So there I was at the Lansing, North Carolina farmer’s market, buying tomatoes from the nice Rose Mountain Farm lady.
“Where are y’all located?”
“We’re up Big Horse Creek Road.”
“I’m headed up there this afternoon to go fishing.”
“That’s the main reason that anybody goes up there. Do you go for the meditation, or to catch fish?”
Well, let me think about that for a moment. It was 27 years ago that I first tried fly-fishing, thanks to my dear departed cousin Dean C. Jones. Once you’ve had a trout take a dry fly off the top the water, man, you’re way more hooked than the fish is.
But I’m not a studied fly fisherman. I don’t read the books, watch the training videos, take the classes, any of it. Because the truth is that it really is a meditation for me. A few days earlier, I was chatting with the fellow at the Old Orchard Creek General Store and Café, and told him that I was headed out to go fishing.
“I hope you catch some.”
“If I’m standing in a trout stream on a day like this, and I’m not blissfully happy, then that’s on me.”
“Well, that’s right.”
So I was tempted to tell the lady that it’s all about the meditation. But then I had an interesting thought, and relayed it to her:
“The more I meditate, the more fish I seem to catch.”
In the last year or two, I’ve started to have some real success catching fish. On this current trip, I’ve caught a handful of trout in Little Horse Creek, right here in front of my AirBnB.
This is significant because N.C. Wildlife doesn’t stock Little Horse Creek. They do stock Big Horse Creek, of which Little Horse Creek is a tributary. Some fish make it up there, but fewer than in the stocked streams. And maybe they get a tad smarter after being up there a while. So I’m particularly proud of myself for catching fish in a stream they don’t stock.
Here’s the thing: when I go out for a few hours of fly fishing, I’d like to catch one trout. The difference between getting skunked and catching one beautiful fish is enormous. After that, my cup overfloweth. But on this trip, and the last couple, I seem to catch 6-8 fish every day. That’s after years of thinking that if I caught two fish, it was an extra special day.
October 14th, 2023
I headed up to the northern end of Big Horse Creek, to the catch-and-release section. From there to the Virginia state line, you can’t keep any fish. I never keep any anyway, but it’s particularly beautiful and fishy water.
I also have a theory that the fish are a bit smarter. A lot of people in this county fish for dinner, so the stocked fish go from stream to pan. But in this stretch, they get put back. Where maybe they learn their lesson and don’t bite at every single buggy-looking thing that floats over.
I dunno if that’s true or not, but I sure had a tougher time getting strikes than when I was down on the lower part of the creek. Still, I managed to land three rainbows and one beautiful brown.
Around 5:30pm, it was getting dark-ish, and there was a light rain falling. I had determined I was going to have to scale a fairly steep hill up to Big Horse Creek Road to return to my car (it’s just a whole lot easier than clambering back downstream to my entry point).
I was pretty proud of myself for catching four fish in the “tough” section of the stream. And darn proud for climbing out of that canyon back up to the road without too much exertion. All that walking and jogging pays off.
Then a thing happened. I stood up at the top of the hill, and looked down the road, back to the car. Saw this:
I wanted to find the Rose Mountain Farm lady, and tell her I’d been mistaken when we chatted that afternoon. The correct answer is, “Yes ma’am – it’s all about the meditation.”
P.S. On most browsers, you can right-click on any image and open the image in a new tab. No picture will properly convey the beauty of the scene that awaited me when I reached the top of the hill. But you’ll do your heart good by filling your screen with that for a minute and just taking it in.
My dad’s parents, Hunter (senior) and Mattie, grew up in a tiny little community called “Helton,” in northwest North Carolina, just a few minutes from the Virginia state line. They ended up moving to Charlotte, and that’s where my dad grew up. But in 1951, they bought some land and built a summer home (“the cabin”) in the community where they’d grown up.
They would spend as much time up there as they could, during the summers. My parents visited them there, even before I was born. So I was going to “the cabin” in a stroller.
As I got older, Helton and the cabin was my favorite place in the world. At first, it was just the creek to play in, the sound of the water rushing over the dam, and the seeming endless forest that surrounded us.
I got a bit older, and became obsessed with fishing in Helton Creek. At first it was just chubs and other “rough” fish. But after I caught my first trout, well, I was hooked.
The years passed, and I went to Helton whenever I could. I’ve got 6-7 generations of ancestors buried in the family cemetery behind the white house across the creek from the cabin, going back to the early 1800’s. I call them my “friendly ghosts,” and they make me feel welcome and happy whenever I’m back there.
