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Psychedelic Bluegrass

When I was in high school my father would get home from his San Francisco law office at around 7 and, much to my mother’s chagrin as she shushed two hungry, complaining teenagers, walked over to the bar and made a very dry gin martini (he used an atomizer to spray a thin layer of vermouth over its icy surface) before turning on the “Hi-Fi” to crank up the volume on his beloved Big Band LP records. He said he needed half an hour to relax before dinner, a workweek point of contention since Mom believed that families should eat dinner together at a proper table without radio, TV, or Duke Ellington to disturb the family’s dinnertime chatter. 

What he really wanted was a jolt of the music of his youth, and by extension a sentimental revisit to his impressionable early years when he was preparing for his future at the University of Minnesota Law School, dropping bombs from his Hellcat bomber over Okinawa, and falling in love, all while grooving to the tunes of Glenn Miller, Count Basie, and Duke Ellington. This was especially intense when his only brother came to visit from L.A.; I don’t remember my mother even attempting dinner on the nights when Dad and Uncle Roger listened to the music they loved long into the night, with occasional arm pumps on the crescendos. My father did not dwell on the past, which of course he knew logically was long gone. But the music wormed its way deeply into his heart, so deep it flourished and sustained him for more than 60 years, until he died.

I was reminded of this when we recently went with friends to a Billy Strings concert in Sacramento. The century-old midtown Sacramento Memorial Auditorium is living proof of why it’s important to preserve our historic public places. Its graceful interior may have even rocked to Count Basie back in the day. It has an official occupant maximum of nearly 4,000, though to this reporter’s eye there had to have been more than that at the String’s concert. We were even told that we could scalp our tickets for double what we paid for them. Our seats were in the first tier up from the floor, where we had a clear view of the hordes pressing into the lower floor area, where they stood shoulder to shoulder from the stage to the back of the building. I hadn’t been to an honest-to-gosh rock concert since Big Brother and the Holding Company at Fillmore West back in 1969, and remember Janice Joplin’s power as she belted out Piece of my Heart, drops of sweat flying off the ends of her hair as she sang her heart out for us Baby Boomers. 

Based on the deceptive evidence of my own experience, I somehow thought that rock concerts like Strings’s concert in Sacramento had gone the way of the dodo, replaced by the smaller venues I have attended in my own adult life (though my brother spent the last $700 of his inheritance on a ticket to a Rolling Stones concert a few years ago). I was wrong; rock is alive and well; and Strings is a more talented guitarist than any I heard in the ‘60s. And unlike during Dad’s Big Band evenings, when I gratefully escaped to my room to listen to the Beatles, the Bobby Strings-enraptured audience was multi-generational; Baby Boomers wouldn’t have been caught dead at their parents’ Big Band, Swing Era concerts. At the Strings concert hippies young, old, and everything in-between jammed the auditorium. A young, tie-dyed hippie woman strolled by with her baby in a tie-dyed sling, its ears protected by pint-sized head phones; an older hippie-looking male in the beverage line said t was the best concert he had seen in the Memorial Auditorium since the Grateful Dead played there in 1979. The two women sitting to our right were a mother and her 10-year-old daughter; the guy to our left would not have been out of place on a Mendo trimming site though he works at Stanford as his day job, still chasing the music… 

At a quarter to eight, a huge countdown appeared on a banner behind the front of the stage where the band would soon play. The crowd went nuts. I had to beat down a feeling of dread that, if there were some emergency, hundreds of people, including us, would be trampled to death. Who would feed the cat? (Such are the preoccupations of born worriers.)

The light show started up a few minutes before the musicians walked onto the stage. It was way better than the old disco ball at Fillmore West, but we were all less technologically sophisticated back then. Pinpoint ceiling lights beamed down to the stage; it was kind of like looking up at a ceiling with round holes in it. Flashing geometric-shaped neon lights pulsed with the dancing colors of the rainbow. Powerful search lights pierced the darkness (probably damaging our retinas), and swept the undulating crowd as the clock ticked down.

When Strings walked onto the stage with his band the crowd went nuts. Thousands of waving arms looked like a multi-colored field of grain swaying to the music. Fans closest to the stage bent their hands into that trendy heart shape, reflected in projected overhead shots of the band. Puffs of smoke from cannabis smokers on the floor added a ‘60s vibe and evocative scent to the aura; I was back at Fillmore West.

Unlike many AVA writers, I’m no music expert. I had never even heard of Billy Strings. But the rock groups of my youth are as much a part of me as the Big Bands were for my father. And though most of the Strings audience were 20- or 30-ish (Strings himself turns 30 this month), there were plenty of us old folks rocking out at the Sacramento Memorial Auditorium, doubtless why String’s rendition of Jackson Browne’s 1977 hit Running on Empty brought down the house as nearly everyone shouted out the lyrics. The exuberance of the crowd was breathtaking and unsullied by fistfights, deranged shooters, and obvious bad acid trips (unlike in 1969, where it was hard to get past all the vomiting women in the women’s’ restroom to get to a toilet). 

What if anything any this means is better left to sociologists and philosophers. But what it reminded me of is the powerful and unifying nature of music, a jewel shared in a kind of oasis in the midst of our screwed up and violent society. Escapism? Perhaps. But detouring into beautiful music with joyful fellow travelers can’t be a bad thing. People all over the world since forever have understood this, reveling in music’s temporary respite from our daily human troubles—which always return soon enough. 

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