Peter Rowan Tour - a PG report from the road - Part One
November 9, 2013 at 7:36pm
I've really been looking forward to this trip for a long time. Peter's album, The Old School, came out in spring of this year, and this is really our first tour for it. Yungchen Lhamo, is a wonderful friend that we met at the Leaf Festival in North Carolina. Peter and Yungchen hit it off with their connection to spiritual music and Buddhism and Yungchen has brought a great balancing energy to our performances with her zen improvisational style of singing. She's also really funny, thoughtful, and is really easy to be around.
Our first gig was up near Maggie Valley, North Carolina at the Cataloochee Ranch. Keith and I flew into Raleigh on Sunday night, and drove up there. We stayed in a wonderfully comfortable and cozy ranch style wood and stone lodge that had been built back in the 30's by a family that still runs the place. Waking up there the next morning felt a little like Christmas with the fire burning, lots of food, and good vibes. We met Peter downstairs for lunch and played some tunes, and caught up.
There were two supper seatings for about 30-40 people each and the food that was served was excellent. At supper we talked about what we should do, to kind of make a plan. That is an interesting somewhat ossilating subject because Peter is a fellow who doesn't like to hem things in and rather enjoys the zen and spontaneity of the exploration in the moment. But we did need to go over a couple things and had a few minutes before the show to mull it over.
Yungchen showed us one of her new songs of which the subject was the secret moment of revelation that comes when you never expected something to happen and it happens. We clearly didn't have the vibe right at first, much too common bluegrassy. She has a very effective and calm way of directing us to access more of the spiritual energy that is required to help express the sentiment. She said things like "You must feel the Earth, and when you like it, we go on to the next part." The phrasing was not square, and although the melody was fairly simple, almost like an American old-time mountain melody, the ornaments were subtle and beautiful and the vibe was intense, perhaps nocturnal, looming, and expansive like a blanket that was rolling out through the night. We did the best we could and had our work cut out for us there. It's really different, challenging, and enjoyable to pay so much precise and careful attention to the zen vibe of this Tibetan spiritual music and to see how that carries across into the rest of Peter's music, and hopefully some of my own music too.
Our concert that night was an all acoustic one with just Peter, Keith, Yungchen and myself. The audience was mostly folks who live up that way and they were quite receptive to our show and many even got up and danced on the finale. I think that was the first time Yungchen had danced to american-hillbilly music, it was great. I put together a short compilation of some of the best moments and uploaded it to Facebook. Peter and I scarfed up on six or seven different delicious desserts after the concert before joining a small group of folks in front of the fire for a really enjoyable conversation about Monroe, bluegrass and mountain music.
The next day I had a really nice horseback ride up to the high ridge called Hemphill Bald which looked out for a hundred miles through the Smokey Mountains in the area that was named by the Cherokee indians, Cataloochee, or "wave upon wave", of mountains. It was gorgeous. I was a little bit embarrassed and sorry when I got back and Peter and Keith were waiting with their bags at the door to leave, the ride had taken about 2 and a half hours, somewhat longer that I had thought it might be. It was about 12:30 and we rode up to Asheville for lunch and loaded in at ISIS that afternoon.
Asheville is a hippy town in a way that has a a bunch of enthusiastic folks who were ready to drink and have a good time. They have a regular bluegrass night on Tuesdays and some good local musicians opened the show up. I got to see my aunt Claire and her friends, and a couple of other folks that live around the Asheville area. It was the first time that I tried to set up Yungchen's nice camera to tape the show. It was awkward trying to find a spot right before the show that would have a clear view amongst the crowd that was already hanging out. Once I did find a spot, it was hard to tell if the angle would be sufficient to capture the whole band because there was no one on stage. Yungchen would gently encourage me to do better the next day. The crowd was loud and we played two sets and had a good time.
We went on down to Athens the next day - about a 3 and a half hour drive. The promoter fellow, Adriane, has a club called the New Earth there. The stage had some nice reclaimed wood, and there was some psychedelic original art on the walls. We had a good little jam before the show working up Little Rabbit and one of Peter's friends brought a nice Weber mandocello around and we had fun with a little jam outside. I had been singing one of my songs on most of the shows since a couple months back. This night I couldn't get it going, I was trying to play it too fast, and it ended up just being a little wonky and that threw me off a little bit funky for the rest of the night. Peter suggested that I slow it down to give it a more grand treatment.