So when you were born, I always had a dream of taking you to the cabin, and introducing you to Helton Creek. I also wanted my friendly ghosts to get a look at you, and see what an extraordinary grandchild I had gotten in the inimitable E-blast.
Some years ago, Ana and I ended up owning half of the cabin, but because we lived in California, it was really hard for us to look after it. Fortunately, in 2020, we were able to sell it to my cousin, Greg Pool, who lives in the Greensboro, NC area. Greg and his family moved into the cabin during Covid, Greg taught from there, and his kids (Liam, Avery, and Lily) went to Zoom school there.
Once I’d met the Pool family, I wanted you to meet those cousins too – they’re pretty cool people.
Elena goes to the mountains
This year, your parents were kind enough to let us arrange a visit to the mountains for you and your dad. Ana joined us too, so we had a group of four of us, staying at a house in a place called “Fee’s Branch Road,” about five minutes from the cabin.
I flew in a couple of days before everybody else, got the AirBnB opened up, and groceries in the refrigerator. Then I drove down to the Charlotte airport and picked you two up. It was time to head up to the mountains!
It was about a 2.5 hour drive up to the AirBnB from the airport. You played on your tablet most of the trip, but as we got to the mountains, you rolled down your window. “There’s so much to smell!” Yes, a lot to smell up there.
That evening, we outside and fished in the pond right next to the house. It was full of very stupid largemouth bass.
You didn’t catch any fish that evening, because we didn’t have any worms, but you got a couple of strikes, which was super cool.
The next day, Ana was going to be coming in from Charlotte in her own rental car, so you, your dad, and I had the morning and early afternoon to ourselves. We drove down into West Jefferson, the nearest real town. We needed a few grocery things, water shoes, and worms!
We got you the coolest water shoes ever, and then went to a store where your dad could get some local beers. This is you and me sitting outside that store.
We also found you an excellent ice cream cone of “orange dreamsicle.” Then we went to Wal-Mart. We split into two teams: Team Hot Sauce (David), and Team Worms (you and me). We found our worms immediately:
I think we won the contest.
Then we drove back up to the house, and pretty quickly headed back to the pond. We put a worm on a hook, and pretty soon, you had hooked your first fish – a largemouth bass! You got it to the shore, but you wanted me to hold it while you got the hook out. We did that one just fine.
The second one you caught, you couldn’t get the hook out, so you asked me to get the hook out of it. I was working on the hook, when I felt a hand up on my shoulder. It was you reaching up to grab the hemostat that sits in a magnetic clip on the strap of my fishing bag. You wanted the hook out of the fish, and the critter back in the water right now. I was so proud of you. Pretty quick, I had the hook out (we had squished down the barb of the hook) and the bass was back in the pond.
“Thanks buddy!” you said. My heart leapt with joy.
Ana arrived that afternoon, after flying out from California. She got lost on the road that runs by our AirBnB, so we were sitting on the porch, talking to her on the phone, and could see her car going back and forth past our driveway. “No Ana, turn around and go back 100 feet!” you said.
The Pools and the cabin
Our next day was a play date with our cousins, the Pool family. We got to the cabin, and I asked Avery if she could give you a tour. Y’all were out the door and gone. We visited with the Pools a little, and ate some lunch, but then it was creek time!
I cannot express how much it meant to me to see you playing in Helton Creek. I played in that same creek, that same place, 60 years ago when I was a kid. And 60 years before that, my grandmother, Mattie Perkins, played in the same creek, in the same place – I’ve seen an old picture of her standing in it with her sister, Clara. That was in the early 1900’s – over 100 years ago. I don’t know this for a fact, but it’s quite possible that her grandmother played in that creek.
You had such a blast playing in the water, as I knew you would. It was especially fun because the Pool’s dog, Figment, thinks of Helton Creek as his own private swimming pool.
After that, we all sat on the bridge and just “visited.” Well, you stayed there for a little while to see if your dad would catch a trout (he did) but then you and Avery disappeared to go explore.
The next day was blueberry picking with the Pools. We drove out to Old Orchard Creek blueberry farm…
We ended up with so many blueberries that we froze them. Then after you left, I made blueberry jam. I still have a few jars of it at our house in San Leandro.
The next day was your last up in the mountains. The four of us had a quiet morning, and then went to the “swimming hole” on Helton Creek. For two hours, we did nothing – and everything – in the creek. Your dad decided to send a giant log floating down the creek, and spent 20 minutes maneuvering it into position so it would float.
