COLUMN NINETY-SIX, SEPTEMBER 1, 2003
(Copyright © 2003 The Blacklisted Journalist)
A SOULFUL TRIP---PANAMA TOURS NEW ENGLAND
TN, July 8, 2002 - - I got an invitation a couple of months ago from my old
friend Rick Norcross, who owned the first coffeehouse I ever played in for
actual money down in Tampa in the waybackwhen.
Rick now produces the ChewChew FoodFest in Burlington, VT, an event that
attracts thousands of eaters one weekend every summer.
He is also the chief dude of Vermont's premier (and only, they joke)
Western Swing band, Rick and the Ramblers.
invitation led to a flurry of emails, telephone calls and CD mailings that
ultimately resulted in a couple of companion gigs that would help pay the
freight: Middle Earth in Bradford, VT and The Buttonwood Tree in Middletown, CT,
which turned out to be fine venues both. More
about them later. I also wanted to
visit my old friend Sebastian Houseman in Sunapee, New Hampshire.
that Wednesday June 18 found me cruising up I65, alone in the gathering
like driving at night---nobody out there but me and the truckers, "these
Captains of the Highways," as Reader's Digest once referred to them.
Unless, of course, it's raining, in which case the Captains' trailers,
lately rendered mudflap-less to improve fuel economy, leave roostertails of
water two hundred feet long and thirty feet high for the Volvo to blindly plunge
through. Which is why I pulled over
to wait for the downpour's end, just short of my first highway change near
Louisville. High on Gatorade, I had
to pee anyway.
rest of the night Ohio floated silently by in the gloom, as the Volvo and I made
our way north toward Cleveland, where we joined Interstate 90, crossing the
small dab of Pennsylvania that abuts Lake Erie and into New York State a little
had cause for reflection along the way, for Interstate 90, also known as the New
York Throughway, cuts a swath across upper New York State, through the territory
occupied by the Dutch during their sojourn in America. There is a certain
flatness to some sections of I90 in New York State that is strongly reminiscent
of the countryside of Holland. Canals,
including the Erie, rolling veldts, even a certain light in the air.
I could see why the place had held such an attraction to the Dutch, what
with all its potential for waterworks.
came to an original lock of the Erie Canal by the road and pulled over and
walked back to get a better look. The
Erie is probably the most famous of all the original canals here in North
America, though before the railroads came, there were hundreds.
Standing on the lock looking at this vestige of an America long outmoded,
I was struck by how small---tiny in fact---the original canal had been, judging
by the width of the lock, about 16 feet across.
I could even see remnants of the canal itself, and the towpath beside it,
where countless draft horses and mules had patiently pulled their barges,
lifting them up toward Lake Erie. The
canal was dug in the early part of the nineteenth century, before mechanical
aids to digging had been invented, so each foot of canal had been hand-shoveled.
A lot of new immigrants shoveling...
haggard was I rendered by the Throughway that I got off at the first
opportunity, a little town called---charmingly for me---Amsterdam.
I headed through rolling hills and picturesque surroundings until I came
to another Interstate route north, this one blessedly short, and made my final
turn east into Vermont.
had been in touch with Rick via cellphone during the day, and he assured me that
there was a room waiting for me at the Radisson in Burlington.
I checked in, after a small tiff with the babe behind the desk.
I was scheduled to be the opening act at the ChewChew, at six pm the next
day, and after 24 hours behind the wheel, I gratefully crashed.
is difficult to describe. It's a
smallish city, politically replete with a whole bunch of Birkenstock-wearing
Greens and tie-dyed Deadheads and Howard Dean and godnose whatall else, and it
sits on several hills overlooking Lake Champlain. Lotsa ancient streets and hundred-year-old buildings.
Why is it that Liberals are more in favor of conservation than
had also seen a few---but only a few---billboards along the way urging
Vermonters to take the train to get around, for the railroads here in Vermont
are much more vibrant and alive than in other parts of America.
