During the hours prior to the David Wax Museum/Many Nights Ahead concert at Court Square Theater, Brandy and I had been talking about the usual random insignificant crap, like that Brandy likes to read with the show Friends on in the background so she feels like she’s reading in a coffee shop, and the fact that the entire left side of my body is smaller than the right. But somehow the conversation morphed into something much grander. We talked about recommitting to personal goals and progress, about staving off the inertia that smothers our spirits during winter. It’s a force that pins me to the sofa and makes me feel guilty for wasting time. For me, I think it’s about more than just laziness and comfortable sweatpants. Fear lives in there somewhere, coupled with loneliness. So we talked about courage… where it goes… where to find it… how to get it back. Having unknowingly primed our hearts and souls for that night’s performance, we arrived at Court Square Theater, shook off the winter chill we’d accumulated all day long, and settled in for a great show.
Court Square Theater has brought us such delightful events as the Super Gr8 Film Festival, The Rocky Horror Picture Show, Valley Playhouse productions, tons of Oscar-winning films, and more. This night’s performance, part of the Arts Council of the Valley’s Music Series, was sponsored by Capital Ale House, James McHone Jewelry, WMRA, and the Stonewall Jackson Inn, whose contributions will provide a string of amazing concerts in 2018.
Many Nights Ahead warmed us with nine songs that ranged from nostalgic to lonesome to just foot stomping wild. Amy’s throaty and panoramic voice sang to us about “dancin’ like fools by the river” — finding happiness in what’s simple. Band mates Bucky, Walker, Dan, and Ross arranged themselves in a circle to hammer out a long and multi-layered instrumental number written by Bucky, the type of song that’ll carry you someplace else if you close your eyes. Talent is not something you can fake in a live performance, and this piece, “Bucky’s Break,” would most definitely shine a light on any and all shortcomings. There were none. Each instrument — the banjo, the dobro, the guitar, the bass — sang its part with perfect clarity. When Amy’s not singing, she conducts the band with arm motions and hair swings.
Some folks were visibly surprised when this young bluegrass band unleashed Bill Withers’ “Ain’t No Sunshine,” but honestly, Amy’s voice is made for this song (sorry, Bill). And I have to wonder how long she’s been singing it. Like, did she hear it in her mom’s car in middle school and then sing it into her hairbrush? Because it sounds like she was born singing it. This choice of song also shows that “bluegrass” is not an adequate label for Many Nights Ahead. Sure, they play bluegrass instruments, but there’s blues in their soul and funk in their feet, laced with some old time gospel.
My favorite song of the evening was “Train Bound to Nowhere.” I think we’ve all ridden this train at some point. It’s about being “all alone now,” losing the one you love and not knowing “what it’s like without you.” Only… we do know. We just forget how lonely we were before we found love, and when that happens, gratitude falls victim to complacency… inertia sets in. We get so numbed by what’s in front of us. Where’s the jumpstart? What’s the defibrillator?? Eventually the whole thing flatlines, and then you’re “trying to get on without you,” but getting nowhere.
After a quick intermission warranting a fresh beer, David Wax Museum hit the stage. David Wax and Suz Slezak, now married, started the band ten years and eight records ago and recently performed their 1000th show together. Between songs, they told us parts of their endearing story, like how one time in Mexico, David and Suz were just trying to get to a cantina when they got swept up in a Virgin Mary pilgrimage with thousands of people. Their song “Maria” was born of that experience. Indeed, many of their songs are influenced by their time in Mexico and Mexican folk music. They also described the early years of the band, squatting in a hovel with no heat or water, which ultimately turned into the song “Don’t Lose Heart” (Guesthouse, 2015): “no money in the bank, no gas in the tank… we’re barely afloat, I should care but I don’t,” the title wailed in an attempt to convince themselves it’ll work out. COURAGE. Then they break into cheerful na-na-nas and la-la-las with no warning at all. The early days also involved a good deal of bartering and garnered them, among other weird items, a shank of lamb, some round steak, and a 2-months-old ziploc bag of crumbled cookies. You take what you can get, I suppose.
If you get a chance to see this band live, you must. First of all, I think it’s the only place you’ll see a denim camisole and gingham pants side by side. But more importantly, their sound is so much bigger in person. Each band member plays multiple instruments, picking them up and putting them down as if switching from one language to another mid-sentence. And sometimes they play more than one instrument at a time! Suz started on the squeezebox, which is like an entire brass band in a box, then switched to her fiddle, and then jumped up on a wooden box which she stomped with her boot heels while playing the fiddle AND SINGING. David’s big voice accompanies his ukulele and guitar in perfect proportion. As individuals, they are obviously skilled and talented… but on stage together, they perform with the intimacy they sing about, both facing each other and sharing a microphone, the heat between them challenging the harsh winter just outside with lines like “Turn on the light when we kiss” (“Lavender Street,” Everything Is Saved, 2011).
David and Suz — they are poets of circumstance. The audience got to sing along with them on “Harder Before It Gets Easier” (Knock Knock Get Up, 2012), a song about “sobbing so hard you can barely breathe…stitching your heart on the outside of your sleeve,” about “being wrung out and then doused with grief,” the painful circumstances that befall us sometimes. And like the title says, it’s not going to get easier any time soon, because fate just doesn’t care. But, David and Suz remind us the “moment will be brief” and one’s burden “will lift” … eventually. Have COURAGE!
I admit there were times (during both bands) I was enjoying the music so much that my pen slipped from my fingers and entire songs went by without my writing down a word. One of the last songs of the night was “Guesthouse,” the title track from their 2015 album, in which the speaker asks about 100 times, “Can I stay in your guesthouse?” The song describes the life of a nomadic musician, constantly searching for places to crash for the night. And maybe that’s exactly what it’s about — literally staying in someone’s guesthouse. But those of us who aren’t traveling performers might ascribe a different meaning to it. Maybe it’s about bridging the gap between two lonely souls, about finding the courage to move one step closer to companionship, about finally leaving behind whatever tragedy drove us to solitude in the first place. Maybe it’s about baby steps back to normalcy. Maybe it’s about looking at intimacy straight on.
Or maybe it’s about couch surfing. What do I know.
1) When it’s cold (outside, or in your heart, or when life is cold), be together.
2) The inertia you feel… it won’t last. It’s no match for your soul.
3) Have courage!
The Arts Council of the Valley’s Music Series will continue with The Country Gentlemen Tribute Band (date to be announced), Bethany Yarrow and Rufus Cappadocia on March 10, and Russell Moore and IIIrd Tyme Out on March 17. Also check out the Concert to Benefit Bridge of Hope, with The Walking Roots Band and Low Volume coming up on March 2. And don’t forget to check the movie schedule — Court Square Theater gets the best ones!
See you there soon!