But mostly we just waded around enjoying being in the creek on a warm summer day. At some point, I found a crawdad with just one claw. I lifted it out of the water so you could see it. It was a female, and she was covered with eggs on her underbelly. This blew your mind. You looked at her for a few seconds, then said we had to get her back in the water.
I put her under a rock, and then for the next minute or two, you stood right next to the rock to be sure none of us stepped on her.
Somehow, two hours flew by and we never noticed.
Time to go
The next day, we all drove back to Charlotte. You and your dad flew back to California, while Lisa and I drove up to Asheville to visit a friend.
Elena, I don’t know if you’ll remember much of this trip, but that picture of you playing in Helton Creek is the wallpaper on my computer. And the image is stored in my heart forever.
And somewhere, those old friendly ghosts, my grandmother among them, are smiling. “You got a good ‘un there, Lee,” they’re saying.
I don’t know how long you’ve been taking drum lessons – maybe six months? You’ve tried a lot of things as a kid – softball, soccer, karate… the usual kinds of things that kids try. And none of them ever really caught on. But when asked about musical pursuits, you kept saying you wanted to play drums. And that was a recurring theme.
So we coordinated with your parents, and started taking you to weekly drum lessons. They’re in this weird building in a weird part of Oakland, at a place called the Oakland Drum School. But it really looks like a warehouse that’s been turned into a warren of small offices and shops, where noises (e.g. drumming) won’t bother people.
Of course, this is unimportant to you, as it should be – it is simply the place where you go to learn drums.
And boy, do you learn drums! I’ve gotten to go to many of your lessons, while your mom and Ana have been to some too. And we all agree – you’re good at drums. You and your friend Emmett Schultz both study at the Oakland Drum School, and they were going to have a recital in May. Then sadly, your drum teacher got sick and they had to cancel the recital. So your mom and Emmett’s mom decided they’d have a mini-recital for you two, at your house. Here’s what happened:
You got in there, overcame your nervousness about playing in front of people, and crushed Seven Nation Army. Everybody cheered.
And you’ve just stuck with it and continued to grow. You found a couple of tunes by Imagine Dragons: Alone and Thunder. You brought those to your teacher, he worked out the drum patterns in them, and you’ve been working on those two songs with them.
Which brings me to today, June 14th, 2023. It was the second half of your 45-minute lesson, and you and Travis were working on Thunder. He was on one kit, and you were on the other, both of you playing along with the recording. I had my eyes down and I was just listening to you both rocking along.
Then I looked up and at you, and my heart about exploded.
You weren’t looking at your teacher, Travis. You weren’t looking at me. You weren’t really looking anywhere.
No, Elena, you were in that place that musicians go when they’re just making music. What you were seeing was the music itself – a vibrant ephemeral thing, and you were part of it. I know what it’s like to be in that place, and when you’re there, you don’t want to leave. And in that moment, I wished that Alone by Imagine Dragons would never end, so you could stay in that magical bubble with the music.
It ended, of course – it always does. Musicians, they’re always looking for ways to get back to that place. Jimmy Buffett, the person who wrote the song Chansons pour les petits Enfants, has another song called Something so Feminine About a Mandolin. I sing it for you sometimes when it’s bed-time on sleepover Fridays. One of the lines is:
When I get older, and I have a daughter I’ll teach her to sing, and play her my songs. And I’ll tell her some stories I can barely remember And hope that she will sing along.
And maybe one day she’ll take a fancy to picking… ‘Cause when that bug bites you, you live with the sting…
He’s telling his future daughter that if she ever learns to play an instrument, she’ll be “stuck” doing it her whole life.
Now, Elena, I saw you in that magic bubble with the music. You’re one of us now – the ones that think it sure would be fine to be back in that bubble one more time.
As we were leaving the lesson today, you said, to nobody in particular, “That was fun.” It’s not my place to say what you meant by that, but in my world, you meant, “That little while – when it was just me and the music all together – that was fun.”
The music is calling to you, Elena – I can tell that you hear it calling. You go on now, and follow.
My granddaughter, Elena, has a problem with swimming pools. Specifically, exiting them. I mean, she’s eight years old, so it’s not like we expect to tell her, “You have ten more minutes in the pool” and have her jump out ten minutes later. This is simply a way of setting expectations to mitigate the systemic shock when she does actually have to finally get out. For real.
We give her 2-3 warnings, then say, “Okay, you have to get out now.” But somehow she’s always across the pool and/or underwater, so she can’t hear us. So it usually takes five minutes from the point where she’s told to get out of the pool for her to actually climb out. Whatever.
