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shrewsbury folk festival Sweetback sisters Maddy Prior Byrd


Baby Egg

The phone in my hotel room rang at 11:15pm. The driver had come to pick me up and take me back to the festival for late night fun. I apologized to him for his wasted trip and rolled back over, wide awake and exhausted. My wife emailed me all night from Eastern Daylight Time. We lost another chicken to a raccoon. That makes four chickens we've lost while I've been gone. The current coop is failing and I am not home to fix it. A husband on the road is no husband at all. She is burying chickens and terrified for the survivors' safety every night. We agreed that she should hire a carpenter to finish the new coop that I've started. I tried to convey my unwritten construction plans to my surrogate from across the ocean in an email.

Rowan, our two-year-old, is learning how fragile life is. He gathered an egg from the coop and cradled it in his hands all the way back to the house. He dubbed it the "baby egg." He took it to his room and made a crib for it. He spoke to it softly and nursed it at his breast.

I fell asleep at 4am. I showed up on the festival grounds at 9am to warm up for my flatpicking workshop. The Sabrina marquee had about 1500 seats. I had no idea how many would come to the workshop. I told everyone to bring guitars.

The soundman showed up at about 9:30 and said, "We don't run sound for workshops. I'm just here to set up some things."

At 10am, there were 60 people. Half of them had their guitars. I set my metronome up on some rigging and started talking. After a few sentences, I asked, "Can everyone hear me?"

The answer was a resounding no. I went and found the soundman.

By the time they got sound up and running, there were a hundred people. We strummed and cross-picked at glacier speed, a microphone pointed down next to my boot above my little quartz metronome. The plastic TOCK echoed off the yellow and blue PVC walls. A few people didn't have a pick, so I handed out a couple from my pocket. I revealed all my secrets, which are not many. I stopped the metronome and played a song to show what the pattern sounded like up to speed. We learned bass runs. I chanted, "DOWN. UP. DOWN. UP. DOWN. UP." I took questions and one woman asked me, "Can we take you home?" We had a blast. When people are eager to learn, being a teacher is the best job in the world.

The hour and a half that seemed like a lifetime before the workshop went by like an album side. At 11:30, I had to ask everyone to clear out so that the crew could set up for the day of shows. A few people ran back to their camps to put the inspiration to work. I got an email from a lady two days later who said that her fiance had still not put his guitar down.

People brought CDs to me for autographs. "Let's all walk over to the merch tent and I'll sign them there," I said. I stopped and autographed some on the way. When I got to the merch tent, Nikki asked me, "Do you have any CDs left? We're sold out of your new one and the others are going fast."

That's the best news I had all weekend. "I gave you everything I have. Can I use the signing tent?"

She said, "Yes, of course. We've never had a signing after a workshop before!" Thank you, Shrewsbury. I'll put up some pictures of the new chicken coop, so you can see what you've paid for.

Back at artist reception, there was a serious round table meeting happening. Everyone had a computer or a phone. It resembled a war room. I stood and wondered at it, but I didn't really want to know. I sat down beside Caroline Herring to chat, but she got up and went over to the table to join the conference. I kicked off my boots and hat and went horizontal.

When I woke up, I learned that KT Tunstall's father died. Her set was canceled. She was the festival headliner, the very last show of the whole long weekend. The festival sells out months in advance every year. The directors were concerned. Surely, some people bought tickets for the festival just to see KT. They wanted to give the fans something special to replace what they'd lost. For eight hours, they called every agent and manager from Glasgow to Nashville, to find a replacement of her caliber. If the right artist had been available, they would have flown them from the US without question. This was their baby egg.

I know the feeling. I hadn't seen anyone except the acts preceding me. I can't enjoy an artist when I have work to do. I worry my show to bare threads until my boots hit the stage.

With my workshop over, my time was finally my own. I got a schedule and started making marks. Abigail Washburn was playing in minutes. I walked across campus to see her play where I had played Friday night. She walked out and plucked the clawhammer groove that I knew so well. On paper, it's the way every clawhammer banjo player in the world plays, but somehow only Abigail sounds like Abigail. I've listened to her Song Of The Traveling Daughter a hundred times, if once. After a couple of songs, a guy I'd never heard before, Kai Welch, came out and joined her. He was not her support. He was her equal, the whole set.

I walked backstage. I knew what to say to Abigail. I knew I'd meet her someday and I'd said it in my head for years. They were both genuine and gracious. Kai shone with a bright light. Abigail went over to their car and handed me the new CD. It's out on Rounder records. My best guess is that the CD cost them seven dollars. Artists on record labels don't make a habit of handing out CDs. I said, "Are you going to be here for a minute?" I walked back across campus to the merch tent, checked out one of my few remaining CDs, and walked it back over to them, unwrapped and signed. I left them alone to pack up.

