Saturday, November 30, 2013

In the Lion's Mouth with the Hardest-working Bluesman

            When Saul and I go downstairs to the Lion's Den, the Red Lion Inn's entertainment club, the set is already well under way. Hidden beneath the sidewalk like a big city hangout in the late-night part of town, the club has a secret-hideaway sort of atmosphere. We have been told to expect a blues and folk singer that night; the club changes the entertainment every day. We find him in the corner of the room used as a stage, looking as advertised: a well-traveled bluesman with a red, good-humored face, a laugh-prone disposition and self-deprecating wit to go along with his strong voice and -- crucial point -- fine resonant tone on the acoustic guitar.
            A good portion of the room's small audience appears to know him. They sit in couples, laughing at his sallies; some even join in with responses. A blonde lady, flushed, grinning, at her ease: this is where the party has gone, her attitude suggests, and so here she is. Her man is broad in the chest and gray on top. He sits a couple of chairs away as if making clear that he expects plenty of room; no problem given the night's enthusiastic but spotty crowd. Also a performer, it turns out, he whistles a part in one of the blues singer's songs and sings out a line in another tune. The performer (his name is Dan) looks at him and says, "No matter how much you do I'm going to pay you." Dan's laugh suggests some of the happier qualities of had-a-few-already.
           Dan Stevens (top photo), one of the musician sites tells me, has been recognized as "the hardest-working bluesman in Connecticut" by the New York Times, playing 200 dates a year, including concerts, clubs, festivals,community and private events. A protege of the "legendary Dave Van Ronk," he performs a mix of traditional blues, "Americana" and originals. He has played with "names" -- Richie Havens, Arlo Guthrie, Charlie Daniels. Tonight, a Monday in late November, he plays the basement club at the Red Lion Inn. 
         Another friendly couple, not much younger, sit tight as can be; she leans into his shoulder, his arm is steadily wrapped around her, long after my own would have worn out. The lady laughs, full of fun, and calls responses to Dan's sallies. Yet another twosome hang by the bar, apparently new to one another. She sits demurely on a stool, wearing a thick fur jacket. He stands close, facing her and talking through the music; voluble, high on life (or something), making an impression. He entertains, and is rewarded by her short but interested replies.
            Dan sings "ah'm a goin' fishin.'" He sings a Skip James song. He sings a dozen or so others, including originals, one about a singer who's been on the road too long. Every touring singer-songwriter, every last one, writes that song. Query from the audience: "Are you still together?"
            Dan cites a song he learned from his "mentor." Van Ronk was the classic the early 60s Greenwich Village folk-revival interpreter with a deep, at times searing voice. He was one of the voices the wannabes of the era such as Bob Dylan flocked to hear.
            Near the end of the set Dan performs a request that prompts yet another of the room's devoted pairs to get up and dance. Not just a stand up and move to the music sort of dancing, but some kind of fast-paced closely-partnered two-step, more complex than anything of the sort I have had the pleasure of seeing in the flesh. Song over, the couple bid a quick goodbye to folks at the bar and to Dan on the way out.
            Dan announces a break. He promises another set, though the hour is already growing late. He greets friends among the dwindling audience, working the room. When he gets to us, I mention that I heard Dave Van Ronk perform several times in New Haven and consider him a classic folk artist of his day. I say that I've heard the story that Dylan borrowed Van Ronk's version of "House of the Rising Sun" and recorded it before Van Ronk could. Dan is familiar with the story.
            He sits down in at our table and plays the intro to "House." Somehow we get around to Johnny Cash and I tell him that Saul (my musical son with a degree in classical guitar performance) is a guitar player, but he misunderstands and strums the beginning of a Cash classic, "Folsom Prison." Saul says something.
            "He's a guitar player," I say to Dan again. 
            Dan looks at him differently. Hands him the guitar. Saul plays a few bars, fingers flying.
            "Uhn," Dan says. "You're killing me already."
            Saul plays through the song; then plays another. Everyone left in the bar has gathered around now. 
           With a shrug Saul plays the famous version of "House of the Rising Sun," the one most of us are familiar with one way or another.
            It proves to be the last song of the evening. Dan and Saul have turned the last set into something like an Irish "session."
            While the performer packs up, the two guitarists talk shop about instruments. Dan says he plays at the Cantab Lounge in Cambridge sometime this winter. I'll check the listings. In addition to the "hardest-working" honor, Dan is currently my favorite bluesman.