Which brings me to the dive I did today at Atlantis Dumaguete in the Philippines. It was a beautiful reef/muck dive, about which I’ll say more later. This is about ending the dive.
We’d been out for a perfectly reasonable, actually generous, length dive, and had come back under the boat. Our group consisted of Lisa, me, and another Lisa (hereinafter “Smiley”, for avoidance of confusion).
It was our last muck dive of the trip, and we were sitting on seagrass in about 12 feet of water, 15 feet from the boat. The sun was beaming down and a cloud of tiny silver fish were playing in the first couple of feet of water above us. The sunlight glittered off their bodies as they moved as a mercurial whole, a sci-fi scene of a luminous alien.
Our divemaster, KF, was hanging on the bottom of the swim ladder, looking at us, wondering why we weren’t coming over, since the other group had gone up. Or maybe he knew.
Anyway, in that moment, I channeled my inner Elena Catherine, looked at Smiley, crossed my arms, squeezed my eyes shut, and shook my head vigorously from side to side.
The international dive sign for, “Nope, not going up.”
Then I turned, faced Lisa, and did the same thing. Elena, had she been there, would have understood and supported my position. She would wholeheartedly agree that going up, when we had plenty of air, and this magical fairyland setting, would be dumb.
But then I saw that neither Lisa was buying it. Silly grown-ups.
So I actually did a generous thing. I was last to come up on the previous dive, so I put on my big boy pants, kicked over to the ladder and the awaiting divemaster, and went up.
Giving the two Lisas a couple more minutes with the seagrass, sun, and tiny silver fish.
If you’re a diver and find yourself on the Big Island of Hawai’i (which is probably not a coincidence) you owe it to yourself to do some shore diving. There is obviously plenty of great boat diving, and I can highly recommend Jack’s Diving Locker for that. But there’s something special about finding your own way to an awesome dive site. You get the experience all to yourself and your buddy(ies). If you want to be lazy about getting in the water, do so. Or if you’re a speed demon, you’re in the water before the boat divers have made it out of the harbor.
And I promise you that the shore diving is every bit as good as most of the boat dives you’ll do. Yeah, you gotta walk/crawl over lava. But for my money, it’s well worth it. Let me tell you about Puako 120. Puako is a little town 40 miles north of Kailua-Kona, immediately north of the Mauna Lani resort. It’s got a road, shockingly called “Puako Road,” that runs from Highway 19 down to the beach. All along it are glorious beach dives. This one is about “120” – you park at the utility pole labeled “120.”
One great thing about Jack’s Diving Locker: they give out maps of the awesome shore dives. Here’s the Puako map:
Lisa and I left the Hale Kona Kai condo before 7:00am and were parked around 7:45.
First thing about diving Puako: be sure to mark your exit point. When you’re out in the ocean, everything looks the same. We hung a big orange/white striped beach towel off a tree on the shore.
The entry at Puako is the only bit of drama in the entire experience. There is slippery lava that you have to walk/craw over to reach the sandy bottom or deep enough that you can swim. I highly recommend going at high tide so you get deeper quicker.
The other recommendation: wear heavy booties, both for lava and urchin protection, meaning strapped, rather than full-foot, fins. Carry your fins in, and walk holding hands (three points of support) over the lava. I’m making it sound worse than it is – don’t let me put you off. Just be properly prepared, plan and time your entry right, and Bob’s your uncle.
There are mooring buoys all over the area. We took aim at the “middle” one, a heading of 15° off the beach. If you’re an old beach diver like Lisa and I are, the swim isn’t that daunting. And on a pretty Sunday morning in August, it’s downright enjoyable. Roll on your back (saves air for the underwater bit), kick slow and take your time.
We got almost to the buoy, when I looked down and saw a drop-off to about 40′ directly below us. “Look what I found.” I took a compass reading on our towel – sure enough, 195° – math is cool.
We found a sand bottom in 20′ at the edge of the drop-off, and went down there to adjust straps, clear masks, etc. Then we tumbled over and went down toward the sand. There is a gentle slope down to maybe 100′ – we hung around 50-60′. “Left or right?” I asked Lisa. Shrug. Shore dives are so fun. I picked left (westward) and we started cruising along the slope, enjoying the finger coral. Less than five minutes after we descended, this guy swam past us.
I turned to see if Lisa was watching – her eyes were smiling ear to ear, so yeah. He came back 3-4 times. Lisa later said she saw him head up into the shallows. But it was fun to have him around for a little while.
