I am pretty sure a common refrain with writing and doing many things in general is the expectant hope that an idea will manifest itself onto the page without work. To be honest the act of placing myself in this moment is work. So here I am: let’s do some work.
Last Friday I went to see The Milk Carton Kids at St. James Community Hall in Kitsilano. I was running late and I had no ticket. I was hoping there might be extras for sale at the door. I had not been to the area in a long while and I wanted to make the start of the show, so intuitively I parked at the first available spot about a block away from the venue. The sun was going down and the tree lined street rolled away to the vanishing point bordered by quaint houses, hidden driveways, and waist high fences. It is the kind of place I imagine someone with bohemian tendencies along with the good fortune of old money would occupy, and I must admit am a little envious of. I also imagine it to be an experience I missed out on growing up. The idea of living close to the city life of downtown Vancouver or being able to get up and walk to the ocean or the beach when you are in your twenties makes me wistful. So I approached the venue and saw the tour bus with its front windows shaded, the rest of the windows tinted to repel inward eyes. I saw Joey Ryan from the duo walking in conversation with another beside him. He was dressed in the same black suit he wore in their recent video recording of a live performance from Columbus, Ohio. He seemed to be making mental notes and he carried himself with the purposeful but relaxed stride of a man walking in enjoyment of a garden party or high school graduation. There was a hint of quiet awkwardness, a shyness hidden by a deep intellect and dry humour displayed in the duo’s recently filmed concert recording. I wanted to say hi but did not want to interrupt. I continued to walk up the steps toward the entrance. After climbing the switchback set of stairs, I found there were two entrances. To the right a sign indicated ‘Concert Entrance’. The left hand door was unknown. I felt uncomfortable with the possible rejection implied in my head by going to the obvious so I went left where in a foyer card tables were set up on the fringes of an inner entranceway covered with handmade table cloths, simple and functional. Behind a table immediately beside the doorway a woman pointed out to a patron that the white charcoal on black cardstock sign neatly printed advertising a goodly selection of alcoholic beverages was false due to alcohol bylaws in effect for the sold out show. From this vantage point I quickly looked beyond where I stood and into the hall itself which appeared to be a decommissioned church. The inside was dimly lit, and the shadows of the attendees along with the din of conversation and the occasional blob of a shadow come out to take form in the light of the foyer the only indications that there was activity within. I liked it immediately. I exited the way I came in and made my way to the other entrance. I noticed a man holding a ticket. He approached me and asked if I would like to buy one. I quickly paid and thanked him, more surprised by the serendiptous immediacy of it than paying less than face value. When I entered, it was obvious that this was the business side of the function with stations for the ticket check, the membership table for the Rogue Folk Society which was sponsoring the show, and the merch tables. This business side however was more flea market than slick marketing and over priced everything everywhere you turn. The door person graciously pointed out the things I needed to know: You can sit anywhere there is a seat, the location of the restroom, where the food and drinks were being sold, but that there would be no alcohol sales allowed because the show is sold out (That’s So Vancouver). I thanked her and made my way to the front of the house. It was there I found my seat at the very front among other empty seats to the right of the stage in behind a p.a. monitor and a 1970’s era floor fan on a chair a foot away in full blow, square shaped green and white plastic grill. A single vintage looking metallic spider web mic with a gold centre stood blooming on a thin silvery stalk centre stage amid the thick velvet curtain backdrop. A few overhead house lights illuminated the area around the microphone giving it an inviting glow. You could see the dust lines floating in and out of each beam of light disturbed from the vaulted ceiling above by the vibrations of the people below. The arch of the entire ceiling which was ribboned from back to front north to south by strips of tightly fitted wood lent the building the smell of old wooden furniture. The dimly lit balcony below it was framed by the light quickly fading within the windows behind the step riser pews. It conveyed the feeling of being inside a capsized boat. I said hello to two women who obviously came together. I asked if any of the seats beside them were taken. The woman closest to me acknowledged a polite no. I asked if I could sit beside her and she agreed. I took my place in a metal folding chair and while the fan hummed steadily in our faces she proceeded to ask me how I was familiar with the music of the band. We exchanged our discoveries and for some odd reason, I assured her that despite my appearance (dirty mac work shirt and jeans) I was too old to be reckless. After which getting comfortable in my seat I noticed a beautiful single pink full on big ball peony standing, beaming in a clear glass vase. I coveted it immediately. The emcee a stout bearded fellow in a t-shirt, suspenders and pork pie hat came out on stage to welcome everyone and apologize for the lack of spirits. He said something to the effect that maybe the city politicians were concerned the combination of a sold out show and alcohol meant that we would not be able to hold each other up when we inevitably became piss drunk. After regaling the audience with upcoming shows where spiked drinks would be available, he introduced Joey Ryan who in turn would introduce the opening artist Tom Brosseau. For those unfamiliar with Joey he is an encyclopaedia of the mundane and archaic, however his delivery and timing is impeccable with a sharp wit that makes the altogether ordinary subjects of his humour curiously hilarious. I can’t recall how he started off his introduction but he did say Tom was tall, blonde, skinny and a great musical artist. Ha ha ha! Well you had to be there. On with the show… Tom Brosseau came out tall wearing a plain baby blue long sleeved poplin shirt and plain front logger jeans. Dark brown boots completed his well travelled look. He said hi, he said his name and that he would sing some songs and then he would have to leave. His lyrics belied the resplendent and clear voice which rang out and placed sweetness beside darkness. I was reminded of Harry Dean Stanton in ‘Cool Hand Luke’. He sang of the heartache of an unrequited puppy love for his hard living twice married landlady in LA, dreams of sexual release unshared. He closed with ‘Today Is A Bright New Day’, a breakup vignette recalling the experience of a small town boy coming home to a familiar DQ haunt he used to occupy with an old girlfriend who referenced the title like perfunctory howdies as a way of putting on a brave face melting away in his banana split. Even though he stated between songs that his writing stems from true situations and that he often finds they take on a life of their own and the story gets crazy, it did not seem to slake the discomfort my seatmates had for his subjects. Or was it distaste? Everything he sang about was discordant to the environment I was in. Clean cut people with clean cut houses, university students with money, loving cup competitors with conservative wanderlust. It wasn’t to be Tom’s kind of folk party. What caught me later as deja vu was a song he wrote about being taken by his mother to a department store five states away from home and with the promise of “I’ll be right back”, left to his own devices inside a large circular rack of dresses marked ‘CLEARANCE’ only to be discovered at closing time by a clerk.
