Soaked in Blues

It’s New Year’s day in 2016 and I just dropped my German husband off at San Francisco International airport. I’m missing him instantly, the international love-lifestyle probably seems romantic to most people, to me it’s like getting used to heartbreak and trust, and missing your family, and just dealing with that pain a lot. The pain isn’t any less painful after a few years but it’s easier to deal with. Maybe it’s something that we musicians share with soldiers…

Where do you go when you have a broken heart on New Year’s Day in San Francisco? You go to the Saloon in North Beach. It’s free to get in, the drinks are cheap (by Bay Area standards, extremely cheap… it’s probably on par with your favorite dive in New Orleans.) You go to hear Blues Power play from 2-8pm, and you throw $20 in the tip bucket for the band when you’re feeling flush. If you’re me you get the extreme good fortune to sit in with Blues Power, to feel those old grooves rushing through your cells, waking up the DNA strands which you inherited from umpteen hundred ancestors who practiced the music craft long enough to build neural and genetic pathways, patterns upon patterns. You go into a weird trance state that’s mostly listening and part reacting. A step, a dance, a swing of the hips, a note, a triplet that won’t stop, riding the wave of those clave beats…

Blues Power is a bunch of aging fellers who usually play on Sundays from 4-8pm. I discovered them maybe 5 years ago when North Beach was my regular Sunday evening street-music beat. Sundays were always great San Francisco busking days for me, a slow morning and then an afternoon adventure on the sidewalks. When I first heard Blues Power it was like Going to Church. Only, I grew up Catholic and feminist and so going to church as a kid never felt like Going to Church because I’ve got about 200 serious arguments with the writers of the Bible; starting with this concept; grow some dignity and stop blaming women for every damn sin. Try some accountability and some compassion and some female viewpoints and try a re-write of the Old Testament if you really want to earn my tithe every Sunday. I digress…

Going to hear Blues Power play, and drinking a whiskey and doing that step-step, hip-swinging dance and getting my mind blown by these unassuming dudes, these tip-hustling live music cats, that’s like hearing the voice of God. That’s my burning bush. It was like that on the first day I heard them, five years ago, and it was just like that this afternoon. On the break I asked their drummer, Rick, “where do you guys come from?” Rick said that he moved to San Francisco from Chicago back in the 70’s, and so did Terry, the Bari Sax player, and Apple Jack, the singer/harmonica player. He told me that he used to go to all the tiny little Blues clubs in Chicago, and hear the bands on tour from New Orleans and Mississippi and Memphis and just soak it all in. He listened to Muddy Waters’ band way back when, in a tiny little club… Today Rick blew my mind at least ten times. He did this one pattern on the floor tom, beating the clave on the drum head, and playing stick-fills on the side, keeping that kick drum riding. Daaaaamn. I told him that it’s an incredible experience for me to hear them live. I’m so glad that young Rick went into those Blues clubs, to absorb those old, strong grooves from the masters. I’m so glad that older Rick is jamming those grooves as honestly as he can, being the conduit for the rhythm that expresses itself through the players. It’s a crazy old magic, a fire, a mojo that shakes the sickness and despair out of your system and fills you with dancing and joy. It really feels like a tiny miracle to me when that band is grooving. Time gets a different feeling, slow and thick, and I have to hold my impulses back like dogs straining at the leash, to stay in the groove and not get going too fast. But I do hold it back until it’s time to let loose and then the notes I play feel like flying. Maybe that’s why they keep inviting me back…

They say that San Francisco sourdough can’t be duplicated anywhere else in the world. You could take a starter culture to another place, and bake a few batches of bread with it, but almost immediately those new batches start to get a different flavor because it’s really a yeast in the San Francisco air that creates the special sourdough flavor. I feel the same way about recordings from a band. You can transfer most of the ideas, get MOST of the flavor, but something gets lost and flattened in the translation to recorded media. Yes, you quasi-pervert vinyl-philes, even on LPs you lose dynamics and harmonics from the music. And don’t get me started on Itunes, and what the conversion of every track to an mp3 does to the music. Don’t expect to hear God talking to you through an mp3. You can write an algorithm but it never matches the actual rhythm. Yes, buy the CD, download the album, that portable music can lift you enough for that drive to work, for that cleaning spree you need to finish in record time… but when you need to hear God, there’s a better way.

Go hear your favorite band live, if you want to hear God talking. Check out the sound from those fools who were crazy enough to dedicate their lives to learning a set of grooves, who get no paycheck, who send out their energy and their tip jar, knowing that they gave up any shot at a stable, secure life long ago; but they got good enough at music that they can trust the kindness of strangers to support them. Listen to those fools because they are talking to God almost every day and when you hear them jamming in the same room, God will talk to you, too. Your pain will be lifted and you will feel the eternal pulse that pervades the universe. You will feel that human expression of natural patterns, which is maybe the reason that we came to exist in the first place, that art which takes time and condenses it and stretches it, until you realize that the music is really the heartbeat of the great being who birthed you.

Today was a miracle day, and I feel blessed. I’m so glad for all the old musicians out there, showing the way. I’m so glad for the young ears who come to listen, I’m so grateful for every human who throws a tip in that bucket. We are the people who are keeping the music alive. We musicians might even be elevating the art of humanity enough to amuse the power that created the universe. Maybe, if we keep playing great jams, and waking up the love in our hearts, the universe will keep us around a while longer, instead of letting us destroy ourselves through greed.



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