Here’s the thing about drop-offs – I’m always turning to look out that way, because something amazing can swim past. Unlike the nature specials and Shark Week, the critters don’t have a swelling soundtrack to announce their arrival. I’ve always wondered how many astonishing sights I’ve missed because I was concentrating on something on the shoreward side. This wasn’t astonishing, but it was definitely way cool:
She was swimming parallel to us along the sand bottom, 40′ below us. If she was aware of us, she didn’t indicate it – she just passed us at a leisurely pace and disappeared into the gloom.
I should note that there were a bazillion reef fish of every sort. The outer slope reefs had clouds of anthias covering them. The big critters were fun, for sure. But even without them, the usual reef suspects made the dive delightful.
We continued on until we came to a weird topographic feature. As I mentioned above, there was a sand bottom at about 40′ below us to the right. But suddenly that sand bottom dropped off into the abyss in the direction we were going. And the slope that we were paralleling also dropped down into that same deep blue. It was beautiful. And freaky. We had to stop for a couple of minutes and just dig that particular junction.
Then it seemed like time to head back to slightly shallower water, so we headed up the slope. By sheer accident we ran smack into the mooring buoy one west of the one where we’d descended. I looked up and discovered that there was a boat attached to it, which explained the prop sounds we’d heard earlier in the dive.
My recollection of previous dives at Puako (a decade prior) was amazing topography, with canyons, arches, and towers of coral. I’d been missing that during the first part of the dive, and thought maybe I’d misremembered.
We just had to get to the right place. As we came up into 30-40′ of water near the second buoy, the canyons and arches appeared. I took a scientific wild-ass guess on the direction back toward our original buoy and we headed that way.
But we were careful to zig in and out toward shore to get the full joy of the terrain. Towers of coral. Archways that you could swim through, were they not full of big fish that you’d disturb. Dead-end canyons that looked like something out of a bizarre underwater cowboy western.
It was in one of those canyons that I had a memory of our friend Celeste Fowler. Man. We lost Celeste to cancer in 2004, and here 18 years on, it still stings. She was the most amazing diver, and just a magical spirit. Somehow I’d had the privilege of doing a dive with her at Puako – just the two of us. We were in one of those canyons, and Celeste was scanning her light under a ledge, when she waved me over. There was a whitetip shark sleeping on the sand under the ledge. We spent a few minutes enjoying that treat, then turned to head out. The canyon opened up in front of us, leading toward the drop-off – the view was stunning.
Celeste reached out and we held hands for a little while as we swam down the canyon. I hope that memory stays with me forever. Dives at Puako will help me keep it.
After meandering back in the general direction of home, Lisa and I thought it was time to think about finding the actual exit point. We found a sand patch, and I indicated that I was going to go up, get a proper compass reading, and come back down. But looking up, I saw a green sea turtle swimming over. It was surrounded by a dozen small jacks that were using its shell as a parasite cleaning station. One by one, the fish swam up to the turtle and wiped their sides against its shell, presumably to wipe parasites off themselves. Whether this has any benefit for the turtle, who knows?
After that show was over, I went on up to the surface to get a compass reading. Miraculously, we were close to smack on the path that we’d taken out at the beginning of the dive (I’m just not that good at navigation) – home was at 200°.
We stayed underwater as far as possible because (a) it’s more fun, (b) you see more, and (c) it’s easier kicking underwater. Ultimately, we were at about 6′, so I gave up and ascended, much to Lisa’s annoyance.
We kicked on in, made our way across the lava, fins in hand, and got back to the shore. 65 minutes underwater, every one awesome.
Standing at the car, Lisa said, “That was great. Now let’s get lunch at Harbor House, then drive down to Two Step, and go snorkeling.” Gotta get full value for your last day in Kona.
Random shore diving note
Over the years, I’ve tended to weight myself more heavily than the textbooks suggest. Even the textbooks have gotten better about adding weight since my early training days in the 1980’s, because it’s important to be able to comfortably stay at your 15-20′ safety stop, even with an aluminum 80 cu. ft. tank that has added 3-5 lb. of buoyancy since it was full. But what the textbooks don’t talk about is the convenience and safety of being able to stay submerged at 15′, or 10′, or even 5′ on your return from a shore dive.
Experiment with a couple of extra pounds. I don’t think you’ll notice the difference at depth, but you’ll be glad that you’re able to still enjoy the dive as you swim back at a depth of 10′ toward the shore at Puako.
I am a live music junkie, and I’ve been to my share of shows.