“What’s your name?
“Tommy, where’s your mommy?” ”
…I’ve haven’t seen her since”
End of song. Awkward silence, before polite clapping. Some with more foresight clapped and hollered enthusiastically. I could taste the tension. After the show I had the feeling I read about the song in a review somewhere. I cannot place it but that ‘I could swear I was there’ veil hovered around me about it. Did I dream it? He mentioned later his mom asking him why he wrote such dark sad songs. Record scratch. He sang a song he called ‘Goodbye Empire Builder’ about a train that travels across the USA. I anticipated a train wreck which I did not want him to feel. Awkward nervousness again this time for him on the stage. Waiting for some relief even though his voice and his guitar playing were more than enough to solve that, it was like the ‘one of these things just doesn’t belong here’ tune from my childhood. That feeling of not fitting in. Between each song he would step aside toward a bouquet of peonies onstage bend his nose down and breathe in. I know when I smell heady flowers I’m transported…
After a brief intermission The Milk Carton Kids entered the stage to a warm and enthusiastic welcome. They launched into ‘Hope of A Lifetime’ their voices melding effortlessly, skilful and light were their hands on their chosen axes. As they stood facing each other Kenneth’s guitar with a white kerchief tied nut side of the capo, and Joey Ryan straight faced his dark rimmed glasses nodding as they played, their musical connection made me nod in agreement also. Experiencing music hitting a chord with an audience once is something special; when it is warm and familiar spanning the degrees of love and loss, of celebration and defeat, that shared recognition becomes magical. However Joey Ryan has a way of bringing you out of that reverie with his matter of fact musings a gentle shaking of the shoulders as you lay as if to say hey it’s time to wake up and open your eyes a bit and adjust them to the waning light or the waning dark. One of his nudges between songs consisted of an acknowledgement of the audience saying “You guys are the best crowd. Better than last night’s crowd”. He qualified it by saying he said pretty much the same thing to last night’s crowd because they had more likes for the show on Facebook. It was refreshing to hear that acknowledgement as if to say thanks for showing up and listening to our music, and that they enjoy coming out to do what they do. He later engaged in anti-hype by talking about the merchandise available for sale wryly joking about how they had to retire their previous t-shirt design because they figured that the money was to be made not in selling their music, but by selling t-shirts and tote bags, so that they went and hired a designer who he admitted made some beautiful designs for their new shirts. However he failed to see what octopus and phases of the moon on the new shirts had to do with their music and that we could buy them if we like. He then mentioned the dvd of their performance at the Lincoln Theatre in Columbus, Ohio and said it was rather expensive and you could watch it for free online, and that the set was pretty much the same as the DVD so that if you really wanted to you could just go home right now and watch that instead.
Songs such as ‘Michigan’ and ‘The Ash and Clay’ expanded the slow long lens look back, while Kenneth Pattengale showcased his fretboard virtuosity on ‘Girls Gather Round’ and ‘Honey, Honey’. In introducing a song they had never played live before Joey requested no recording: his reason being that “we don’t want to hear the first recording of this song to be from your shitty iPhone”. By the end of the evening I had purchased their back catalog on vinyl as well as their latest record ‘The Ash & Clay’. Oh yeah I also picked up one of those moon phase shirts for my son. I had to say no to the dvd and the tote bag even though it looked nice and like it could hold a few shirts and things. You can watch the live performance of their appearance at Lincoln Theatre on YouTube:
Seeing Tom Brosseau at the merch table doing a meet and greet with a smattering of people was a continuance of the awkwardness I felt for him. He smiled and said hi to me. I returned his greeting but I did not continue his gaze. It was an easy eager smile. The smile of an artist who is open to all possibilities whose job it was not to shock but disturb. I guess I am still dozing, lacking that particular courage to express my admiration for his courage to follow his muse. As I made my way down the stairs I felt the yearning to go back and get the peony for my wife. I wanted to put my nose into it, to gaze upon it and wear it because I could see in its beauty something that makes me smile. I went back and asked for it. So beautiful, I placed it in my shirt pocket. It was the only place I could keep it safe and being a vessel for that flower made me feel special. A woman remarked on how pretty the flower was saying I must have stolen it. Being someone who my wife says has to get the last word in I stated that no I asked for it and smiled. I left and as I crossed the street the tour bus loomed large blocking my view of oncoming traffic and out of place in the quiet neighbourhood. There was only one more stop to make. Cheesecake Etc. for a slice of plain with strawberry topping. For someone special.