Three weeks into the chantier participatif. This week we have managed to make all walls reach the top. Some still need to be covered with ‘enduit’, a mixture of earth and straw, mainly. Sabine, Matthieu’s wife has, together with half of us, installed a ‘fyto-épuration’ system that will connect to the house’s drainage. It is a set of four basins filled with crushed lava stones that is planted with all sorts of water plants that will clean the grey water coming out of the house. The kitchen and bathroom water, basically. ‘Pipi and kaka’ go into the compost toilet which does not use any water – instead you cover your droppings with saw dust – delivers high grade compost for the garden.
To install the basins next to the house an excavator was rented. Matthieu worked it to form different levels of plateau. Later on, when the basins were set up and earth needed to be moved around them to finish the landscaping I saw Nicolas handling the big machine rather deftly. Nicolas is skinny, has sharp, beautiful features and very long hair. Also, he is twelve years old. He was collaborating with his mother Sabine at providing the final touch to the water purification system by handling a machine that weighs about five and a half tons. Actually I had already heard that he could do this, but seeing it happen was truly something. This twelve year old kid, who is just about the best human hugger I have ever encountered, was shifting, digging moving and tapping earth with the huge pneumatic grappling arm as if he was doing a Playstation move. But Nicolas has never been on a Playstation.
He is wonderfully tactile and spontaneous in becoming so. You might be sitting by the camp fire and all of a sudden you feel fingertips moving through your hair lightly or while you are standing in line to get your meal he will all of a sudden wrap his arms around you and hug you with all the love that is in him, just because he likes you and that is his way to show you. Also, Nicolas has never been to school.
There are six children on this chantier, all of them brought up within the philosophy of Unschooling.
Lina, Nicolas’ sister is ten. She often wears a serious frown while she considers how she feels within this human tribe. She is Natural Master of her kittens and when she feels like it she will massage someone’s skull because, well, she feels like it. I watched her do this and was moved in my heart by the dedication she puts into it. It’s not just a flimsy action, she is completely into her hands and fingers and how they are connecting to the person she is with, her eyes open and turned inwards to what she is giving. It was heartbreakingly beautiful to witness
The oldest kid, well, hardly anymore, is Bastien, nineteen and our chef’s Gwenaèl and Gilles’’s oldest son. Bastien, or – since the french have the quaint habit of nicknaming someone by doubling the first syllable of their name – Baba, is Matthieu’s full time assistant, building hexagonal houses all over Europe. He is friendly, empathic, incredibly adept at assisting, explaining anything you want know about where you are at any particular point in your construction work, he has humor, intelligence and charm.
There is Florine, fourteen, who this summer is being just as much our cook as her mother is, the friendly face that serves us our food, loves to read and laugh, totally free in her ample body, concerned for others. playful and romantic.
Jean Floran has long ginger hair and is eleven. He is on the building site off and on. He takes in how things are done and is always ready to go fetch a tool or hold on to some piece wood while I struggle with my battery powered screwdriver or some such thing. Quiet he is, also when he is wielding an axe to cut wood for the camp fire.
The youngest of Gwen and Gilles’ kids is Azur, the Smiling One. He is nine and he walks through his life with a wide grin on his face that cannot but make you smile back. He too wields the axe. Yes, the small one, but he really does. No one tells him not to do it because it might be too dangerous. When he picks up the axe, someone keeps an open eye and explains how best to go about it, where to place his feet so he doesn’t hurt himself. He is open to all these suggestions. There is no panic in the environment, there is trust in Azur and, if felt necessary, advice and that’s it. Azur is not proving anything to anyone wielding the axe, he is not trying to impress people. All that he is doing is chopping wood to the best of his current abilities. And he has been getting better everyday. Today he has been working on making sticks pointy with the axe, holding the stick in one hand and the axe in the other, he is perfectly comfortable, doing his thing. It is a striking example of what unschooling means. Nobody told him that now was the moment to learn how to chop wood, he just decided that for himself and people around him got him going and add feedback when they think he can use it.