I’ve seen Chanticleer sing Renaissance polyphony by candlelight. I’ve seen the National Symphony Orchestra in full swing with Mstislav Rostropovich at the helm. I’ve seen Stephen Stills and Neil Young prowl around a stage, glaring, daring each other to produce a better solo during For What It’s Worth. I saw Chicago, at their height in the early 70’s, horns and Robert Lamm’s B3 raging. I sat in the rain while Tony Rice and Bela Fleck traded licks at Merlefest. I was the old white guy in the middle of the auditorium in Berkeley, losing my mind as George Clinton and Parliament brought The Funk. I sat in the 4th row and watched Yo-Yo Ma play trios with old college friends. Linda Ronstadt bouncing across the stage at Shoreline. Broadway performances of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat and Godspell. I saw Ladysmith Black Mombazo sing and dance with Joseph Shabalala directing the entire affair. I was down front to watch the original Seldom Scene perform Wait a Minute. I stood at the stage on the Isle of Man, as Roger Daltry performed the entirety of Tommy. Lyle Lovett and his large (it’s not big) band. Lisa and I stood in a special reserved seating area in Hyde Park and watched Bruce Springsteen sing Twist and Shout with Paul McCartney. I saw Live From Here at the Ryman Theater. Elton John playing solo for a small-ish crowd on the Isle of Man. The Tallis Scholars performing Palestrina near the Severn River. Bruce Hornsby. I’m With Her. Hot Tuna.
I know I’ve left some important ones out, but even recalling and typing that list gives me shivers. So I don’t write that title lightly. But there we were on Friday, August 5th, 2022, when the American Acoustic Tour came to Mountain Winery in Saratoga, CA. The line-up was the Punch Brothers, Watchhouse (formerly known as Mandolin Orange), and Sarah Jarosz – maybe that’s enough for you.
It was certainly enough for me and Lisa to grab tickets, toward the front, as soon as we saw it was coming through. Mountain Winery is an extraordinary venue – outdoor, yet intimate. Artists love it, audiences love it, and it brings out the best in both.
But neither my love for the artists on the line-up nor the venue properly prepared us for what was in store.
It began, in the dawn of twilight, with the entire ensemble performing the bluegrass standard Little Birdie. First a cappella, then raging bluegrass, then a cappella again. We cheered, everybody waved and left, except Sarah Jarosz. I’m not doing any band bios here – their individual accomplishments (including her Grammys) don’t tell the story.
She performed a set of some of her hits, including a recent cover of U2’s Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For. She said, “You know the words – go ahead and sing along.”
Which is a good place to tell you about the audience. Audiences for these artists come for the music. They are not there to party, and they make themselves part of the show only when it’s appropriate.
Sarah said to sing along, so we did. We got to the last time around and Sarah stopped singing, just strummed along on her octave mandolin, a beatific smile on her face. She was accompanying the crowd, and everybody was thrilled with that arrangement.
Then Chris Thile came back out, and said, “What about this woman?” We cheered.
And at this point we need to talk about Chris Thile, his genius, and his ego. Yes, he has a big ego, and he likes to be in the limelight. But we humans are not a menu from which you can take what you like and ignore what you don’t. His ego is inseparable from his once-in-a-generation genius. And his ability and willingness to have what the business world calls BHAGs – Big Hairy Audacious Goals.
Anybody can put together a tour of great musical acts. But it takes, well, it takes a genius to say, “What if we move people on and off the stage for three hours? We create every possible permutation of the amazing musicians we have, performing each others’ songs, and sometimes, songs that are ‘foreign’ to all of us.”
Exhibit A: Sarah Jarosz has finished her set. Thile is out there. They invite out Watchhouse’s cello player, Nate Smith. Perform a Punch, Jarosz, or Watchhouse tune? Nah, let’s go to the classical section of the record store:
And with that, the show flowed on. Watchhouse, occasionally augmented by Sarah or Chris.
I need to mention that as Watchhouse performed The Wolves, with its chorus line, “But I’ll go out howling at the moon tonight…,” a beautiful half-moon shone down from a clear sky onto the Mountain Winery. I’m sure I wasn’t in the only person in the audience with a lump in my throat. If you’ve never understood what The Wolves is about, neither did I, until I read this. Hint: it’s not a feel-good song.
Then Punch Brothers, weaving their usual acoustic magic, with the audience singing along to My Oh My.
