I grew up in Mystic and after attending four of the original Newport Folk Festivals and passionately playing the guitar for a few years I was very psyched when the River Shack opened that summer. It was a funky old fishermen’s shack right on Mystic River, just off Main Street. The place was not large but seated perhaps a hundred people on salvaged folding chairs around the classic wooden telephone wire spools that were used as tables. I can’t remember who or how it was run; certainly it was some sort of private enterprise, not one of the church-run “coffee houses” that were common in those days. But the people who did run it were from New Haven, real hippies by our standards and they brought in quite a few marginal performers from the New Haven and New York area. From the very first time I heard Randy and his band (Randy on guitar, a man who just sang high harmony, an electric bass player and sometimes a lead guitarist, plus a guy who played various types of hand percussion instruments) I was blown away – he had both the classic look of a hippie musician and he wrote some great tunes. But it was his voice and stage presence that were most impressive, a high baritone voice with that achy rasp that conveyed (at least in my view) a world-weary existence based on life on the road and experiences that I only dreamed of. You could tell that, given the right breaks, he could easily be as famous as any of the singer/songwriters that were becoming all the rage.
But over the course of that summer and the next, he changed. His performances grew erratic and short. Sometimes he slurred or forgot words to his own songs. We just chalked it up to perhaps a stronger than usual joint before a performance but that wasn’t it. Even his band members could be seen scowling and shaking their heads, and the bass player and lead guitar left. Finally I saw him in a concert in a larger venue in Mystic and he staggered out on stage, mumbled incoherently into the mic, and could not even tune his guitar. His singing partner helped him off stage and the show was over.
I later learned that he had crawled into a bottle and couldn’t find his way out. Word was a couple years later that he had lost everything and was living on the street in New York. Decades passed and I learned not long ago that he has pulled himself together and is again performing, mostly in the New Haven area. And he has regained a small but loyal following.
So I learned a great lesson. I’d heard of musicians who lost everything to booze but I’d never seen it close up and it made a huge impression. Randy could have had just about anything, I think, in the acoustic music world. But forces beyond his control took over. I never knew him personally but what I learned was that in spite of great talent and being in the right place at the right time, we must take control of our own destiny. Or pay a huge price.
7. Mary Chapin Carpenter, Cape Cod Melody Tent, summer 1991. I’d heard a few cuts from her just-released “Come On, Come On” album that went on to win virtually every award in country music the next year and a student has turned me on to one of her previous albums. So I really wanted to hear her when she came to the Melody Tent, which is a great “in the round” venue that operates here on the Cape in the summer. The concert was one of those magic moments you get to experience in music once in a while when you sense a performer has finally reached what he or she has been striving for but still exhibits a joy and love of the music that set them upon the quest in the first place. Her band, anchored by the great John Jennings on guitar (he now plays bass with her) was superb, the pacing of the show was perfect, and Chapin’s performance was just about perfect. They played just about every cut on “Come on, Come On” and the spirit and energy were electric. Although I feel she is still great, her songs in recent years have turned so introspective that sometimes they border on narcissism in my opinion. But I still look back on that night in Hyannis and smile. Just GREAT music.
8. Tony Bennett, Cape Cod Melody Tent, 2008. What can I say that hasn’t been said about this legendary singer? Even at 80 years old that year, Tony still has almost all his chops and his performance was a study in how a classic singer of the Great American Songbook should perform. Backed by his long-time piano player and guitarist Gray Sargent, plus a bass player and drummer, Tony delivered a spectacular performance, at one point putting down the mic to demonstrate how lounge singers learned to project "back in the day." And every one of the 2000 people could hear him just fine. What struck me the most was his genuine love of and respect the songs of the Great American Songbook that he sings so well. I regret never having heard Sinatra or Ella live, but at least I can say I heard Tony, who definitely belongs in the company of those greats.
In the next installment I'll talk about my final two musical experiences that shaped how I perform and hear music.
Peace & good music,