The hotels we're staying in are nice, usually the Country Inn and Suites. Good rooms that don't smell funky, with wifi - what more could a 21st century bluegrass musician want. The drives are manageable and it seems like we always get at least an hour or two of downtime every day to catch a quick nap. Paul, Michael, and myself have been riding in the van, and Keith, Peter, and Yungchen in the Charger.
The next day we hauled up to Charleston to the Pour House, about four and a half hours. I played the guys what Sarah and I have been working on and they were gracious listeners. It's always good to hear the music in a new sound system, I can tell some things sonically about the music, where to relieve some compression, etc. Mike played some good tunes off his laptop including one new tune he was working on and also some good live Stanley brothers including "They Say Love is Blind, But I See Through You." Hard to beat that.
The Charleston show was interesting. It was another rock club. We had a good meal beforehand, and started the show about 45 minutes after we were scheduled, a late hour of 10:45. Leftover Salmon had played two nights in a row before us and I think a lot of the young hippy crowd was fairly spent from chasing the elusion. Usually Peter has been starting out solo, then introducing Yungchen, then blowing a conch shell while we come out to start playing the Methodist Preacher. He'll bring Yungchen out early and introduce her, and she frequently does an offering, then they'll do a couple together. We slowed my song down quite a bit, and I just reproached it mentally from a go with it don't try to make it something it's not trying to do mentality. I have never sung a song that slowly on stage, but I really enjoyed it. It made me really concentrate on getting good tone and staying in the moment. I loved it and it went over much better and I got a slap on the back from Peter which made me feel good.
We've been doing a healthy smattering of songs of Peter's new CD, The Old School. Usually the title cut, often Drop the Bone, Letter From Beyond, Ragged Old Dream, and occasionally Oh, Freedom. Keith usually sings a good old Stanley brothers tune like Little Maggie or On a Lonesome Night and we've been doing Panama Red on almost every show. Mike has been doing Gold Rush a good bit and did Cherokee Shuffle one time. Padma Sambade is one that Yungchen sings with us on and the closer is usually Land of the Navaho, and then sometimes we'll follow that with Midnight Moonlight. A couple of other tunes that we have done are Lonesome L.A. Cowboy and one time we did Mississippi Moon. After the break, Peter said "Let's go back out there and have some fun." Which was a great mantra for me the second set, because it's easy to try to hard and miss the real muse, and to go out having that fresh on the ears helped me remember what the goal was.
Our timing has been getting a lot better, and we reached a new level of precision on this particular gig. We had been experiencing some nice pockets here and there and by the time we got halfway through the set I was dialed right in on Peter's right hand and started to intuit in a natural way where his groove was. As we were playing The Walls of Time, I was able to really understand what Peter meant when he said he became the Walls of Time, because there it was - the groove locked and in this nothing happening everywhere moment I felt like, at least for a bit that I had stopped scaring off the wildlife and was able to be a welcome walker in the forest.
Augusta, Georgia was our next stop. I watched the new documentary about Peter called "The Tao of Bluegrass" in the van on the way to the venue. I was really inspired to see Peter talk about the music, and hear other great musicians talk about Peter. What he has done with regard to his own spiritual work and how he has been able to put so much of that feeling into his songs that he shares is absolutely astounding. He has searched and explored, had revelations, and opened his heart tempered with his formative bluegrass experience to channel universal truth in an accessible, fascinating, and compelling way. I was stoked when we got to the place.
The Imperial Theatre is a really nice old building with an excellent sound system. It's got a big old ceiling and a large balcony and it was a big change to go from lots of loud people in a loud rock club to a classy soft-seater theatre like that. Unfortunately the word did not get out too well in town and the audience was little and not so loud. But, we had some good moments and I especially enjoyed the quintet on Let Me Walk Lord By Your Side. After the show, Yungchen said, "Let's make song." She's always wanting to make some new music, and I love going on the improvisational explorations with her. I was happy on this one because it was just the two of us and I felt like I had more freedom do move around in different chords a little bit because usually we just rock on the one the whole time, which works and gives her plenty of space to do her thing. This time I was happy to be able to sing lots of melodies with her and the funniest thing was that it ended up being a song about chicken which we had eaten all day. That's a testament to Yungchen's sense of humor. We start out with a hybrid Tibetan/Appalachian mountain spiritual offering and it turns into a silly freestyle song about eating chicken. I love it.