I began to write an email to a friend today - someone who is supporting me in organising my USA tour coming up in May and June of this year. In the message, I began to relate the story of the two gigs that I played last weekend, and all of the territory that I covered, and several insights that I had along the way.
But the feeling soon dawned on me that this little piece I was generating might be a way to get in touch with a number of other friends who haven’t heard from me (or of me) for a while. And, over the months, a number of friends have told me that that enjoy and appreciate having written updates from me from time to time.
So with all of this in mind I’m going to dive in, flesh out my original email a bit, and then pass the finished product on to you. My hope is that you will enjoy this small glimpse of the here and now, as I travel my local corner of New South Wales with my troubadour hat in hand.
The Downward Dog Cafe in Bodalla NSW is two hours north of my home base, Koorool Farm in Tantawangalo. In the weeks following my return from my last trip over to the USA (June 2017), I spent a bit of time making enquiries about getting a local tour together that would carry me through the spring and summer months. Performances that I wouldn’t have to travel great distances to get to, and so would allow me plenty of time to get to necessary work here on the farm. With help from some local musician friends, I compiled contact details for a number of places that had either recently opened or where I’d never played before, and got busy letting them know that I was looking for work.
It’s a tribute to this part of the world that businesses can remain open and prosper and regularly offer live, independent music to their customers. Local music has become a recognised part of the scene around here: something that nearly everyone knows about, and that many actively support.
In any case: back to The Downward Dog Cafe. It had been my first successful enquiry. The promoter who books shows for the café got back to me right away. I was to be Number Thirteen in a series of performances called The Courtyard Sessions. I did all the booking work online, through the agency. But I knew nothing about the Downward Dog itself, apart from how much I was going to be paid and that drinks and dinner were included.
Unfortunately a room for the night wasn’t part of the deal, as was the case when I played up the mountain at The Federal Hotel in Nimmitabel near the end of last year.
I arrived in Bodalla at about 5 PM, an hour before my scheduled 6 PM start. It had been a very hot and swampy string of days. At one point a week or so ago, the thermometer under the tin roof of my back verandah read 43 degrees Celsius – roughly 116 degrees Fahrenheit.
So it was a sweaty bump-in, as they say in the trade. I had brought along my acoustic and resonator guitars, my 100W “one-man band” amplifier, as well as all of the stands, leads and various electronic devices that make up the bits and pieces of a musician’s kit.
I began carrying the stuff I’ve mentioned in from the little grassed-in parking lot out the back of The Downward Dog. It was not that much of a hike from there to the courtyard where I was going to play, but on a day like this I was soon dripping wet.
The courtyard itself was beautifully made: hand-built stone walls with medieval-style vented openings, a flagstone floor, and grapevines growing through the exposed native wood rafters. The place was set with tables that fanned out from a small stage area. As I discovered later, all but one of the tables were booked by people from the local area who come to The Downward Dog each month to listen to a different manifestation of live and independent music. Blessings upon them!
On the second or third of my trips back and forth I was met on the pathway by a tall woman wearing working clogs who looked like she meant business – but in a kind sort of way.
“We’ve been looking forward to hearing you,” she said. “Oh-oh,” I said internally. Expectations. Always a scary thing. Like, will I be able to live up to my own PR, or not?
“Can I get you anything?” the woman asked. Instantly I visualized a little bottle of San Pellegrino sparkling mineral water, almost painfully cold to the touch, with the condensation dripping off it. So I told her about the vision that I’d just had. She quickly left and then reappeared with a 1-litre sized frosty bottle, and set it on a little table near the stage.
All things considered, it felt like The Downward Dog and I were off to a good start.
. . . . . . .
After I’d finished the second set, a very young man with slicked-back hair came up and shook hands. “I’m Joel, the promoter” he said. “Hey, I really like your show, the way it sort of rambles along. We’ll have to get you back here sometime.” To call upon a well-worn cliché, this sort of thing is music to my ears. It means that I can ink in one more stop on this musical roadmap I’m attempting to draw for myself.
Still, it truly had been a great night. People were in the space talking to each other, having fun. But along with this came a quality of listening that was hard to believe at times. Stories and songs – that’s my trade. And sometimes – for a moment, or perhaps for a whole evening – I get to a place with an audience where it all just works.
When the show was over the kindly woman I’ve been talking about invited me to sit at a table out under the stars with her and a couple of other staff members. Megan – that’s the woman’s name - is a painter and sculptress who’s exhibited her art all over Australia and internationally. For the last year she’s been running The Downward Dog for her daughter, a businesswoman whose hands are too full at the moment.
So I sat out there for probably an hour and a half, and listened to everyone’s stories, and told some of my own. Megan – who does the cooking – had made me a plate of beer-battered flathead fillets and a pretty spectacular Greek salad with homemade Tartar sauce on the side. I took my time, sipping from my glass of cold Chardonnay, chewing slowly and well. The meal and the conversation were every bit as artful as any other part of the evening.