All of these children learn to read and write, do math at their own pace, when they show the interest to do so. Their knowledge, although not overlapping with all realms of conventional education on many topics, is very impressive. Sabine told me she often asks Nicolas for advice on certain topics in which he is more knowledgeable than she. These children’s knowledge of the natural world and practical skills are far beyond your average conventionally educated child.
Do they miss a Play Station? I don’t know, because I don’t ask. They sure don’t ask for one. The virtual world that the boys inhabit is the card game ‘Magic, the Gathering’. It is completely alien to me, but apparently they are ace players, also Azur, so tells me Kenneth, our dreadlocked hiphop sage, who excels at the game and is thirty nine. They play him as an equal. Because they are.
How these kids are being brought up, how they learn things, is by living, by growing up, by developing their interests at their own pace. You want to learn how to read? Fine. Let’s start on that. You want to learn how to draw better first? Fine too.
Some meters above these kids’ world are we, grown ups, learning skills and processes that apply to the building of a straw bale house. We don’t go to school, the construction site is our world from and on which we learn. All day we work, play and gain knowledge, because we have decided that it is the right time to do so.
Second Saturday morning of our six week chantier participatif. It is 6:30 in the morning. The top of the mountains in the west are already catching the morning sun. Here, on the eastern slopes, it has not reached yet, but in the valley the humidity is already starting to rise up over the roofs of the village down below. Gilles just told me that if we would be on the crest of the mountain that is currently hiding the sun, we would be able to see the Alps, 400 kilometers to the south. No need to try this afternoon, the risen damp will block the clear horizon view. Trillions of water particles will have turned into a thick cloud layer. Water. The word is out. The more beautiful house our hands know is possible has suffered some setbacks this week. At the root of them lie, as is so blatantly often the case in our culture, money.
This week us volunteers are thirteen. Some have left because they had only a week of time to offer and others appeared since they could only get there now. All of us are being pampered by Hervé, as far as catering and logistics are concerned. He spent the weeks before construction started installing a compost toilet, a large party tent that houses a well equipped kitchen, a hot shower, a washing sink, washing machine, dishwasher. If you ask him he will hook you up with internet through his phone (very expensive still on a foreign provider). He has excellent local beer on tap, which as a Belgian I can highly appreciate. We are eating organic veggie food three times a day prepared by Gwenaèl and her daughter Florine, one of her and Gilles’ five children that are part of our tribe. There is home baked bread every morning.
The house will be hexagonal. Apart from the shape tuning in to sacred geometry it offers the possibility to top it with a reciprocal frame structure. In human terms that is a Mandala roof, a roof that, because each of its beams is pretty much falling down on the one next to it, stays up. It looks like a 3D diaphragm.
A hybrid house, we are constructing.
On the one hand it is built with pillars of Douglas fir at each corner. I finally got to meet the Douglas fir. It has existed in my mind ever since being hooked on Twin Peaks, years ago, in another life. Douglas firs are made to build a house. Well, actually they are made to just grow and live, of course, but somehow homo sapiens, that weird looking love bird, tends to build a nest too and the twigs can get pretty big. The fir pillars are necessary to support the weight of the massive mandala roof whose fir trunks are still lying a little further on the site, awaiting their trip to the top.
The walls in between the corners are built with bales under tension. That, in combination with a thick fermented plastering will make the walls load bearing. If it weren’t for the type of roof in the house’s design we wouldn’t need the big pillars. A meeting of styles, you might say.
All of last week we have been putting up first story walls, unwittingly walking on a plywood floor. that has been protected by tarpaulin. Last Sunday night it rained. Not extravagantly, but all night anyway. And tarpaulin floors, don’t absorb water, so it sought a way down by the corners. On Monday morning the plastering around four pillars was wet and after checking it turned out so were the straw bales flanking the corners. For those who know about composting, you can imagine what water and straw, nicely covered by cob plastering does. When we had pulled down the cob from the wall and put our hands inside the bales they were decidedly hot, proof that they had started to turn to compost. Useless. With a heavy heart we took down column after column of bales around the pillars. All the energy and love the volunteers that had come before us had put into them was being reduced to rubble. Of course it will all be composted and returned to the earth, but it was sad thing to have to do. Matthieu had advised Hervé earlier to keep an opening in the flooring all around so that if it rained too hard the water would just drop down inside the house ,where there is no floor installed yet, leaving the walls dry. Hervé decided to close the floor instead, because not doing so would cost more later to redo part of the flooring. Not such a good decision, it turned out.