Then the impossible happened… Thile and fiddle player Gabe Witcher began making weird chopping, cutting sounds with their instruments, standing face to face, like Stills and Young, daring the other to do something weirder. As this scene played, Noam Pikelny started the magical drone on his banjo. Sarah walked out, and I realized they were reprising the Live From Here performance of Massive Attack’s Teardrop. As did many in the audience, and we promptly lost our minds.
My wife calls this music, “The chamber music of our time.” Some people will try to squeeze “grass” into the name somewhere. Sure, these musicians can (and do) fire up a bluegrass standard now and again. The instrumentation is there, and they all grew up on bluegrass, so when they play bluegrass and fiddle tunes, it’s as good as you’ll ever hear it.
But Itzhak Perlman playing klezmer music does not make klezmer music western classical music. It makes Itzhak Perlman a genre-hopper, and a genius one at that.
“American Acoustic” might be a great name for the genre, as well as the title of the tour.
One of the most glorious portions of the show was when all 11 musicians were on the stage. At times, there were 4-5 instruments being played arco (bowed), with the rest plucked. I will bet a lot of money that Gabe Witcher, a high-demand composer and arranger in L.A., was responsible for the string arrangements.
There was one song, sadly, I can’t remember which one, that faded to a string quartet of Gabe and Emily Frantz of Watchhouse on fiddle, Nate Smith on cello, and Paul Kowert on bass, all arco. As the plucked instruments subsided, those players stood in a group and watched as the quartet brought the piece to a beautiful, mildly dissonant, heart-rending ending.
Anyway, as anticipated, the show ended with everybody on stage. [Except for Watchhouse’s guitar player, Josh Oliver, and bass player, Clint Mullican.] It started with Chris, Emily, Andrew, and Sarah singing, “Rye whiskey, rye whiskey, rye whiskey I cry…” We all knew where that was going. But what if the Punch classic Rye Whiskey was played not by five great musicians, but nine great musicians? Recall when you saw Punch Brothers playing this live (you have, haven’t you?). Now visualize 2x the horsepower, with the same verve and joie de musique…
Let me put this way: the shadows you see on the back wall behind the stage – that’s how big those musicians really are.
Oh, and Emily Frantz sang Rye Whiskey like Thile had written the song for her. Her presence on stage is, in a word, overwhelming. For this tune, she abandoned the honey of her Tarheel voice and went full moonshine county. Pass that bottle over here.
Sorry, I gotta glance back at that. Watch at 2:50. You have Paul and Nate doing a bass/cello arco duet of the melody, while Andrew stands between them, best seat in the house, just grooving. At 3:08, Gabe and Emily land on it with both feet and we’ve got four masters playing the melody, arco, across three different octaves. Critter, who usually smiles, is grinning from ear to ear. He’s heard and played this tune a hundred times, but man, never quite like this.
The encore, for which I was delighted to see Clint and Josh return, was not a song, but an entire set, and rather than me try to describe it, I’ll pass you over to YouTube.
The second song is Can’t Be Sure by the Sundays. It’s a lovely tune, by an indy band with a passionate cult following. Kinda like… nevermind. I had never heard the tune, so went and listened to the original. The American Acoustic cover was accurate, loving, and brought their own vibe to it. Not surprisingly, Sarah crushed it.
The third encore piece was the Watchhouse classic Wildfire. And here, I want to address those of you who say that Thile’s ego gets in the way. This is a Watchhouse song, Andrew is singing lead, and Chris knows exactly where his place is – to sing “Mmmmm” in the back-up. Then watch at 0:40. Guitarist Josh Oliver is kind of hanging back – Chris steps back and waves him up to the mic. It’s Josh’s band – he gets near the mic. Chris Thile is devoted to the music, and when that means he steps back, he does.
The very last tune looped back around to bluegrass. In this case, classic bluegrass gospel. It was if they were saying, “We know we’ve taken you on a light-speed tour to our own corner of the galaxy. We’ll bring you back home to safe and familiar ground.”
And as they closed the show, Thile held out his hands and emphasized the line, “…where all is peace and joy and love…” It was, without doubt, a final prayer and benediction.
It was a perfectly normal Elena-Aby morning together today – August 4, 2022. I picked you up at 11:00 – you and Cherry and Cosmo all came blasting to the door. Your mom was taking a short break from work to get us out the door, which we did quite quickly, once you’d found two shoes that were different colors.
We went to the library, and honestly, I expected you to fuss a bit, because I’d mentioned the library yesterday, but you weren’t the least interested. This time, I said, “We’re going to the library.”
