156. Burning Down the House

We had lunch in a Denny’s and about four o’clock reached the Chapel Hill city limits.

The venue was a bar, but unlike the usual nightclub set up where we’d play late, this place was having some kind of to-do with their local city council about noise and liquor licensing, and so had to have us off stage by ten.

That left us two hours to set up before the doors opened and not much time to do much else.

The owner himself, a kind of ex-hippie-ish looking guy with no Southern accent named Carl, came out and apologized for all the trouble and assured us there would be a good crowd no matter what and thanked us for coming. I don’t know if it was that Carynne was still suffering from last night, or just that he was so darned nice, but she didn’t get on his case about the fact that he didn’t even have a real sound technician there and the backstage area was the size of a closet. (“Just like home,” Chris said as we put our stuff down on a pile of beer cases.)

The sound wasn’t great but would do. We didn’t even really have time to get to know the opening band before they had to be on stage and we were in the back waiting. The dressing room wasn’t at all shielded for sound and so was a bit like being in the garage where a garage band was practicing. I wasn’t sure what to make of the fact that most of the guys in the opening band seemed to be pushing thirty, but the music sounded like any bunch of well-meaning teenagers. At least they were having fun. We traded smiles as they came off the stage.

And then we were in what passed for dark in the smoky room, waiting for the lights to come up with an opening drumbeat, searching the dimness for the glint of familiar eyes. Carynne stood by the sound board under a yellow light that made her red hair glow. People were pressed close to the edge of the low stage, looking up, expectant, fresh-faced, eager. I smiled to one girl who bobbed up and down like she had to pee, but her eyes were glued on Bart. A fan.

Christian clicked off the count with touches of his sticks and then we were into it. The first riff sang out and I imagined I could see the sound ripple through the crowd, people’s faces and postures and looks changing subtly from the front of the room to the back as the music swept by, cheers of recognition and happiness and excitement going up. Ziggy came in with a little vocal run up to his first note and in the back of my brain I thought–hey, nice.

As we played I began to have that illusion that the sound was actually coming from my fingers and strings and not from the amps and PA, a direct stream of volume from somewhere in my midsection. In “You Know” for the chorus just before the break I switched to playing up the neck, up the octave, and Bart followed me. It came out sweet and then Christian hit the china crash and into the bridge we went. I was already playing high so I kept the solo up there, working my way slowly down to a bitter groove on the bottom string by the end. As I laid down the riff I dropped lower and lower until I was on my knees, the tall crowd against the low stage looking down on me, a private audience of maybe twenty, while cheers went up.

When I came up, the chorus back in full force now, Ziggy shuffled backwards up to me, and we worked that same groove to the floor, back to back, sinking lower and lower, until we were both on the ground. He pulled away and I fell back, lying on the black surface of the stage looking up into coffee can gels and ripping out the surge of the closing riffs. He was somewhere on the other side of the really small stage now, weaving around Bart or something. I waited until the song was over to get up.

As he put his mic back into its stand, he gave me a quirk of his face and lips that might have been a grimace. He introduced “Why the Sky” and then we were playing. Of course, as soon as I thought too much about enjoying myself, I tensed up, and WTS fell into a bit of a rote feel, but that was soothing in its own way, not quite trance-like but automatic enough to let my mind wander. In the back of the club where there was slightly more room I could make out the dim shapes of people swaying, the I’m-still-watching dance. Puck was at the sound board, his face lit from below by a flashlight. He saw me looking and gave me a heads up but I shook my head, no-just-looking.

I stayed that way through a couple of songs until Bart started teasing me with little licks–in “Rain” he kept pulling a little phrase out of “Why The Sky” and slipping it in. My fingers were ahead of my conscious mind going along with him on it–nice–before I could really plan it out. The quote worked and I wondered why I’d never thought of that before. We were probably the only two people noticing it, but who cared. We looked at each other across the stage like tennis players passing a volley back and forth. He nodded his head in time and rocked from one high-topped sneaker to the other, his bowtie askew.

And then Ziggy was there in my line of sight, right up in my face, singing hard enough to spit, and we kind of went back and forth, pushing each other with the force of our sound. He broke off when my solo came up, though, moving off to do an interpretive dance or something while I looked back into the ring of faces at the stage’s edge and gave them what they were listening for.

It seemed like a long set, yet when we went back to the dressing room/beer closet, the clock showed 9:20. “And we’re supposed to be cleared out by ten?” I said. “Why don’t we do ‘The Right Hand’ into ‘Candlelight?'”

“We haven’t rehearsed it,” said Christian in a devil’s-advocate-type voice which pretty much guaranteed that he’d try it.

“So? C’mon.”

“The Right Hand” opens with guitar only. There wasn’t any good way to get the word back to the sound board so I just went out there and plugged in amid cheers of approval, and let the sound of the crowd die down slightly before I began the fingerpicking that opened the song. I’d named it “The Right Hand” before Ziggy or I had written any words to it, only because it was all right-handed picking. The resulting song was a bittersweet ballad about the forenamed hand not knowing what the left was doing. That theme came up in more than one of our songs and I tried not to think about the potential for pop psychology analyses of what that meant.

Some plain pure emotional part of me gave a little skip of happiness when, as the song reached its peak, Ziggy crawled on his stomach toward me, then lay curled at my feet as he trailed off and I picked up the melody as hands of audience members reached toward us. I hung over him, playing, playing, until he got back to his feet and turned his attention elsewhere. We’re doing it, I thought, it’s working, we’re doing it, and I’m not even having an anxiety attack. I wasn’t blanked out, either, I wasn’t wild. I was awake and present and working hard and tossing my head until sweat flew from my hair onto his bare back.

“The Right Hand” ends loud but mournful which made a nice lead in to “Candlelight.” North Carolina was lighter country, apparently, and people held up little flames as we rolled into the song they knew best. Now, almost by tacit agreement, all three of us faced front, solemn as a choir as we gave the show a finish, no playing back and forth, no grandstanding. Such a simple song in a way, doing it like this gave it a certain dignity and gravity I don’t think we always brought to it.

And then the show was really over and I was sitting on a backstage milk crate feeling a little dizzy and like I wanted to drink a gallon of water but didn’t have the energy to lift a bottle to my mouth. The concrete was cool against my back through my soaked shirt. I pulled the shirt off and sat with it balled in my hands while people shuffled back and forth in front of me.

Bart cuffed me on the head as he went by, saying only “Yeah” in an emphatic way and then hurrying on.

I knew what he meant.


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