At lunch time, Mieja and I found Matthieu crouched like a little ball of misery, contemplating the situation, but a few hours later when we restarted work he was ready to go and so were we. The next days construction continued while some of us concentrated on putting new bales into the holes our baby had suffered. At the end of the day Hervé offered us a ‘tournée générale’, drinks on the house, in appreciation for our effort. We were happy, tired and proud of ourselves. We were also convinced that the worst was over. Not so.
The Vosges mountain range is one of the oldest on the European continent. Its age is comparable to that of the Jura mountains, that gave their name to a whole era and hence to a Spielberg movie. Les Vosges sit relatively low, with rounded peaks up to 1200 meters. Mountains attract moisture. On Thursday, towards the end of the working day, the sky turned black. ‘Il faut bacher tout!”. We have to cover everything with tarps. By the time we had the walls covered the black sky came down. The floor of the first story was very quickly turning into a swimming pool and would soon overflow, sending the water into the entirety of straw walls already built. Emergency.
And then something beautiful happened. Fifteen people, tired from the heavy work during the day started doing all they could. Matthieu who was at a loss offering a quick solution was supported by all. The second floor of the house became the deck of a sailing ship on which us sailors tried to deal with the storm. Scaffolding was brought up, and wood and tarpaulin and we started building a roof structure to deal with the downpour. I ended up on top of a scaffolding and shouting and advice and orders so Kenneth and Matthieu could do their wall climbing, while screwing ten by fours (cm, that is) onto the walls. Later my gift to the joint effort would earn me the nickname ‘Captain Brick’ for all my bright orange rain coat and my soaked cowboy hat and my raised voice to outshout the torrent and the rest of the clamour. Tarpaulin was rolled on top of the makeshift rafters to make a roof. Under me other sailors were constantly sweeping the water down the open staircase and mopping up while the rain kept on slamming down. We crawled on walls, cut wood, we were leaders and assistants in ever changing formations and roles. The circumstances ruled us and it made us become one big improvising, constructive entity, acting on impulses, feedbacking instantly on each others ideas and efforts, making sure no one got hurt in these dire circumstances. After about two hours of giving it all, having put up half a roof which kept filling up with heavy bags of water which we kept pushing out with brooms, drenched to the bone, cold, shivering and still going, Matthieu called out, and stopped us. He acknowledged what had become pretty clear to most of us a while ago: we would never win this battle. Hervé had taken the hard decision: The floor would be cut open to let the water drop into the house on the bare ground below.
We were advised to go down and take a shower while the procedure would be executed. A few of us stayed and stood on the ground floor inside the house, silent. We heard the circular saw roar, saw the trace of the cut make its cruel path above the supporting beams. Water started pouring down the ever growing slit. It was as if the house was crying. We stood there, looking up, as the cut arc grew ever longer, until we were surrounded by a circle of dripping water. Sadness overwhelmed us, our hearts were crying too.
Later, showered and warmed, back in our base camp tent, Hervé thanked us and gave us the next morning off. We refused, quite naturally, as a whole. There is no such thing as defeat, there is only feedback. Next morning we started over, cleaning up the mess. Building continued, damages were observed and taken care of, also the mental and physical ones some of us had suffered. Over the course of the day the scar in the floor became background, we were all looking up, because that was where the walls are going and eventually the roof will rise.
At the end of the week, when the talking stick got passed around so each could speak what their heart wanted to share, all of us acknowledged that we had been part of something much bigger than ourselves. It is in the worst of times that often we come into our own, that the greatest of our capacities rise to the surface and our intuition rules. It was a sad day, the day the house shed its tears, but it also gave us an experience to cherish, the knowledge that people who, really, have just met, who shared no more history than the previous ten days with each other, can come together for a greater good in a flash and give all they have to offer for the common good. We were all moved by each other, overwhelmed with the power of connection. I cannot begin to imagine, let alone express – just as he admitted himself – what it must have felt like for Hervé to see this sheer bunch of strangers trying to save his house, the more beautiful house our hands know is possible.