Thursday, November 28, 2013

The Hothouse of Cool Old Things: Inside the Red Lion Inn

A freight train worth of period furnishings and luxurious ornamentations, paintings, illustrations, drawings and photographs poured sideways through the long and artfully busy corridors of the Red Lion Inn and arranged with maniacal care: Start with that. You feel you are living inside somebody's fantasy-land dollhouse. A very old, perfectly kept piano discovered by itself in a hallway. Have we stumbled into some Western pharaoh's burial chamber? Do we dare lift the hood from the keys and touch it? Prints of Norman Rockwell's famous images, a local reference in the town where the classic American illustrator once shared digs on its iconic small-town Main Street with the hotel, pop up everywhere. The Gregory Peckish young man standing up to speak his piece at town meeting among proud elders graces the wall in our room. The books in the corridor's frequent cases run toward golden-oldie bestsellers.

            We have never before ventured inside the Red Lion Inn, though we have driven past it many times each year for many summers.

            Truth be told, we have never set eyes on Anne's family summer cottage in the month of November, or in any of the other off-season months between October, when the water is turned off, and May. Or on the town whose claims to fame include both Rockwell's long creative residence here and James Taylor's briefer stay in what was then genteelly called a sanatorium, leading to the local reference in Taylor's autobiographical classic "Sweet Baby James":

            "Well the first of December was covered with snow/And so was the turnpike from Stockbridge to Boston." Yes, that Stockbridge.

            Another couples minutes of fame derive from Arlo Guthrie's talking-folk ballad "Alice's Restaurant." This period piece includes the classic protest line "You don't think I'm going to kill myself over littering, Officer O'B, do you?" after the ballad's troubadour and buds were arrested for dumping the remains of a Thanksgiving dinner on the day the town dump was closed. Years later we encountered Officer O'B (O'Brien) directing traffic outside a Tanglewood concert. He stooped to give his lawn ticket to a cute little girl who happened to be our daughter.

            So, a small town but not an obscure one. The roofline, facades and store windows on Main Street look much as they might have in, say, 1940. But in the early dark of late November -- seeing it last weekend for the first time at this seasonal cusp -- Stockbridge struck me as the place where the American mind goes home after dark... To hunker down... comfortably. (If it can afford to.)

            And if your idea of an old-fashioned grand hotel is something like the big old white elephant in "The Shining," the antidote is the Red Lion Inn. For one thing the ghosts are friendly.

            To get an idea of the look of it, buy up all the antique stores you've ever been to and pour them into a block-deep building that smells everywhere of long-ago wood smokes with all its pieces of wood, paint, ceramic, glass or other material restored to their nostalgic pleasure-peak. Articles of furniture in the wardrobe-cupboard family, from glass breakfronts to solid ice chests: anything with legs, clawed feet, painted doors, cabinet handles, and all other movable stylings as far from IKEA as possible and as close as can be to the way your great-great-Grandmother Maurititious would expect them to look. Distribute some of these plus straight-backed chairs designed with French kings or English queens in mind into sitting rooms that pop up around the next stairwell about where you're sure the place has run out of corridor -- but no, here's another back stairwell. Another hallway with key-hole doors and high numbers. 
          Think oversized three-dimensional Yankee Magazine fantasy mixed with a dash of Hogwarts. You're not sure some of those early nineteenth century gentleman's or ladies' journal illustrations aren't about to leap off the wall and dance a minuet through the corridor. Rooms with gas-flickering fireplaces. Rooms with computers. A 'sun room' with elegant chairs and the usual array of old but interesting art on the wall looking out on the all-year outdoor heated pool and hot tub ('let us know,' the sign says, 'and we'll remove the cover for you'). The andirons on the lobby fireplace taper to the heads of lions. Rows of china teapots (their number like the grains of sand in the desert) display themselves confidently on cross beams beneath the the ceiling as you walk underneath. You know none of them has ever, ever fallen.

