A week from today we’ll be waking up in Las Vegas, which is nicely equidistant to Rio Rico, having driven 8-9 hours the day before. I love the image of Maggie carrying her two guitars and her accordion, me my guitar and mandolin, as we head to the front desk of Harrah’s to check in. I trust the walls of such rooms are designed for parties, so rehearsal that night won’t be anything unusual. Or maybe we’ll stroll among the one-armed bandits and busk. Pulling attention from whirling fruits to music, no matter how lovely? Unlikely. The next morning we’ll repack the car and head ever farther south, almost to the border of Mexico, for Water Dragon Concert Numero Uno, in the Arizona Room at my sister Tracy’s house. She says 25 people are planning to be there. A great launch.
We worked individually over the weekend. Maggie’s worked for hours to design a beautiful, urgent way of twining word and image in “Red, Red Rose.” She also created a harmony on “Love Comes Round Again” that lifts the song into whole new territory.
“When the Mountains Cry” is on the set list, music and lyrics by David Mansfield and Tom Russell. Although it’s a contemporary song, it feels old. There’s a sense that—like the murder ballads “Banks of the Ohio” or “Pretty Polly,” or the mournful “The Water is Wide”— once upon a time the song had more verses but that over the centuries the story’s been distilled into an essential four.
Mansfield and Russell pack the song with truly “fabulous” imagery, including its first line: a lilac comes on a poisoned thorn…. other phrases I love include: neath the bloody moon…. The wind blows weary… cold was her heart and dark as dire… In today’s rehearsal I gave it one last try on the violin and, for now, have decided to pack it in—too hard to land that F# just right, especially when singing harmony at the same time. I tried it on the mandolin instead, and a cool little rhythm just sprang from the strings. One of the great things about studying the violin is that it has made the mandolin—an instrument I tried and abandoned a few years ago—seem easy in comparison. When we began, I’d no idea how many songs I’d wind up playing on this delightful instrument.
Maggie’s juggling two bands at the moment, each of whose music is monumentally different. We Waterdragons offer lively, thoughtful, fun singing/songwriting; her other band, Beaucoup Chapeaux plays a marvelous Euro-jazz gypsy swirl. Every Friday night, at the Classic Café on Broad Street in Nevada City, Beaucoup Chapeaux takes over a corner table by a window and settles in to create their magic. Maggie’s on accordion; Luke on tenor guitar (like a big mandolin, with a great deep sound) and plays what can only be described as jazz banjo (think Scruggs meets Django). Randy McKean plays clarinet and sax and bass clarinet and sometimes I’ve even seen a piccolo in his mouth. Murray Campbell provides violin and the beautiful reeds of an oboe.
The musicianship around that table is extraordinary—one feels lucky to be present not only listening but watching them play.
And play they do, in every sense of that word. To even walk by the little restaurant, much less in to it, is to be transported to a European café, and maybe even another time period. Now and again they all stand up and parade through the restaurant, managing to maintain whatever complex rhythm and melody they’re currently exploring (there’s always exploration and improvisation going on): they wind their way through the tables and eventually even behind the café’s counter, saying hello to the cook, who is there flipping crepes at the big griddle, and the waiters, pouring glasses of wine and ringing up checks; then they shuffle and dance back to the front of the café, playing and singing the whole time.
This past Friday, as my sister Brett headed to the airport to pick up her son, Hunter, home for the summer from Hampshire College, her husband, the writer Louis B, Jones, my mother, and I headed to down to the Classic Café. As I pulled up in front, and Louis began to help Mother out of the car, I saw him wave. Luke, visible through the café window, waved back. A moment later the whole band streamed out into the street, Randy blowing a clarinet, Luke plucking a banjo, Murray’s head bent to his bow, Maggie’s back arched against her sparkling accordion. As Mother reached the sidewalk, they circled her, serenading her as she stood holding on to Louis. And then blowing and bowing, weaving and dancing, Beaucoup Chapeaux escorted them into the café.
I’ve no doubt that if Maggie and I did decide to brave the cigarette smoke and busk in Harrah’s lobby, some sort of magic would enfold us, the way Maggie and her band enfolded Mom and Louis and brought them in.