It is called ‘chantier participatif’. And I am in the middle of it, just a cell in the organism that, during the last five days has grown out of the some twenty people that have gathered here, most of whom had never met before.
All of us have come come here to build Hervé and Manon’s house in a beautiful valley in the Vosges mountain range which borders the frontier between France and Germany. Pine forests and lakes. Sloped terrain to say the least. Hervé is a fire fighter and for his family, the little girl Lulu completes the trio, he is building a straw bale house. Well actually, we are building the house.
Mieja and I are the only non French participants, the rest came from all over France, some with experience, some with none. There is Diane, architect student from Bordeaux, Florian and Hèlène, who have both quit their job, bought a van out of which they live, in search of where they want to start a new life. There is Kenneth, dreadlocked soul brother from the Paris banlieues, who quit the inner city slums, is living out of his backpack and carries the wisdom of ages within him. To name just a few of us, now.
Yesterday, late in the afternoon, when work for the day had nearly ended and the cleaning up of the site was nearing its end, all of a sudden a sheep came running down the steep slope that leads towards our camp. A little confused by all the people and the noise their activities produced, it stopped for a moment and then ran on down the pasture where, under the shade of a larch I and and a few others have set up our tents. It never looked back, the sheep. If it were human, it might have lingered longer, I would think. So many lost sheep out there. Not here.
As I sit writing here in the early morning, the camp is rising slowly. It is Saturday, the first day off after five eight hour days. It has been the fourth week of building, we are the second batch of volunteers. We will be a team for two more weeks and then all will leave and go on on their trail of life. Mieja and I will stay for another three weeks, joined by new strangers. But that will not last for long, we have noticed. As there is no such thing as ‘away’ so you can throw stuff there, there are no such people as ‘strangers’. At most, there are people you haven’t met yet.
The smell of coffee reaches my nose, the melodious morning murmur of the french language tickles my ear and above me, about five meters higher on a platform all its own, stands a hexagonal house, rising up on feet of stone filled car tyres. Five days ago, there was just a ground floor, now three first story walls of wood, straw bales and cob are up and awaiting further cob plastering. I knew it can be done, but between knowing it and doing it lies an ocean of human interaction that is unknowable without living the experience.
Mathieu, is the building site’s leader, a thin man full of knowledge about hexagonal straw bale building of the CUT type. It stands for Cell Under Tension, if you really want to know. Together with his young assistant Bastien he has been moving all week between sub sites of the house, to answer questions, show methods, solve problems. Never, I stress the word, never is he irritated by any question launched at him for the umptieth time, never does he have no solution. Sometimes, yes, the solution is ‘break it down and do it again correctly’. Like next session’s coordinator Reiner once told me: ‘It’s just work’. That means don’t get frustrated by repeating it because you won’t be repeating it, you will be doing it better and more informed and the energy you put in being frustrated about it you will lack in the actual redoing.
So diverse we are, so divergent in skills, be they technical or communicative, be it physical strength or precision. We have been divided in smaller teams to work together on a specific wall to be put up or at the production of cob and the preparation of the straw bales that will make up the bulk of the walls. Amongst these teams run ‘les lapins’, the rabbits. They are those of us who are at the assistance of any team, to communicate information to another team further away on the site or to go and fetch a needed tool in the tool tent. You need something, you yell ‘Lapin!’ and from somewhere you will hear ‘Oui!’. And then a rabbit will do your bidding. Being a Lapin is a wonderful way of getting to know what is happening all over the building site. And since you don’t get called by your name and there are several Lapins about it doesn’t become overbearing to always jump to attention once the call comes for a rabbit to run. You meet people, get to know their challenges and as the day moves on you watch them evolve together.