            Then add people: the old folks and preppy young men who get up early to snag the sofas by the fireplace. The older couple who have been here forever, exchanging cautious words with a solitary visitor from Denmark. The repeat visitors who always come this time of year and avoid eye contact with anyone not part of their precious memory mansion. The woman of a certain age who dresses with utmost care, cuts her hair just so, and regards the world with a severe, sidelong glance saying 'I am not to be trifled with.'

            Then there's the dining room, deep and long like the hull of a ship, almost wholly open, a corridor running along one side where a mixed traffic of purposeful waiters and dawdling or confused guests wander up and down the corridors, confused by the many staircases. Countless tables, all set with white cloth and china settings and centerpieces of perfectly arranged fresh flowers.

            Then the "tavern," a superb woodsy, dark place with the requisite high-end bar, many little tables, and a wealth of imagery (both antique and trendy) in metal or glass or softer stuff hanging from the rafters like the charm bracelet dangling from the wrist of an insanely exuberant, but tasteful giant.

            It's telling somehow that the animal spirit of the place is a very large, well-fed, not easily impressed male cat who sometimes allows himself to be seduced into going to a guest's room and spending the night. A sign tells you not to let that happen.

            The Red Lion Inn is the place where old money goes if it's tired of international hotspots and too many airports. And a fun place for the rest of us to hang for a few days and pretend we belong.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Creepy 'Narrow Bands': The Winter Garden of the North

            We are going to the country of weather. What's that you say about snow? We're not afraid of a little snow!
            So we start off with fifty-degree weather and sunny at home in shorebound Massachusetts, feeling hot and overdressed in our winter clothes, for the great journey north and west to the central New York, to the land of the Finger Lakes, Syracuse -- though mainly of course to my sister's place in Tully -- and, don't forget, Lake Effect Snow. And before 6 p.m. that evening, leaving Gwen and Dave's house for a restaurant outside Syracuse, we are driving directly into a horizontal knife-blast of snow-white vectors aimed straight at our windshield, as the snow accumulates rapidly around us.
            It's a local event. But we happen to be in just that local time and place, so it's a rather significant event for us. And the wind is kicking.
            I think we must be living in a gentler clime. Around here we don't usually have snow when the temperature freezes your nose (and all that emerges from it) to your face the moment you stick it outdoors. If we get the occasional dose of brutal cold, it tends not to snow at the same time. And when the white stuff does fall, it hardly ever lines up at eye-level.
            In the event, the highly circumstantial "weather event" doesn't last that long, or extend that far, or lead to much accumulation. It's just that driving snow in that driving moment stays with one. We make it to the restaurant, the return-trip home snow is not so horizontal, and we get back to our motel with nothing more than a few slow-motion skids past an intended turn.
            Clear skies don't greet us the next morning, but it's not snowing either. This improvement lasts for a fine morning visit, including a fabulous brunch with French toast not the way Mother used to make it but reminiscent of the sugar and cinnamon mixture she used to dress it with. Then the skies darken in a snap of the fingers, and this little sprinkling -- not sugar, not cinnamon -- begins again. Well isn't that cute, a few more flurries. Quite unpredictable weather around here. We thought we had plenty of that in New England; but, no, these narrow bands of precipitation sure have us beat. Then the little flurries turn gray and snarly and the plot thickens along with the snow.
            Since we have a weatherman in the house (Gwen's husband Dave), we get a detailed reading of the situation. One of those "narrow bands" of lake effect snow is probing our way. It's clear sailing not very far from us in one direction or another, but we happen to be in the here and now, and the prognostication calls for a couple of inches potential accumulation every hour for the next three hours: Cue mad rush for the coats and boots by for the going-homers.
            Conversations trip into warp speed as generous-host gifts fall about us: daffodil bulbs from garden clean-up, garlic bulbs from a bumper crop, a jar of homemade maple syrup. Tax advice for our daughter from my brother. Reflections that the party of the first part, who left a couple hours ago, are probably well out of that "narrow band" of precipitation.
            We drive through the snow, through our finger of weather, because that's the way our road goes, our son behind the wheel now (I appear to be taking snow off this year), and pursue this first stage of our way home very carefully. A mere, slow, fog-of-snow twenty minutes later, the "event" is over for us. We're out of the band.
            Damn, wish I'd taken a picture. The sun shines for much of New York and the sky is brilliant and blowy in Massachusetts: Nobody will believe what just happened.
            It's our little sneak preview of winter weather events. Watch out for those narrow "bands" -- they play up a storm.

