Floating in SPACE

            It’s hard not to feel cool when we breeze into Evanston SPACE for a Sunday night October show, past the hostess and through the doors that say “MUSICIANS ONLY BEYOND THIS POINT,” knowing the sign has applied to the likes of Greg Brown, The Cowboy Junkies, Suzanne Vega, and Robyn Hitchcock.
           Arielle leads me into the largest, most badass green room ever. There is a kitchenette with a refrigerator full of beer, photos of famous people on the walls, a vintage stereo stocked with hundreds of LPs, hipster chairs covered in turquoise upholstery, and two seating areas where musicians can chill out or warm up their voices. The area is large enough for a floor hockey match. The private bathroom lacks graffiti and smells sweetly of Meyer’s Soap. Back in the main room, the south wall is a patchwork of peeling paint that instantly conjures up photo shoots, and in fact, the sound man confirms this.
           “Everybody uses that background for photos,” he says.
            Ari and I crack open beers and run through a few tunes.
            Her Uncle Dave walks in, long tall Dave dressed in jeans and his customary black leather coat. He’s a partner at the club and a renowned Chicago blues man who looks like he could have played left end in high school. We’re both Bears fans, and I know that today he watched the same pathetic second half meltdown that I did. We haven’t been happy since 1986. I sputter something about the game, meaning to commiserate with Dave, but he shouts me down before I can finish.
            “Don’t. Don’t. I don’t want to talk about it!”
            For some reason I can’t let it go. I try again.
            He closes his eyes, puts up a hand, and booms, “I don’t want to talk about it!”
            Passing from the green room into the recording studio, I misread the spine of a large book, thinking it says, “The Sons of Bob Dylan.” The recording room has a little stage at one end, vintage amps, a piano, a standup bass, all arranged upon various Persian rugs. A handsaw hanging on the wall lends a honky-tonk feel to an otherwise bluesy scene. Through another door we hit the control room with its giant sound board and stacks of monitor speakers. There’s an end table made of a banjo head, a red leather couch decorated with zebra cushions. This is not only the nicest back stage area we’ve ever conquered; it’s the coolest. We must let ourselves feel cool so as to quell the nerves and play to our potential. A good vocalist has to be a little Narcissistic. Yeah, let it ride. Enjoy this. Feel cool.
            But I’m nervous and peeing every fifteen minutes, having dedicated myself to hydration all day. I’m paranoid that only a fraction of the people I’ve emailed and Facebooked will show up. The theater is dark and cool, full of empty chairs. What if only forty people show up? It’s the same feeling you have before a party, after you’ve bought fifteen pounds of shrimp. What if nobody comes?
            Sound check is a breeze, what with only two instruments and a top notch sound man running state-of-the-art gear. It feels good to play. I try to keep in mind the advice we’ve been given from our friend, Scott, a sound engineer in Seattle: “You don’t have to be perfect. You just have to be great.”
            Back in the green room, I realize I’ve left my wallet and the set list back at the house. I’ve already let Arielle down, and we haven’t even played a song yet. I text my wife, Julie, asking her to please, please bring these items. The cool thing is I won’t really need my wallet because the venue is connected to an upscale pizzeria called The Union, and the fridge is full of beer. Being from Bellingham, we order a kale salad and pizzas made with red pepper and arugula.
            Then I have to pee again.
            Ari cranks away on the fiddle, the notes traveling across the polished concrete floor. She takes out her phone and enlists a very pregnant member of the Jodee Lewis band to snatch photos of us in front of the patchy wall.
            Alas, the lighting is better outside, and as it turns out, even the backside walls by the garbage bins are cool: stucco painted vermillion and cream. Eric, the sound man, is out there smoking a cigarette, and of course, he’s a cool-looking dude with hipster glasses and a keen sense of composition. He blows smoke and snaps some pics. Ari always looks good. I’m hoping for angles that hide my thinning hair.
            I grew up seven blocks from this venue. The place used to be a clothing store called Khakis or The Khaki Store, or something like that. I can’t get over the fact that my childhood home is only seven blocks away. I love this fact beyond reason, which is why it’s the first thing I say when I hit the stage.
            “No secrets,” I say. “Everybody knows me. Here’s a tune called ‘Pitchfork Blues.’”
            Nervous for the first four songs, I botch a chord or two, but only for an instant, and soon the songs are rolling out of our bodies. Thank God I don’t mangle any lyrics or screw up arrangements. The audience is a blur of human shapes and tables and chairs. The place is packed. When stage lights beam in from the ceiling, a singer sees the whole rather than the parts, that dim warm gestalt that is a seated crowd in a venue built for close listening. This feels very “MTV Unplugged.” Not much in life feels better than a big applause at the end of a song that we wrote—a fully realized work that started as noodling on guitar.
           Between songs, Ari cracks people up with talk about how our home of Bellingham is beyond kale and on to kohlrabi. I suggest that by that logic kale is a gateway green. On the next song I’m conscious that my hamstrings are tight, my throat clenched. Just play through it. I’ve done this a hundred times. Find that place of calm. I fancy myself an athlete in these moments, trying to be aggressive but breezy, trying not to make mistakes but play loose. After the show, a friend tells me this is bullshit.            
           “An athlete isn’t trying to speak truth,” she says. “A singer is after the truth.”
           Well. Cool. Thanks for making me feel cool.
           Other nights will come and go when the audience is only six people, or sixteen, whatever, but this “now” is the place to be. I lean my guitar three inches from the microphone on the treble side of the sound hole, and the monitor speakers are so clear I can play with dynamics. I love to sit back and let Ari sing. All I have to do is hold things down on guitar. She is solid, working the microphone, projecting, singing with passion. There’s a dude in the front row wearing a tweed hat, bopping his head, and for some reason I think it’s my high school buddy, Marcus, only Marcus would never wear such a hat. (Later, the man will turn out to be Steafán Hanvey, a sweet guy and wonderful musician from Belfast, who’ll introduce himself and give me a copy of his CD). The crowd is a dark pool that listens intimately and sends back energy in a way that’s like a dialogue between the blind and the unblind.
            Saliva gathers in the holes of my harmonica. My hands are too tight on the chords. Loosen up.
            Before long we’re in a groove and the songs tumble out on their own. “Mountain Medicine” leads into “Angeline the Baker” which leads into “Whiskey Makes Me Mean.” Not much feels better. I’m playing for my wife and daughter and mother and brother, my cousins and second cousins, my best buddies from high school—all stoked and hanging on every lyric. Every lick off the fiddle. Ari’s 85-year-old grandmother is here, her quivering head bowed seemingly as if to hear the music better. Musician friends from Ari’s Chicago days are here, too. We couldn’t possibly ask for a better crowd.
           Afterwards, I’m clapped on the back by strangers and old friends and old neighbors. Dave flashes an easy smile and says, "Nice job." I just want a beer. Ari is flush with excitement. The line at the bar is too long, so I rush back into the green room and reluctantly grab a Dos Equis, thinking, John Oates. I bet this is what John Oates drank when he played here in 2013. I try to remember if Oates was the blond guy or the dude with the curly black locks. I take another sip of beer. I want more.

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