For three days I was teamed up on the north east wall with Hélène. One of the wonderful aspects of this chantier is the balance between male and female energy. Construction is so often a ‘man’ thing, where machismo lurks around every corner. Not so here. There are seven women and eight men building this house. Yin and yang get along together well. There grows deeper appreciation for each others look upon and approach to what is asked of us. Lots of laughter, lots of reasoning with each other, deciding when it is time to call in the experts and by the end of the day, when the physical and mental energy is just about spent and we drag ourselves onwards because we want to finish what we started, we support each other to dig in and prevent each other from making mistakes or attempt plain stupid and dangerous things. (we are after all, when working on the outside wall on a scaffolding five meters above the ground).
The last working day I spent making cob. Heavy stuff and a little smelly too since this particular technique uses fermented cob. It makes the walls more waterproof. In the meantime there is a certain aroma of beautiful natural rot around.
At the end of the first week of work, on friday night, all of us sit in a circle. Everybody gets the talking stick (in this case a stick of burning incense) to speak their heart and feedback on the week. What follows is almost an hour of personal accounts, phrased by every one in his or her individual voice. Some are very moving. Myself, I can hardly get the words out by the time it is my turn. Mieja and I are planning our own chantier participatif in the near future, that is why the both of us are here. To be part of it, to see what it takes to organise it. I knew it would be an intense experience. But this, wow. And there are five more weeks to come. I speak my appreciation for what I am experiencing, but words falter. My tears tell more of the gratitude I feel for being here than words could.
Volunteers we are. In French that is ‘bènevoles’, ‘well wanters’, and it is so. We all want good, we want to help, we want it more than we could have ever imagined. There is not one of us who does not feel that it is not just the house we are building. We are building ourselves and each other, we are weaving threads of connection, appreciation and love. On some level we are actually rediscovering threads that have always been there, hidden under layers of sophisticated ‘culture’.
We are discovering and creating, simultaneously, the more beautiful world our hearts know is possible.
I drove 6630 kilometers in the last month. Doesn’t seem that much looking back on it though. Hours pass by like fleeting glimpses when I am in a car. My mind is at ease and active at the same time. Driving a car through the United States is a learning experience. I have done it before, but this turn I had lots of time to think and to observe how this country is built on the use of automobiles in a way that Europeans will hopefully never emulate.
One of the weird experiences driving here is that, for all the beating on the chest and the truly scary flagwaving insistence (Stars and stripes are Everywhere, as if US citizens constantly need reminding of what country they live in), that this is the land of the free, Americans constantly get ordered around in traffic. All the time.
At first I could not get rid of the impression that behind every tree a cop was waiting to arrest me if I as much as opened a side window. Then, one day, I understood where this sense of being told how to behave came from. Almost every traffic sign in this country has at least one word on it. It is as if Americans cannot learn the meaning of traffic symbols and they need to be able to read what it signifies. If the maximum speed is 60 miles an hour, the sign says : Speed Limit 60. If the symbol on the sign means ‘Don’t make a U-turn” It says ‘No U-turn’. The triangle which indicates you should yield to other traffic has the word ‘yield’ written on it. The sign that means you should merge says ‘merge’. Obvious. But it can get pretty dangerous at points. Reading a word like ‘yield’ takes no time at all, but the signs that blew my mind said things like: ‘Trucks and combination vehicles use right lane when operated below 70 miles an hour’ or ‘Emergency stopping only. Unattended vehicles subject to towing at owners expense.’ Imagine trying to read that at 70 miles an hour!
Some signs seem rather surrealistic, like the one telling you to move over for vehicles involved in an emergency. As if I would rather run into them. Or the sign saying : “Move crashed vehicles to shoulder if not seriously injured.” Uhuh. Or my favorite, because of its simple, dadaist obscurity: ‘Headlights on when using wipers.’
Of course Europeans speak different languages and travel through each others’ countries all the time so it is understandable that we get ordered around by symbols instead of by language and I guess that is why Americans use language a lot more in traffic signalisation, they all speak english, kind of. But since the illiteracy rate is relatively high here, I doubt whether all these words are a good idea, let alone the dangers of slowing down to read signs like: “ Vehicles with more than six wheels must use left lane unless driver is born on a tuesday” or “Diamond lane only for vehicles containing more than 2 passengers if driver is a capricorn.”