Friday, November 22, 2013

Living with the Trees

            Basically trees make oxygen. I'm reminded of this point, and of human beings' co-dependency relationship with trees because of the Mass Audubon "Sanctuary" magazine's timely fall/winter issue on the theme of "The Lives of Trees."

   The issue is timely not only because it feels very much like fall/winter around these parts but because reminders of our dependence on trees are always timely.That dependence is an an underpinning of civilized life here on earth that we're prone to forget.   

            Because plants absorb carbon dioxide from the air and release oxygen, they make the atmosphere a lot more friendly for creatures who need oxygen to breathe like us. We in turn release carbon dioxide in our breathing process, a gas that trees like all green plants take in.

            That oxygen-CO2 cycle is one of the reasons people are more likely to live a rich and happy life where trees flourish, Audubon Society writer Teri Dunn Chace points out in her essay "Tree Work: What trees do and how they do it" in the current issue. "Where there are no trees," she writes, quoting traditional wisdom, "life is as barren as the desert."

            The value of this inter-dependent relationship between people and trees can be seen in landscapes that have lost their trees -- places that have been logged or stripped of trees by disease and the grazing animals that eat the new shoots before they can grow high. In these landscapes the soil erodes without tree roots to hold it. Poor soil produces less food. Human population declines.

            But we're just getting started on what trees do for human beings. Trees also counter some of the effects of burning fossil fuels. These fuels produce greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide. The gases trap sunlight and raise the air temperatures the way a plant nursery "greenhouse" heats the air inside of it. The process is the principal accelerator of global warming. 
         Trees reduce the greenhouse effect by removing some of the carbon dioxide from the air. They help make our environment more habitable for human beings and other living things. They can help, as scientists have been telling us for some time, save the world.

            The cooling effect of trees works on the micro level as well. We're all aware of the relief from the heat provided by shade trees in summer. Shade trees cool our homes, streets and other impervious surfaces that turn densely developed urban areas into asphalt jungles. When it's hot downtown, my advice is to find a place with trees, grass, other plants. The air around you cools down at once and becomes more livable.
           Trees provide habit for birds, squirrels and insects. We're not crazy about insects, but the birds who come to feed on the trees also reduce the noxious pests we really do have to worry about, mainly mosquitoes.

            We're a long way from understanding how trees "think," but we do know they release chemicals that fight insect infestations and other pests such as harmful fungi. They also release substances that stimulate the growth of beneficial fungi that destroy insects pests such as gypsy moth caterpillars.

            Given these considerations it's interesting, though perhaps not surprising that the the writers of the Audubon's "The Lives of Trees" issue invoke Tolkien's "Ents," the tree-like beings who watch over forests, to give trees their just place in our world view.

            "Tolkien's sense that trees are sensitive and worried about their survival or indignant at abuses doesn't seen so fanciful," Chace writes. "Although trees seem permanent and durable, they are vulnerable. We ought to be giving these grand complex beings the space and respect they need and deserve -- for their survival as well as our own."

            In another article called "The Oak Tree's World," writer Michael Caduto also references the Ents. "I imagined a wise oak and wondered what it would have to say if I understood the language of Ents," he writes. The tree might say that it has seen it all, he concludes. Native trees can live at least three times as long as humans, giving them a unique standing in nature.

            The tree is "the suture that ties mineral to air, water... and fire," Caduto writes.

            We also also, it seems to me, can continue that metaphor to say that trees are one of the main "sutures" that tie human beings to the earth.

            We see trees come down in storms, attacked by blights and removed for a host of reasons by human society. But we should never take them for granted. One of the foundations of human existence on earth is "living with the trees."