Thus the name ChewChew, I suppose. I
walked down the hill on which the Radisson sits to the ChewChew grounds on the
Lake and stumbled around looking for my old friend Rick Norcross.
in the heady days of my very misspent youth, Rick operated the Eighteenth String
Coffeehouse. Located in a strip
mall in Tampa, it was a beacon in the cultural shoals of Florida in those days,
importing all manner of big-name folksingers to whom suncoasters would otherwise
not have gained exposure. And he
was always and ever a soft touch for a gig at a time and place where local
songwriters like me were starving pariahs.
A few pounds heavier, the affable and slyly humorous Norcross retains pretty much the same
he paid way too much
for the Starliner
selfless kindness of speech and manner that typified him back then.
I found him tactfully directing the placement of yet another vendor's
apparatus on the ChewChew site. There
were immense hugs and much jocularity all around.
then we visited his pride and joy: his green and white (Vermont's state colors,
I'm sure) 1957 Flxible Starliner bus, that "I paid way too much for",
used now to classily haul Rick and The Ramblers around to their various gigs in
New England. The Starliner---for
those bus buffs, all both of you, out there---is the one that looks like a
miniature Greyhound Scenicruiser. Rick and I share a kind of prideful insanity
having to do with old buses: I once toured in a '47 GMC Silversides.
you still have that old bus?" he asks.
We have a new one now," I reply.
year?" he asks with trepidation.
a '58 4104," I reply.
Well, that's not too bad, then, I guess," he says, relieved that I
haven't completely sold us out and bought something new from, oh, the sixties or
has to get back to work, and after giving me the final word on when I will go
on, 6 p.m., he returns to his shepherding duties.
I hike back to the Radisson to get limbered up.
I've found that a wee drop of Islay helps, and the Radisson's bar is
superbly stocked. After running
scales in my room for two hours, I sit in the cool dimness of the bar and
organize my thoughts. Or something.
hour before showtime I'm back at the ChewChew Performance Tent.
As I am a solo performer it makes sense for me to start things off...more
comfortable for me, too: nothing harder than trying to gain an audience's
attention when you're following an eight-piece band and you are armed with only
show goes well. I tell my little stories, do my tunes, sign off with Poor Boy,
and after, at the table by the side of the stage, I sell a few HomeGrown CDs and
a Disco Still Sucks T-shirt. It is
time for the Ramblers.
believe that there are few things quite as magnificent as a well-oiled,
professional Western Swing band. Maybe
a Boeing 747. Or a Silver Eagle
cruising a straight stretch of highway in the middle of a moonlit night.
But aside from those, and maybe some trains I've seen in Europe, Western
Swing as played by Rick and The Ramblers is enormous, seamless perfection.
Ramblers launch into their set, replete with tunes from established writers and
a few of their own. There is not a
player here who could not hold his own in Nashville, all things being equal...in
fact several of them have lived and worked in Music City before settling down in
Vermont. Leo Roy on lead and Jim
Pitman on steel are seasoned vets of the biz as are Tom Buckley and Roy Cutler
on bass and drums, respectively. Chris Peterman's saxophones lend authenticity.
the band's requisite girl singer for the last six years, Shauna Antoniuc, has
recently married a carpetbagger from California and moved away.
happily, she has been succeeded by Poppy Loney, who on this, her first official
gig as a Rambler, brings to the stage a gorgeous voice and the wholesome beauty
of the cowgirl from the next ranch over. I
swim deliriously in vocal thirds harmonies and 6th-plus-9 chords from the band.
The Ramblers do many of the tunes from their CD I
Heard The Highway...and Other Swing Tunes from Western Vermont".
Some of it maybe tongue-in-cheek, but it would play just as well in
Tulsa. All of this gleefully guided
by that incomparable wagonmaster and trailboss, mi amigo Rick Norcross.
has this year invited some other musical friends up for ChewChewers to savor:
the Women's Blues Revue from Tampa, led by guitarist Patty Sanphy.
They play a jump blues style and old R&B chestnuts magnificently, to
appreciative whoops and hollers from the crowd.
All too soon it is over, and we gather back in the Flexible to schmooze
and ultimately say goodnight.
Because Rick has much work to do still throughout the coming week, we say goodbye and I return to the Radisson bar. Next morning, the Volvo and I set out for Bradford and Middle Earth. ##
NEXT: What New Hampshiremen REALLY think of Vermonters, and the slow tragic end of The Old Man of the Mountain
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