Friday, November 17, 2006

Hit The Home Running

The highway slipped underneath the car like a concrete treadmill set for "turbo." I made good time heading up to Ohio because five miles over the speed limit is my average speed. It's the grace zone. The legal buffer. Confirmed by law enforcement types all across the country. Six above the speed limit and you're pushing it. I did push it quite a bit on this trip, which is why I made such great time.

The leaves began to show their colors just north of the Georgia border. Brilliant yellows and golds and reds blazed brightly from the hillsides as I sped through, stopping only once at the South and North Carolina border for lunch at a Cracker Barrel across from Paramount's Carowinds theme park. From there, it was non-stop for Stewart.

Jerry and Mary Rockwell live in an historic house right on highway 329 in Athens County, Ohio. We met and then spent a couple of hours talking, during which time Jerry showed me his woodworking studio where he makes his incredible dulcimers. before I shuttled off to bed in their upstairs guest room. When the morning came, Jerry and I set up camp on their front porch and took out the dulcimers, talking more than we actually played. He's a fascinating guy filled with incredible ideas, lots of history about the instrument and a huge sense of the present. His awareness of the importance surrounding every moment was evident as we sipped coffee and shot the breeze on an unseasonably warm and bright sunny November day.

Presently, the Rockwell's drove into town to run errands, leaving me to kick back with a couple of Jerry's signature dulcimers and nothing on my mind but music. Normally, on these trips, you can barely remove the camera from my face as I work to capture images for posterity, but it was different this time around. Something about the cool air and warm sun inspired little more than the desire to sit and do some front-porch pickin', though I did squeeze in a few shots here and there, including one of their house with the Chevy HHR in the foreground. I love that car.

That was Friday, pretty much. Jerry and Mary came back to find me in exactly the same spot they'd left me; sitting on the front porch. Jerry and I picked up where we left off and then headed down to the old school where the festival would take place the next day, lugging a bunch of our electric equipment along. We jammed for quite some time - doing everything from meditations on "Skip To My Lou" to a neo-classical treatment of "Louie Louie" - all sprung from the mind of Jerry and interpreted through the fretwork that I mused up on dulcimer and Dulcitar. A handful of people were there to witness it - some of it got captured on video, but again - it was all about the moment and I kept my eyes pretty much locked with Jerry as we rolled through song after song. We left our gear there and got a good night's sleep in for the early start on Saturday morning.

All told, SEODfest '06 was great fun. All of my workshops went really well, due largely to the aptitude of the attendees, who ranged from beginners to professional performers. It was a rush to sort of fly by the seat of my pants, which is what I did for the most part. How to instruct a class on rhythms or free-flow improvisational melodies? You can really only do it when you've got everyone sitting there and can get an idea who you're dealing with and vice versa. My second workshop, "Primal Dulcimer", had the added element of a journalist recording the entire hour as I led the group through visualization of the Scottish highlands before launching them into melodic exploratory over a room full of drones; quite a lovely sound!

Lunch came and went - I made some phone calls to Jae, who was getting over an illness and a little stressed out. Cel reception was for the birds but we managed to get a complete conversation in before I headed back inside. By this time, the bright blue sky had been replaced by a more typically grey and overcast smear that dripped rain throughout the day. A chilly, bone-soaking kind of cold set in, making forays into the outside something that you had to bargain with yourself. "Do I really want to go out there?" "What will I get if I go out there?" "Is going out there worth it?" And of course, it was.

Throughout the day, the staff went onstage to perform short sets and I was able to catch a couple before my set at 2:30. Mike Oliver and his wife Marlene went up and did a very enjoyable set, he is a member of Everything Dulcimer, so it was nice to put a face and talent with a name. Khrysso Heart LeFey's set was enjoyable as well (as well as being a fascinating guy.) Going with the moment, I continued with my public explorations of "Song For George" and "Cluck Ol' Hen" before launching into the Ryan and Stacia Trilogy and then jetting for my final workshop, which was "The Dark Side of the Dulcimer." This seemed to be the most populated of the courses, though that might have been amplified by the fact that we were in a tiny pillbox of a room (heat worked good though.) This is the only class that I prepared a hand-out for and discovered, as I rushed to get settled in, that I had completely neglected to pack them into my briefcase; so I taught "The Pirate O'Reilly" from memory and promised to upload the tablature once I got back home, which I did.

The rest of the day was spent milling about, conversing with some of the other attendees and instructors, going through a brief informal tutorial on using Garageband for recording and stuffing pizza down my gullet. As evening fell, the staff concert began, allowing everyone who wasn't able to see the daytime sets an opportunity to enjoy the music in a more formal setting. Steven K. Smith, Mike and Marlene Oliver, Linda Sigismondi and Bill Schilling, Vici Gombaski and Sylvia White and Khrysso Heart LeFey all performed about three songs each and the crowd just ate it up. It was a warm room and an intimate setting with sweet acoustics that got filled with expressive, passionate, dazzling performances. Jerry presented my closing set as one by a "special guest" and gave me time to stretch out my fingers and voice a little bit. I performed "Gold Trails Hotel", "Sunday Morning", "One-Way Ticket", "Simon Brothers Mercantile", "This Road This Moment", "Positive Vibes" and relayed a few stories here and there that were well-received. When all was said and done, I'd been invited to perform at a couple of Ohio-based festivals, sold some more CDs (they began to move shortly after my first workshop - hooray for gas money!) and was told of a few other venues that would welcome my style of music.

All in all, you can color me encouraged. As a musician still seriously searching for my own voice, it's a right trip and a half to find that maybe I've already found it. Before this trip, I had never heard any music by Richard & Mimi FariƱa, and Jerry's quite a historian on those two, so I got up to speed pretty quick, as he sent me home with some recordings and books. He also made mention of the "Pacific Rim Dulcimer Project" and said that my sound was evocative of the "west coast" sound that was displayed on the album which featured a number of popular dulcimer players including Neal Hellman and Robert Force. It sounded like an album I needed to pick up. Any evidence of a place for non-traditional dulcimer music was all the proof I needed to stay the course. As much as I love what is known as traditional and old-time dulcimer music - it's always going to be a passion of mine to push the instrument into different directions. Maybe all those years of colloborative drought in the California 80's was enough to set the tone for the music that I'm writing and performing now. Who knew?

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