Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Mary McCaslin

I had the rare opportunity to catch a modest but enjoyable East Coast performance by California-based singer-songwriter Mary McCaslin in Herndon, Virginia. The Folk Club of Reston-Herndon sponsored this event as part of a series of small concerts they hold each year in the side room of a neighborhood Mexican restaurant called Tortilla Factory, located in a run-down, half-vacant, 60s-era strip mall in downtown Herndon. The long narrow room was filled to capacity with about 60 people, mostly members of the folk club.

The show began with three short but refreshingly offbeat open mike performances that included an a capella French tune sung by a six year old girl. Mary hit the "stage" around 7:30 and her first set was over shortly after 8 PM. After a 15 minute intermission, she returned for a second set of roughly the same length. While the show was noticeably short, I felt that I easily got my money's worth--after all, the $10 ticket cost less than the price of a drink in most New York clubs. I also appreciated the down home atmosphere and overall intimacy of the venue.

Mary's setlist was thematically and structurally similar to a typical Mary McCaslin album. It featured a few of her own songs mixed with those of other singer-songwriters such as her late husband and co-performer Jim Ringer. She also sang a couple of Western-themed 1940s standards such as "Don't Fence Me In" and "Ghost Riders In The Sky." Mary opened the show with a tribute to "yuppie-free" Oildale, California, the town just north of Bakersfield that was the birthplace of Merle Haggard. This was one of several songs about California, which evidently continues to be her favorite subject.

I was struck by the clarity and precision of Mary's rhythm guitar accompaniment that projected from her barely-amplified Larrivee acoustic guitar. I also found that her engaging, matter-of-fact singing style sounds much the same as it does on her classic records. As expected, Mary played in several different open major and minor tunings, switching between them in a matter of seconds. Her second set featured a cover of the Beatles' "Blackbird," which she sang to her own clawhammer banjo accompaniment, demonstrating her considerable skill at rearranging/re-imagining classic pop songs. If you think "Blackbird" is a strange choice for a banjo tune, you should hear her version of "Pinball Wizard" from her Old Friends LP.

After the performance was over, Mary sat at a small table signing CDs. As she signed my records, I told her that I had been to Oildale and had caught one of Red Simpson's Monday night performances at Trout's Nightclub. She reacted with enthusiasm to the name Red Simpson, reciting the opening line to Red's biggest hit "Hello, I'm a Truck." (Appropriately enough, that line is "Hello, I'm a truck.") We talked a bit about Trout's and Buck Owens' Crystal Palace and discovered, not surprisingly, that we both prefer Trout's, which is really the last remaining true honktonk in the Bakersfield area. There wasn't much room to stand and talk, so I thanked her for signing my records and went on my way.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Leo Kottke

Leo Kottke signed these records for me a couple nights ago at the City Winery in New York City. My encounter with Leo went as smoothly as possible, owing largely to the fact that I emailed the club a few hours before the show, mentioning that I would be attending and that I was hoping to get a record signed. (I kept "record" singular so the staff wouldn't think I had 15 of them--it's best to keep things simple.) The manager responded to my email by saying that I should ask for him when I got to the club and that he would see what he could do. When I arrived, I found the manager and handed him my records. He went off to find Leo, but came back with my records a short while later saying that Leo was planning on coming out after the show and that I could just have him sign them then.

After an amazing performance, I lingered around the club waiting for Leo to come out. I settled my tab so that I would have easier mobility and hung around the bar area for a bit. After about twenty minutes, Leo came out with his coat on and his guitar in hand and proceeded to walk across the club to the front door. No one really seemed to notice him except for one guy who said hello as he was heading out. It was then that I took the opportunity to ask him if he would sign my record (again, keeping "record" singular), to which he responded "Oh yeah, there was a record to sign." At that point, I was really glad I had contacted the club beforehand, as Leo was not surprised or annoyed by my question. Then, when I made a joke that made him smile, I knew everything would go well. Our conversation went something like this:

- Hi Leo, I realize you’re heading out, but would you mind signing my record?
- Oh yeah, there was a record to sign (Leo sets his guitar down)
- I have a pen right here, though you probably won't want to sign anything once you see which record I brought
- (Leo smiles) Must be Circle 'Round the Sun (It’s well known that Leo hates this record, though it’s somewhat of a fan favorite.)

I then set my two records on a table that was close by and handed him my sharpie. As he was signing them, we then had this exchange:

- I have a silly request. I prefer that you do not date your autograph.
- You don’t want a date? How come?
- I just think a "twenty-eleven" would look out of place on a nineteen-seventy record.
- Really? I’m the exact opposite.

We talked a bit more. I told him that I had seen him a few times and that this evening’s performance was the best show of his I’d seen, which was a true statement. I then asked him where he was headed and he said "Albany." I wished him a safe journey and that was the end of our encounter.