I walked back over to reception and had a cup of coffee and another chat with Maddy Prior. She had changed into a bright yellow jacket with black polka-dots. With her two-toned hair, she looked like the art teacher I always wanted. I enjoyed her company.

There was a plan brewing for replacing KT Tunstall's set and I was part of it. They were moving Treacherous Orchestra over to the Main Stage for the last set there, after the Sweetback Sisters. The Sweetback Sisters would break down and set up again over at Main Stage Two. They would be a backing band to get Maddy Prior on stage - she had never played the festival - , the blistering Rua McMillan Trio, Jim Moray, Nick Cooke, Hannah James, Caroline Herring, and me. The show would be an hour and a half long. The directors put Jim Moray in charge of building the set, and they wanted a real set, a true collaboration, not artists-in-the-round. Americans do this kind of collaboration all the time. Evidently, UK'ers do not. All the Americans said, "Cool." Everyone else was dubious.

I let Maddy know right away that I wanted to play with her. Sing a harmony. Anything. I pumped optimism into the idea. I'd never seen or heard most of the people involved. Maybe I just wanted to get back on stage in front of this awesome audience, but I do believe in positive energy. Jim was nervous.

Several people recommended that I see the Sweetback Sisters this weekend. They were playing at 9pm and I had already marked it. The singers, Emily and Zara, were sitting at a table nearby. We shook hands and met. The schedule was written in the European 24-hour style and I was confused. I thought their show was at 7pm.

I got up and walked past Emily to one of the directors. I said, "I'm going to go see the Sweetback Sisters on your recommendation."

"When do they play?"

"Right now. You want to go?"

The director looked over at Emily, ran over to her and said, "You're playing right now!"

Emily turned white, jumped up from her table, and said, "What time is it!?"

Someone knew better and settled the question. "No, no, you don't play for another two hours." I apologized and excused myself in the same breath. Emily glared at me. That wasn't exactly the way I wanted to start a relationship with the Sweetback Sisters.

When I showed up for their set at 9pm, there was a sign on the marquee, "Tent Full." A dozen people waited outside for seats to clear. The band kicked in with a swing. The ladies' voices were like a brass section. The Tele player ripped up one side and down the other. The fiddler was as hot as there ever was. Some people left and the door attendant invited me inside. "No, thank you. I like it out here." There was no way I was going to show my face in there. A band that good, I had to figure out how to reintroduce myself as someone other than the primate who gave Emily a heart attack in artist reception.

I danced in the street until they were done. One more thing to do tonight. I walked all the way back over to artist reception, also the backstage area for the main stage. In the room where everyone hung out, there was a television screen with the current show playing. Richard Thompson was on. I'd never seen him live. People lined up by the thousands to get in. I knew it would be that way and gave up on getting into the show earlier in the day. I thought I'd watch the show on the screen backstage. The sound was down and most of what I heard was the low end rolling around through the PVC walls.

I saw one of the directors and asked him if there was any way I could get into the show. Neil said, "Sure. Let's go this way," and we walked through the backstage access. He took me around to the front of the stage and walked me between the main speakers and the barricades that held back more than three thousand people. We walked right up to the edge of the stage. "You're welcome to stand here and watch the show."

It was easily one of the top five concerts in my life. Most people knew every word. I'd heard him a hundred times in the radio and didn't understand the words, but tonight, maybe because my ear was getting used to all the British voices, I could understand every line. I was happy for it all to be a revelation to me. Mr. Thompson has won so many accolades for his guitar playing, it would be hard to match the expectations, but he went far out beyond anything I could have imagined.

I could have easily shaken his hand and said a word after the show, but I didn't. I asked for a ride to the hotel. I didn't want to talk to anyone. I didn't want to hear anything else. I wanted it to last forever. It was Richard Thompson's workshop for me. I wanted to carry the inspiration back to my quiet room and build a little nest for it in my dreams.

It was not to be. Before I could leave the tent, Maddy Prior walked over to me and said, "I'm thinking about singing Long Shadows. Do you know it?" Then she leaned over to me in the cacophonous tent and sang into my ear. All that I'd heard was washed away by a single wave, a completely different kind of music, a voice from the most ancient ache of a lonely winter. It was a fair trade, and a reminder that I had one more job to do.

I saw Zara from the Sweetback Sisters standing close by. I walked up to her and said, "I want you to sing a duet with me."