America never looks more monotonous than when you get off an interstate exit to get gas and food. Ihop, McDonalds, Cracker Barrel, Waffle House, KFC, you can go there all over the country and every freeway exit’s architecture looks like it was turned out of the same mould. This way you can be certain that the food you had a thousand miles earlier is still available where you end up and that you will recognise where you are. In case you get anxiety there is always an american flag waving in sight to reassure you you are safe. A strange and depressing sense of security, that.
And after driving for ten hours, I find a motel and park. After a quick shower I want to go get some dinner. No problem, there are several restaurants just across the four lane street. After all, this is a typical roadside stop: hotels and restaurants. So I think I will walk to the restaurant, after all it is just 200 meters away. These 200 meters turn out to be an adventure. There are no sidewalks and no pedestrian crossings. I have to sprint across four lanes, walk onto parking lots and back on grassy knolls, jump over ditches before I reach the restaurant. All this because I did something outrageous: I walked 200 meters. Weird me, a normal person would have gotten into in the car to get here.
Anyway. Here I am. Back at home, with a slowly receding jet lag, the sense that I will get into that US traffic again some time in the future and an experience under the belt that will color my path, be it walking or driving, for many years. Life is not about asphalt, it is about meeting people, communicating, reciprocating. Hereby my heart felt appreciation to friends, new acquaintances and some – I truly hope – new made friends along the way Thank you: Barbara, Gino, Joey, Rob, Les, Tom, Wes, Keith, Ellen, Paul, Steve, Alexis, Len, Ann, Helen, John, Allison,Tom, Michael, Lu, Richard, Dominique, David, Beatty, Shantelle, Melissa, Angela, Joseph Sr, Joseph Jr, Jimmy and Cy.
I welcome summer, the projects it brings and look forward to work on The Second Mouse.
Walking into the Commodore Grill in Nashville I had a déja vu. In fact I had two. Déja vu. Americans pronounce the term in such an absurd way and with such self confidence that as a European I am bludgeoned into silence. It happens to me every time. Like a, errr, a déja vu.
Before I step from the lobby into the heart of the open mic, a man walks by me and we both do a double take, looking at each other. It is Beatty, the songwriter who was so gracious last year to leave me his spot so I could play at the famous Blue Bird Café. He happens to be playing here tonight too and introduces me to other fellow songwriters.
Inside I say hello to Debi who runs the whole show and see that nothing has changed to the setting. As the evening progresses I will notice that I actually recognize quite a few faces of fellow songwriters performing from seeing them last year. I suspect they are a kind of special breed, roaming from open mic to open mic to network, practice in public and, evenytally, sell the song.
Personally I have great doubts as to whether this will actually ever happen. Not because the songs are bad or anything, although their originality mostly lies more in the lyrics than in the ubiquitous country idiom in which they are written, but mainly because I am convinced that people from the music industry have better and other options to find talent than roaming these kind of events. And in a conversation I have a few days later with someone who is deeply involved in the industry this view is wholeheartedly confirmed.
Still, I am here, I enjoy the evening and play my songs to an enthousiastic response from the crowd. Next to me on stage Tom, who is from Alabama and sang his personal songs with an intensity that brings tears to his eyes and make my hairs stand up, is ‘blown away’ by my playing and my lyrics. I smile, wide, and say thank you.
I hear a lot of people building a song around one meme of lyric. ‘It’s like drinking water from a garden hose: it ain’t perfect, but it’s close”, that kind of stuff. It is cute, it is boring and it has a certain desperation hanging over it that gets to me, somehow. Friendly people all, whipping out their business card faster than I can shake their hand. I get introduced to a man, whose name I forget (no card since, supposedly, I am to be impressed by who he worked with – I forgot that too) and who is ‘really looking forward to hear me play’, after which he disappears before I am on. That kind of stuff. The very last act of the evening is Josh from LA and he brings what brings me here: passion, skill, personality. Makes my evening that one song, really does. A gem.
