In an act that is both unintentional and heavy-handed in its symbolism, I will be wandering around a cemetery.

At the moment, I’m just here, at the point where the strange, the miraculous, and the terrible waves all collide and crest. I’ve been abandoned. I’ve lost most of my money. My credit card blew away into the river and no one is answering my calls. Somehow I have the apartment keys, but can’t afford the cab ride there. The buzz of the party and the alcohol is wearing off. Now it’s just me and this cold, cold bridge.

The simultaneous juxtaposition of the two extremes – complete happiness and complete heartbreak – is bewildering. My mind reels, unable to comprehend the scale of what is happening. At times like these, it’s best to simply focus on walking. Breaking down – in a pour of tears or alcohol or both – threatens to destroy me in a way that would be unrecoverable.

It’s best to just focus on the immediate reality, and the tighter the focus the better. There is nothing to be done about lost loves and money when you are wandering the dangerous streets alone. The cop picks me up and puts me in the back of the cruiser to drop me off on the other side of the bridge. I try to chat him up but barely make any sense. He points me toward Bourbon Street and peels out of the gas station.

Of course – of course – this is where the most interesting part of the evening actually begins. The city is still full of people – as it should be in New Orleans – and even away from Bourbon Street I come across groups of people in the mood to celebrate. In my giant Santa suit I’m the thing to celebrate. People rush up to me, give me hugs and ask for presents. Everyone takes pictures and videos. Lascivious posing with a gay couple. Gang signs with a crowd of street thugs. A group of college students some of whom turn out to speak pretty good Russian. Family people (yes, in New Orleans even family people can be out until five in the morning drinking). I don’t have a single picture from that night, but a myriad of stranger have stacks of them.

Interesting note. When asking for presents, most people asked for world peace. Maybe it’s because when one is bathed in the drunken and cozy glow of New Orleans, it is hard to ask for anything else. Maybe we are not entirely doomed as a species.

In this manner I walked the length of Bourbon Street. Hung around on a corner with three flirtatious black guys in nice suits and then got into a cab and made the final (and affordable) ride to the empty apartment. I opted to walk the last few blocks, greeted by the sun and the neighborhood rooster.

And I just stood for a moment on an empty street corner.

With the rising sun, the sweet afterglow in my heart, and the presence of New Orleans thick and saturated all around me, this moment was simply right. It was joy, terror, exhaustion, hope, dream, soul… Naked, honest, utterly vulnerable. Everything rolled up, pressed together, distilled and purified like the finest spirits and the dirtiest sweats, the moment was flowing into every nerve ending. This is why I had come here, this weird, twisted, right moment.

First dance

Written: May 7, 2011, in DC

About: blues dancing

Just as there is only one first kiss, there is only one first dance you have with someone. Sometimes that’s an instantly meaningful experience – when you simply know that the person is special, and you feel anxious about the approaching song’s end. Then sometimes it’s just another dance in a long line of dances.

Blues can be an especially intimate first dance. Not much structure in blues, at least compared to lindy or bal. It is much more about the musicality and the physical connection. The connection… There are two basic stances. The first is essentially a lindy position. The lead cradles the follow’s back as she lets him have her weight so the dancers counter-balance each other.

The close position is an embrace. The connection point starts at the hip and runs along the bodies all the way to the shoulders. Whereas in the open position the dancers essentially hang back from each other, here they lean in. The tiniest, most nuanced movements are transferred instantly between the dancers. The details that could easily be overlooked before – the position of the hand, the angle of the bodies, the tilt of the head – become meaningful. It’s not about the patterns anymore, it’s about moving precisely and together.

Of course, plunging into something of the sort with a stranger is not always easy. A gentlemanly lead lets the follow stay where she is most comfortable, and so the first dance will almost always start out in the open position. Though if the music is right, if it’s quite the vibe that both people are looking for, the comfort seeps in slowly, stepping closer with every chord and bar.

It is possible to slowly slide from one position into another. So upon a mutual but unspoken agreement, the follow will begin to drift closer. Her hand slowly walks up the lead’s shoulder. His hand comes to rest in the middle of her back, gently drawing her in. The bodies twist around each other slightly. The movements slow down as the conversation turns more private. Tension and apprehension of the first dance melt away. The follow’s head rests tenderly against the lead’s shoulder.

Of course, that is when blues really begins. When you both breathe out at ease, and just dance.


New Orleans, Frenchmen St.

Dec 24, 2010

Over the Atlantic

This was my third time in New Orleans, and though I liked the city well enough the first two times, this is when I really fell in love with it. The first visits were confined to Bourbon street, which is a fairly terrible place. I like terrible places, so it worked out. But it just never felt quite real. Kind of like Disney World without the Disney – fake toy houses filled with vicious drunks and naked girl with daddy issues. A compacted, storied Vegas without the excessive blinking lights everywhere.

It’s not too bad for my scene, actually, and the music is good. I appreciate any place where people feel free; and here they are free in base and awful ways. Drinks are expensive, but you can hear what you’d normally only hear on records. Solid jazz and smiling musicians. But the Disney park feeling creeps even into this. The music is exactly what you’d hear on the records. The Preservation Hall – reputedly one the best spots for jazz – is a goddam museum. Everything is covered in plexiglass, and it’s not even dusted that often. Old musicians hunched over their instruments, belting out St. James’ Infirmary for the millionth time to a crowd wearing shorts and flipflops, accompanied by glossy maps of the French Quarter advertising the best spots for po boys and gumbo. It’s a TV special – none of it is real. It’s got all the grit and zeal of a Civil War re-enactment. It’s as authentic as Williamsburg.