With a satisfied mind, my pay in my pocket and a sheaf full of good memories, I pulled back onto the Prince’s Highway and headed southward to the small village of Quaama. Halfway to the next day’s show, and an hour’s less driving time than going all the way home. Not to mention that last dark 12.27 kilometres of dirt road with grazing wombats and kangaroos to dodge, and so on.
My good friends Sahi and Hansa have a place in Quaama, and they leave the spare room door open for me if I call ahead.
Yes, I thought to myself as I cruised along in the moonlight. Things could be a whole lot worse. A whole lot worse.
At about 3 o’clock the following afternoon I pulled into a lucky spot just near the front entrance to the Tathra Hotel. I knew that the stage was just to the left of the main doors, so it was going to be only a short walk in with my instruments and cases.
The Tathra Hotel is right smack-dab on the Blue Pacific Ocean – the southern end, of course – and the colder currents in this region attract humpback whales at certain times of year. If you’re lucky, you could be sitting with your schooner of boutique beer out on the back deck, watching a pod of humpies swim by.
The place is big, airy and open. With an ocean view right from the stage. It was the last day of the Australia Day weekend, the traditional end to summer holidays when kids return to school after their summer break. Which turns out to include Christmas! It certainly took a while for me to get my head around such things when I first came to live down here.
I wasn’t quite sure how things were going to go. This was going to be a band gig. Sam Martin, the guitarist and double bassist, had spent a few late hours with me the previous week. We had a a bit of a chat, a couple of beers, and at the same time breezed through 29 tunes, a good number of which of which Sam had never heard before. And to further complicate things, he’d played another gig in-between, where he had also had to quickly learn a stack of new material.
Dan Efraemson, our violinist for the day, had only just returned from holidays with his family. He’s a high school music teacher, and this was the eve of his return to work. So Sam and I hadn’t been able to rehearse with him at all.
The last gigs that Sam, Dan and I had played together were at the Cobargo Folk Festival in February 2017, and since new elements had come into the repertoire. Even the way I arrange and deliver my older material had changed significantly over the months since we were last on stage.
I like to say that my songs reveal themselves to me, but only bit by bit. The longer I associate with them, the more they show me. And this is quite inspiring to me, of course.
Nevertheless: this evening in Tathra the three of us had to get it together, instantly, in the situation of the moment, "as it is here and now.” And that was that.
Three hours and three sets later I was sitting at a tall table, once again chewing slowly and well. This time it was grilled John Dory over fresh salad greens, with the dregs of my second Kianga ale to wash it down.
85%. In my head, I gave myself 85%. And I’m a pretty harsh self-critic, so in my books that’s not too bad.
Yes, there had been flub-ups. The kinds you’d expect - a dropped chord change here or there, a forgotten or jumbled lyric line or two - and then of course some of the kinds you wouldn't. For example: a fellow like me, who seldom plays with a band. So I need to have a stand-alone arrangement for every song I do. But then, what do I do for a solo when one of the other fellows on stage gives me that confident nod? The confidence, of course, is that this guy I’m nodding at is clever enough to come up with something different to play right out of thin air, and right now. You get my drift, I’m sure.
But overall: it was a workmanlike job at the very least, and, in certain moments a whole lot better than that.
You know the sort of moments I’m talking about. Those times when the communication is being made, and it’s obvious. Those times when, really, there is no more separation. When performer and audience suddenly find themselves on common ground.
For my part, at least, this is all that I hope to create through my work. I would much rather be a bridge between two worlds than a monument in either one.
I notice at this stage of life that, happily, I can still do most of the same things I’ve always done. My physical mechanism, and more importantly my imagination, is still fired up and ready to go.
But, depending upon how far and how long I may have extended myself on a particular venture, I’ve also noticed that the repayment time can be equally extended. It’s like I need to crawl into a cave for awhile, after the lights have gone out and everything’s over. Not necessarily to lick my wounds, but to take care of myself in other ways. Ways of the body, and ways of the spirit.
One of my longtime friends, now departed, used to work with me in various dead-end jobs during my early days in Australia. When I was trying out the country, and letting the country try me out at the same time.
We were digging a garbage trench together on some stinking hot day or other. The kind of day when you really needed to pace yourself, or you’d die.
At one point he turned to me and said: “You know, mate, it’s not how good you are. It’s how long you’re good.”
And I’ve never forgotten that. I’d like to be good - in terms of being able to do my work, deliver my product - just as long as possible.
So, hello to you from the cave, where things are moving slowly right now and where - through the north-facing glass, which is the direction for best exposure to the sun in this hemisphere - I can see ever darkening skies, and rain on the way.