Next day, as I am waiting for my host to take me to see the aforementioned music industry man, I write a new song. Bam! In forty five minutes it is out of my system, into the world. A little magic. Life is a trip in moments like that. Well, life is a trip, always. I hear my host in the house, ready to go and it really is time to go, but since new songs are highly addictive to play, I play it once more before going to the living room in order to leave. When we arrive at the studio where the meeting will take place a gruesome car accident has just happened involving three cars. People have just gotten out of their vehicles to try to help the victims and to handle oncoming traffic before police and emergency services arrive. There are bodies thrown out of a car into a ditch, there is a car on its roof. It happened in our lane, five minutes ago. Five minutes, in which one can dally, play a brand new song one more time and thus escape from a fateful car accident. As I stand on the roof of the studio and watch the emergency helicopter land on the lawn in front of the buiding to fly off with (I hear later) two heavily injured young children I think of the relativity of things, the fragilty of life and the invisible tightrope we walk that seperates life from death.
Having received truly enlightening information on how the music world is evolving and going home with yet another studio possibility to record in the future, I head out for my very last gig of this tour, a solo concert at The Back Alley Diner in downtown Nashville. I played there last year too, albeit not a whole set. This time I play an hour and a half and I truly enjoy doing that. Much as I loved sharing the stage with Jimmy, there is great satisfaction also in playing my stuff in a full set. The sound man, whose name is Sean, which throws me off since that is what I have called my GPS’s voice all throught the trip, is very attentive, making sure the sound stays optimal during the whole set. Beatty is there to honor me with his attention. Sean tells me my playing reminds him off Antoine Dufour, another name for my list of ‘I have been compared to…’. To which Beatty adds ‘I don’t think you sound like anyone I have ever heard’. Possibly the biggest compliment I have ever received.
Up at five thirty and drove for nine hours from New Orleans to Nashville the other day. Along the way there were a bunch of very local and very intense tropical showers trying to blind everyone on the road and succeeding quite well. In between it was incredibly hot and I even got some heavy rain while driving in bright sunshine. No clue how that happened. Drove into Nashville and straight to my hideout. Let’s call it a change of scenery. I bathe in luxury here. My hosts are generous and they have a lot to give.
I watch as Woody Woodpecker’s real life twin comes and eats from the food that is hanging in plenty of trees here. His head is truly as red as his cartoon couterpart. Hummingbirds, blue jays, murmuring water, a view out over the hills in the distance. Paradisiacal. Classical music is playing inside the house, there is enough of everything I could need, and more. And there is the Generosity of the Heart in this house, which is the most precious of all, of course.
Drove for three hours yesterday, to Knoxville. I made two appearances in the same day there. First off was The Blue Plate Special, a live radio show on WDVX Knoxville, a community supported radio station that airs live lunch concerts every week day, year round. The concert takes place at the Knoxville Visitor center in downtown Knoxville. Nice little stage and lots of chairs set up for the audience. And just about all were taken by the time the show got on air. It was a bit of a rushed sound check since Jimmy, who had flown into Atlanta the day before, got stuck in traffic driving over from there. But we made it just in time. And we plugged our evening show in town to the best of our abilities.
The host of the show, by the appropriate name of Red, was real friendly and announced me as ‘the one who talks funny’. I thought ‘Look who is talking.’ Local accents here can throw you off. On the way over I had stopped for breakfast and next to me was a table with ten retired local men, whose lingo was just about ungraspable. Talk funny. The idea! Jimmy opened up with ‘Nu Slap’ and as he was playing I changed my mind about the first thing I was going to play and went for the scary instrumental. Pulled it off, I think. Live dangerously and look back happy. On stage, if I looked back, I saw a wall with the ‘Blue Plate Special Wall of Fame’ a collection of blue dinner plates featuring imprinted colour photographs of acts that have played on the show. I would say the plates look err, different, gaudy, maybe, a bit?
After checking into the hotel for tonight we headed back downtown to play the Preservation Pub on Market Square right aroung the corner from the visitor center downtown. The square bans cars and that makes for a nice tranquil space with restaurants, shops and bars. One of them is Preservation Pub.
Three floors, two of them featuring live music tonight. We are on the second floor and walk into a long bar with booths and stools and lots of funky character. Knoxville is a college town and you can tell from the design of a place like this and the crowd. Would fit nicely in, say, Amsterdam, this joint.