Frenchmen Street was different. The crowd packed the place – the Spotted Cat – wall to wall while a lone aging woman working the bar was slinging drinks all over the place. The crowd was mostly local – no obnoxious tourist t-shirts and flip-flops in this joint. There wasn’t really anywhere to sit, either. Chairs were an afterthought. And why would you want to sit? The band is right there. The dancers are coming. This isn’t something to watch half-mindedly while trading tips about hotel chain reward programs. This is a show to watch.

The musicians were different, too. All smiles and handshakes, weaving through the crowd before the show. There were no entrances. They simply took the stage and played. Their music leaned on the crowd, and the crowd drank it up. There was a bar filled with whiskey, wine, beer, and gin, but it was the band that got everyone high.

What made it even better was that the same thing was happening in another bar across the street. And another bar down the block. Abundance of good music – and the even more powerful vibes that carried it – was astounding. The whole place fucking vibrated. I drank my share of whiskey, and the place made it burn in a joyous hum.

You slide into a good dance. Rhythm, beat, connection, bounce – these are all the right things you want, but in a good dance, you simply get them. They are right here, manifested as your partner, and you take it all in your arms. A good dance takes no effort at all, even if it is fast and leaves you gasping for air on the last note. All you do is close your eyes, smile, and carry through.

I walked to the Spotted Cat from my hotel, which was on the corner of Canal and Bourbon. So to get to Frenchmen, I had to walk the entire length of Bourbon. Which was a bit like walking through some sort of trials. I had to go past all those awful bars that smell of vomit and cheap drinks, past the “Tits and whiskey” sign outside of the some strange sex show joint.

Side story – a couple years back, my roommate and I happened to be here as well, similarly driving cross-country from Florida to Arizona. We went to Bourbon Street for dinner, and camped out at a table on one of those famed balconies, eating and watching the depraved mess below. We just happened to be right across from one of those sex show bars, with a hype man outside howling at the crowd, trying to get people in. Most people come here to get a story about someone else (same as Vegas), so they limit themselves to merely getting embarrassingly drunk. Most tourists would never step inside a sex show joint, but some still do. Anyway, in the span of an hour, a handful people actually walked in. Inevitably, within minutes they stormed out of the place, past the ineffable hype man, and angrily left the scene. At one point, someone – I must assume, a performer – walked up to the door where I could see them. The woman – I’m fairly certain – was wearing something sparkling, and obscenely revealing. However, she inspired morbid curiosity rather than any kind of lust in me. I still have no idea what was going on inside, but I am decidedly curious. I need to figure out which spot that was.

Back on track. I had to walk the length of Bourbon Street until it lost all pretense of trying to look nice for the guests. I got to the part dominated by sleazy drink specials and bar flies. No jazz in this part, just obscene club music, something ridiculous that belongs in a cheap strip club. It smelled of piss and spilled drinks. It was an ugly scene. It was a party’s last desperate stand. Everyone who is left standing in the early hours of the morning is surveying the empty bottles and other similarly desperate rejects, deciding whether to attempt to mate or simply vomit and pass out.

Then there was the part that didn’t even have bars or stores or anything open to the public. People lived here. A few drunks stumbled past me, and some people who actually had to be somewhere – people who didn’t seem twisted. I was finally free of the fake Disney makeup; I was in the part of New Orleans that could pass for something like a real city where people merely lived. No one can live on Bourbon street. The madness would drive them to suicide sooner or later. This part also smelled a lot better.

Frenchmen street came up like a beacon. I could hear it before I could see it. The bars here weren’t as obnoxiously lit. Music and alcohol poured out into the streets. The first crowd I got to was definitely meaner by the look of it. Guys who were drunk and rough, swaying with cheap liquor in their veins, ready to defend something imagined but crucial against all comers. Now, this place had a ring of truth to it.

In a Jack on the rocks, the band was on. The dancers came through, and fairly quickly the cramped space before the stage was alive with lindy, blues, bal, and charleston. I love dancers. They’re always a refuge. As long as there is a modicum of space and some good music, a complete stranger will be genuinely kind to you. In no time at all, I’ve met at least some people, and was happily bouncing along to the thick jazz. Hundreds of miles of the road, lack of sleep, short scratch in the pocket – none of it really mattered in those minutes on the floor, and the minutes were strung together pretty tightly. I was inside a vortex. Time stretched out. The night flickered.

The place was so packed with the crowd and the dancers that moving on the floor became an intense exercise in traffic management. On swing-outs, the follows would be flying mere inches away from those watching. Spins had to be ever tighter and more controlled. No wide, broad moves. They had to be traded in for subtle, intimate weight shifts. I can’t help but think that this is how blues and swing are meant to be – no endless, bright-lit ballroom floors.

Dancing like this also leaves me wondering. What do the non-dancers think of people swaying slowly to blues? The close, tight connection of the dance is what makes it such a brilliant experience, but it can only be appreciated by those in the embrace. Everyone can appreciate a great swing-out, spin, or drop by merely seeing it. The blues is felt. This thought never stays long, however. After all, your partner and the music aside, the rest of the universe is utterly irrelevant when dancing the blues.

PS Meschiya Lake and her Little Big Horns – Lucky Devil.