We got to the library, parked the car, and walked in. We wandered around the young readers’ section. You wanted books about Minecraft, Sonic, and Star Wars. Which is kind of okay. But I wanted you to have something that took you out of the grasp of American consumerism. Somehow you stumbled across the Jack and Annie Magic Treehouse collection, which you know well. You found one whose front cover appealed to you (it was about Jack and Annie going to Venice, on a mission for Merlin). That sold me, we got checked out, and…
Wait, before we leave the library, I have to tell you about a cool thing you did. As we were walking toward the section where your books were, a woman was approaching us, carrying a wee one, and a bunch of books. I’m not sure what happened, but suddenly there was a small crash, all her books were on the floor, and the little guy was wailing because the noise scared him.
Without hesitation, you darted forward, recovered the books from the floor, and handed them to the mom, who had settled down her little one. I was so incredibly proud of you.
Back at the parking lot
I’d promised you some kind of treat, and you wanted… it took you a second to remember, but frozen yogurt. Conveniently enough, there’s a frozen yogurt shop a five-minute walk from the library.
“We’re just leaving the car in the shade,” said I, and we happily walked over to the Safeway shopping center. When we got ready to cross E. 14th Street, I held out my hand, you took it without notice, and we crossed.
Sadly, the fro-yo shop was closed for some reason.
“We need a Plan B,” you said, a child of the Wild Kratts, who are always needing a Plan B.
“Let’s get boba.”
I knew that the 85 Bakery, across the parking lot, had boba, so we headed over that way.
“If they don’t have boba, Plan C will be a doughnut,” you said. I like a kid who has a Plan C ready, in case Plan B fails.
Plan B and the walk to the bakery
As we walked from the fro-yo place to the bakery, I took your hand – the parking lot of that shopping center is chaotic, and I just didn’t trust all the drivers. But I wanted to make it clear that I trusted you…
“Elena, I want you to understand that if you had to walk from that fro-yo place by yourself to the bakery, I would 100% trust you to do it safely on your own. It just gives me a little extra confidence since I’m there, and this parking lot is nuts.
“But just so we’re clear, if you had to do that walk, what would you be watching for at each street?”
This is exactly the right answer. You see, when I first let you run from the mailbox at our townhouse complex to our house, I wanted to be sure you’d be safe. So I’d say, “When you run from the mailbox to the house, you have to watch out for wildebeests and cars!”
After a while, I’d quiz you before I let you go.
“What are you watching out for?”
“Cars. And wildebeests.”
“Good. Off you go.”
We got to the sidewalk but I didn’t let go of your hand. Just because it felt so awesome to hold it.”
“You know Elena, you’re totally safe, even if I don’t hold your hand. But sometimes I hold it, just because it makes me so happy to hold your hand. See, when you’re 15, you’re not going to want to hold my hand, and that will make me a little sad.”
“I’ll still hold your hand when I’m 15.”
“Really? You will?”
In your most “Don’t be silly, Aby” voice: “Of course.”
The bakery had boba, but after you tasted it, you decided it wasn’t what you wanted. So we went to Plan C – a doughnut from Safeway. We walked down the sidewalk to Safeway, holding hands for no reason of safety whatsoever.
“How long is it until I’m 15?”
[Pause] “That’s really not that far away.”
[Pause] “No, it’s going to be here before either of us knows it.”
We got two doughnuts – one for your and one for Great-Gran. You did the whole self-checkout thing, and we walked back over to the library, where we found two awesome stone benches under a tree.
“This one’s yours, this one’s mine.”
You started in on your blue-icing doughnut (“This is the best doughnut ever!”) while I began reading about Jack and Annie’s adventure to Vienna. I wasn’t more than a few pages in, when you got up, came over, and sat on my bench. You leaned into me, and took in the story. Which obviously made me blissful.
Too soon, it was time to take you to Star Wars – Lego camp. We used a piece of doughnut bag as a bookmark (can’t fold pages on a library book!) and got in the car.
15 minutes later we walked into the community center where your Star Wars Lego camp is.
“Do you wanna sign you in, or do you want me to sign you in?”
“You sign me in, but use my initials.”
30 seconds after we’d walked in, your backpack was on the shelf, and you were bent over Star Wars Lego figures with other kids. Chiara’s mom was picking you up, and you were good to go. I said good-bye and thanked you for a great morning. You waved without looking up – you are a child of the moment, and at that point, you were in a Galaxy Far Far Away.
But me, I rushed home to write this. Cause you promised, Elena. You promised me that you’ll hold my hand when you’re 15. And that’s as good a reason as I can think of to look forward to the year 2030.