Cullen, the sound technician works for WFIV radio station which records the show and airs it later in the month. There are sofas in the back of the stage. Our own on stage green room. Nice. We share the stage for the second time with Wesley Cook, with whom we played in Atlanta a couple of weeks ago. It turns out to be a blast. We play in the round for two hours straight, getting in on each others songs a lot. The crowd loves what we are doing and some even danced at some point. I consider it a worthy goodbye concert with Jimmy Robinson, since he flies back to New Orleans and I head back to Nashville from here.
Drove three hours this morning and the blue jays still abound here. The drive was enjoyable, winding its way through the Smoky Mountains, which truly are smoky from the extensive water vapor rising from the treetops. Tonight it is Nashville time as I return to The Commodore to play a featured slot at its open mic.
Bring it on!
Tomorrow I say goodbye to New Orleans. For now. Last year it was rather hard saying goodbye, since the city just got to me right away. This year it is easier: I just know I will be back. 🙂
‘I could live here.’, the thought passed through my head more than once during the last eleven days. Funny really, since I have just about had it with living in a city. But this place…people from elsewhere, as well as from here have warned me, ‘Watch out, it’s gonna get under your skin.’ And it did, it does, like there is something in the little blisters that spread like constellations on my hands. Sweat rash. The Big Easy is marking my cells, creeping into my system. ‘Welcome.’, I say.
Jimmy and I played Mobile, Alabama two nights ago and that was, well, strange. Moe’s BBQ’s big back room was filled with a Class of ’78 high school reunion. Nothing against that, but it makes for unsatisfying playing. But we survived and near the end friends of Jimmy made it and it turned out to be a truly nice encounter with exquisite singer-songwriter Lisa Mills, who is actually a friend and touring partner of Belgium’s BJ Scott. I also got the chance to meet her friend David McGee, former twenty five year long writer for Rolling Stone Magazine. David lives in New York and started his own music publication, Deep Roots Magazine. He will give my CD a listen and write up on it, if he likes it. He has got a hundred thousand readers, so I am hoping he Does like it.
Apart from the concert playing, which is a gas, truly, a trip like this is all about being out here and talking to people, having meetings that turn into a networking thing without it feeling like ‘an appointment’. Like Jimmy says: ‘It’s no use playing at a place just once. You have to keep at it.’ Advice I will gladly take to heart.
Last night we played across Lake Portchartrain at Saint John’s Coffeehouse in Covington. Getting there took us straight across the lake on a 39km long causeway that makes you feel like you are driving across the sea. The coffeehouse is a historic building in the center of Covington, and reminded me in a way of some bars in my hometown, stone floor, beautiful old countertop bar, a place with a story to tell, I am sure. Also, a strong building. Someone told me after the concert that when a hurricane passes through she heads for the coffeehouse since it is so old and still standing in its original state. Sounds real smart, that.
Happy to say that when we walked in, the place was full of people, amongst whom, to my great pleasure, Lu Rojas, who engineered my recordings a few days ago. For me the gig was one of the best ones on the tour. I could feel the vibe going back and forth between me and the crowd, who were glued onto every word I sang. Resonance. Can’t order it to happen and when it does it proves to be what it is All about. This audience really got into my songs and into my lyrics. Afterwards I had some great conversations on music, life, sustainable living and permaculture. If you do it, it will happen. Smile.
A super moon hung over us as I drove back over the causeway. Had some super sleep when I hit the sack.
So today is getting-ready-day. As I type here, at my second office (the Fair Grinds Coffee House, which is a lot more comfortable than the back of the Mercedes), my laundry is in the dryer at the ‘Washeteria’ a block away. I will be cleaning the storm appartment later on, hopefully have a drink with my high school allumni friend, Allison, who was at Every concert I played in New Orleans. She was doing ‘the Grateful Dead thing’ as Jimmy calls it.
And then. It will be goodbye Big Easy, be well, stay happy and, above all, be safe. May nature spare you from more scars, may your people keep their heart beating to rhythm of your music.
And be here when I get back.