Wednesday, July 25, 2012

The Sky Refused to Rain On The Smiles of Children (Brosella Folk and Jazz Fest)

I have so many hundreds of stories to tell about my recent trip to the Marshall Islands and then Belgium, it is hard to get them all out. I will try to tell stories of the most interesting parts (as deemed by me) and not make this whole blog turn into the equivalent of looking through someone's baby pictures or Aunt Edna's vacation pics.

The moment I wanna talk about today is substantial enough to warrant its own blog post though. I have no doubt about that.

The moment was one of the most memorable and magical moments I've ever had on stage. And I've had so many moments on stage that were memorable and magical that they are uncountable.

So here we go

I was asked by Beverly Jo Scott to perform with her and her amazing band in Brussels, Belgium. Of course I was intensely honored to be asked to do such a thing. I'm a huge fan of BJ so I'd be honored to play with her in an alley way or subway station. The fact that she was asking me to join her at a huge wonderful festival was all the more great.

The festival she asked me to join her at is called Brosella Folk and Jazz Festival. It has been going on since 1977 (as have I). It is a festival which, as the name implies, showcases Jazz and Folk music from around the world.

Before my trip over I studied up on the history of the festival and all the amazing artists who had played at it through the years. This made me feel even more honored and excited to be a part of the festival this year.

Beverly Jo's set at Brosella this year had a specific purpose. She had decided to spearhead a tribute to Woody Guthrie. This made perfect sense. For a festival that deeply cares about folk music, Woody's music is a perfect object of tribute. And the date of the show happened to be Woody's 100th birthday (had he still been alive).

For this reason I felt that the gig already had a little magic in it.

Anyway, the organizers and workers at Brosella are absolutely incredibly nice people with a true passion for music. The founder of the festival, Henri, actually picked me up from the airport when I arrived. That's how much they care. These folks are deeply invested in music and musicians.

Although my trip to get to Brussels had been insanely difficult (I'm sure that trip will be the topic of multiple future blog posts), the warm welcome and hospitality of the Brosella staff really put me at ease and prepared me for the festival. I could leave all the bad energy behind and focus on doing what I came all this way to do, namely make music.

I had a couple rehearsals with BJ's band (Michel GudanskiThierry RombauxRaphaƫl Debacker, Yves Baibay, Guy Strrobant, Rick Hirsch) before the festival.

The song arrangements that BJ and the band developed during those rehearsals were absolutely beautiful. They were fairly drastic departures from the original Woody Guthrie versions, but that was on purpose. By playing these modernized version of these songs we were a) showing that Woody's songs are timeless and can be as relevant now as much as they ever were, and b) we were showing how wide spread Woody's influence has been (because his music had reached us in our current genres despite them being so far removed from his).

As a side note, I have fallen so in love with some of the arrangements we did at Brosella that I believe that a couple of them will permenantly make their way into my set.

Back to Brosella.

On the day of the festival everyone was excited to finally unveil these songs. They were like our little gems we had been polishing in private. And we were ready to put them on display.

The morning of the show, Michel (better known as "PiFou") picked up Rick and I and headed to the venue. From my research I knew it was a picturesque outdoor venue with beautiful hedges and lush greenery all around. What I had failed to understand from my research was that the ampitheater we were going to be playing in was within a few 100 yards of the Atomium. The uniquely grand structure that is the Atomium was peeking over the tree line at us. I walked over to Rick during sound check and said, "Hey man. I know you've played all over the world, even here in Brussels, before. But have you ever played in the shadow of an atom?". He agreed he had not and we laughed.

Well although the landscape of the venue was stunningly gorgeous and the attitude of the staff and the audience was equally radiant, the weather was anything but radiant. There was a dreary, gloomy, chalky grey sky in all directions that was spitting morse code type rain consistently all morning and afternoon.
The storminess was unrelenting. There was never a strong rain, just a constant drizzle with those "dot dash dash dot dot dash dash...." showers sputtering every 10-15 minutes.

Fortunately for us, the audience wasn't even slightly dampened by the rain. I told you these people are dedicated to music. They weren't budging. I have a feeling a hurricane wouldn't have moved them from their places. The ampitheater was packed.

BJ and I discussed how the ampitheater already resembled a garden due to the lush hedges and surrounding trees, but when the sporadic showers would begin the thousands of multicolored umbrellas popping open looked like flowers springing open. This solidified the garden imagery for us.

During the 30-40 min before the show, we stood side stage and watched the "flowers" bloom a few times. It was spectacular to watch.

Well after all the waiting and build up, it was time for the actual performance.

We took the stage and played a few of my songs ("Bird on a Powerline", "If Alabama Is Not Good Enough For You"), one of Rick's songs ("Papa Come Quick") and one of Beverly Jo's songs ("Great White Ghost") as a sort of introduction as to who we are as artists. BJ then eloquently explained (in French and English) why Woody was such an important figure in American music and global music. Then we launched into our versions of Woody's songs.

The songs sounded huge. They sounded even better than they did in rehearsal. The audience was loving them. I saw people crying. I saw people swaying and dancing. I saw people deeply moved by what we were doing. And the 7 of us on stage were among those being moved. The show was powerful.

The plan for the set was to play a few of our originals to show the folks who we were, explain how Woody influenced us, play a few Woody songs, then have a group of 20 Belgian children come out and sing "This Land Is Your Land" with us. Then we would end by singing a few more Woody songs.

When we reached the children's part of the show, I was already feeling the power of the show. The Music was touching me, the venue was enhancing the experience, the audience was as responsive as an audience can be (while standing in the rain no less). But that was all just the prelude. The real magic happened when the children walked out on stage.

These 20 cute little Belgian kids haphazardly and awkwardly clamoured out in a bunch immediately to my left. As the sound engineer set up two condenser mics (so the kids would be heard), BJ explained that Brosella has a Brosella for the Kids section where the children can go and have fun with theater, music, arts and all sorts of things. She said these children had been over at the Brosella for Kids and Jan de Smet (the accordian player/organizer of the Woody part of the Brosella Kid's thing)  had taught them the words to a famous Woody song and they were going to sing it with us.

Once the mics were set and were just about ready to kick off the song, the clouds broke open. BJ said, " look at that". 2000-3000 people gasped at the sight. The sky was still dark and gloomy, the entire venue and stage where wrapped in grey EXCEPT for one huge beam of light that covered the children only. It was unbelievable to see. There was an expansive stage and acres upon acres of amiptheater and only one 10 foot by 10 foot area lit up and it was perfectly lighting up those kids.

I'm not sure if it was Woody smiling on the kids or kids parting the clouds or just a random hap stance, but it sure felt magical.

We sang "This Land is Your Land" with the entire audience and those kids helping. The crowd went wild. We continued the show as the natural spotlight disipated completely.

We got a rousing ovation from the crowd that lasted for an extremely long time.

The show was a huge success. The music sounding great, the venue was impeccably beautiful, the audience was superb but the part that stole the day was those children and the solitary beam of light they brought with them.

1 comment:

  1. That is incredible!! All of it!! The story, the circumstances, the people, the blog writer, I could go on and on. I felt the 'magic' you described even being so incredibly distant from it all. Thanks for sharing your blessings with us! I'm honored to know you! :D