Welcome, ladies and gentlemen, to a very special Mono-Lagering. Don't worry, it's not the "very special" sort of thing that means one of the less popular comedy characters gets molested or something and then we all feel weird for the rest of the half-hour. This is just one that I've been looking forward to for quite some time. The Bell House is a bar I've visited many times, and never had anything but a great time. It's actually half-bar and half-venue, and whereas that usually means more "shitty bar and shitty venue" it's actually really great at both.
In the past I've been to Biblioball prom-like events there, seen hip-hop, seen trapeze (in case you were wondering, it still makes me feel funny like when I was 8 when girls do trapeze), and New Orleans-style jazz, which, while not really my thing, was certainly fun that night. But last week was something on a whole other level. Good friends to the blog Nicole and E Rike and I got tickets to see Chris Thile and Michael Daves play bluegrass.
We got to the venue a little early. I was already jazzed after having a bucket or so of Budweiser at Jackie's Fifth, one of my top-five favorite dives anywhere in the world. Park Slope and Gowanus is such an odd area, where it's so gentrified and nice in most of it, but the hold-outs are amazing. Anyway, if you've never been to the Bell House it's basically divided into two rooms. There's the front area which is a classic bar with nice couches, seating, and an area for small acts or DJs to perform.
We got beers . . .honestly I couldn't tell you what we got. Maybe a Victory Pilsner? It was good, whatever it was. We sat around, chatted a bit, ran into our friend John, and eventually went on in to the second room, a large performance area with a mini-bar and a full bar on opposite ends. The place was fairly packed, which is great to see for a bluegrass show. I crushed my beer and got a giant can of Tecate. That much I definitely remember.
And then the boys took the stage. No openers, no need. Just two goddam virtuosos with their mandolin and guitar.
Bluegrass and I go a long ways back. I have a pretty rough relationship with where I grew up. I do love my friends and family, and I appreciate that it made me who I am today, for better or worse. But I don't fucking like it. I never liked it. I got out as soon as I could and I have not for a second looked back. There is little and less that I do like about Appalachia or Kentucky. Obviously I love bourbon. But, boy oh boy, do I love that high and lonesome sound, those string bands, that bluegrass.
Bluegrass, to give the most ridiculously abbreviated history possible, is what happened when poor Appalachian whites heard/hung out with old time black string bands. African-descended instruments like the banjo paired up with fiddles and guitars and all the sudden someone said, "Yup." Traditionally, it's only string instruments, though harmonicas are welcome. Modern bluegrass often frees itself from such strict fetters with drums, some amps, and God knows what else. It works sometimes. But that's never what I think of. As a Wise Master Mason once told me, "If it isn't one mic with a bunch of guys standing around it waiting for their solos, it isn't bluegrass."
I always liked it, but what really awakened my love for it was the Pence family. They were my first "second family," a habit I've noticed I pick up on occasion. These days I don't see them much, so my God daughters and their family, the Perezes, pick up the slack. (Before them I guess it was my ex-wife's family, the Paeks. What is it with me and the letter P? Heh, I said "pee.") There were three kids near my age, Billy, Kevin, and Molly. All three were smart, funny, creative, and spontaneous. They were exactly the sort of friends you needed in a town with so little to do. Their parents kind, loving, and also hilarious. Mr. Pence played the banjo and his boys played guitar. I went camping on a family reunion of sorts with them once--amazing weekend--and the bluegrass jams just couldn't have been better for me.
Well they all grew up super smart, super good-looking, and doing great things. But they're far away from Brooklyn, so I had to get my bluegrass fix elsewhere. Enter 9C, the subject of my next Barography. I'll talk about it more next time, but suffice to say every Sunday they had a pickup bluegrass jam that was never short of spectacular. During a rough time of transition after college, those Sundays were almost my church and center.
So anyway, wherever I've been bluegrass has not just been beautiful, entertaining music; it's been warmth and friendship and love. A year or so ago my great buddy Ben from back home came up so we could see Ralph Stanley and the Clinch Mountain Boys together. Ralph is one of the surviving founding fathers of bluegrass and it was an honor just to be in the same room with him. The venue was kind of uptight . . .the rest of the patrons seemed more "wealthy upper west siders listening to jazz" than anyone at a proper hootenanny. Well we hooted and hollered enough for the rest.
But last week, with Thile and Daves? They're no founding fathers, they're both younger than me. But these are two of the best damn musicians I have ever seen; rather, I should say, "Goddam, 'em boys could pick it!" The harmonies were perfect, the solos both beautiful and blindingly fast, and the stage presence genial, funny, and easy. I believe my female friends may have had more to say about said presence, but that's not for me to say.
Twice during the night they called out for requests, with one caveat: fiddle tunes only. That's right, a mandolin and a guitar doing fiddle solos. That's how amazing these guys are. They even improved a medley of two or three requests on the spot. There comes a time when you just say, "JESUS! WHOA NOW! THAT IS JUST TOO DAMN GOOD!"
But we drank it in like we drank the Woodford during intermission. By show's end, we were out of our mind, having water fights on the street, and stumbling towards the nearest pool table we could find.
This weekend we, and some other friends, go to the Newport Folk Festival. Among other acts, Thile and Daves will be there. But so will Earl Scruggs, my friends. That is bluegrass royalty right there. Now if I could just hear the Dillards play "Dooley" just once live . . .
The best things for this Kentucky boy, be they bourbon, bluegrass, or friends, are the things that warm you immediately, spreading through your mind and body like molten happiness. They are the things that even a self-loathing, depressed maniac cannot help but revel in, and would never think not to thank.
Thank you Mr. Monroe, Mr. Stanley, Mr. Scruggs, Mr. Flatt and company for making this great music. Thank you Mr. Thile and Mr. Daves and all your contemporaries for keeping it going. Thank you Pences great and small for giving me an extended family with dynamics I would treasure forever. Thank you Roger for opening one of the best goddam bars I've ever had the privilege to know. Thank you Ben and John and Nicole and E Rike and Eric and Conor and Tom and Anca and all friends for good times and good music. Thank you, the Bell House, good shows.
And thank you, Jesus, for bourbon.
Photos and non-youtube video by Nicole Marie Ball. She's a bluegrass newbie, forgive her for cutting off the solos. Just this once.