Concert in Berkeley, CA
September 7th, 2001

The 'Freight and Salvage' is a kind of 'last stand' for the progressive Bay Area community. In the heart of what in the Sixties was 'The People's Republic of Berkeley', this 'smoke and alcohol free' and 'environment friendly' coffeehouse has been in the last thirty years the favorite venue for intellectuals, respected professionals (formerly hippies), aging activists, feminists, greens, and so on. The years of their youth are gone since awhile but their pride as 'smartest community' in the country is still there:
Even though the premises can host not more than three hundred seats, sometimes they're not completely filled up. This happens maybe because some performer is an icon too ancient - and occasionally a ghost - coming straight from the past. But tonight the scheduled performer is not a relic: Tom Russell is on top of his art.
Californian, about fifty, with Norwegian and Irish faraway roots, in the late nineties he eventually overcame the ups and downs of a twenty-five years long career. A couple of records in the Seventies with Patricia Hardin, some time spent in New York in the Eighties, driving a cab while hanging around with celebrities (I spotted a nice picture of him with an unlikely couple: the avant-garde master Andy Warhol and the country star George Jones), a pretty long time in Norway, to breath his ancestors' frosty air, and then, the well deserved success: obviously, I'm not talking about charts or MTV! I'm talking about some really nice CDs ('Rose Of The San Joaquin' and 'The Man From God Knows Where' particularly) and some wonderful tune ('Navajo Rug', the epic 'The Sky Above, The Mud Below' - and most of everyone else - 'Gallo Del Cielo', a true hymn of the U.S.-Mexican border area, with a 'flavor' similar to Ry Cooder's masterpiece 'Across The Borderline').
A star in the songwriting word, he recently released a new CD that I didn't find his best: to me, 'Borderland' sounds too much 'built in style' and with not enough passion: but a positive output overall, considering the low-key current competitors (honestly, as Townes Van Zandt was a genius and a true poet, Tom Russell is only a very talented songwriter, but in this turn of the century he's maybe one of the best!).
His tonight show has been shortened to less than an hour to make the stage available for a 'surprise' guest: Dave Alvin (both are recording artists for the local Oakland based label Hightone, so: a little bit of in-house promotion is understandable:). I never liked the former Blaster that much (actually I didn't like the Blasters either:) but his show (half an hour alone and half an hour with Russell) has been pretty good: the major point is that combining the Alvin's guitar and vocal proficiency (and his 'drive' on stage) with the excellent quality of Russell's compositions, the resulting Frankenstein-like songwriter would really be a top quality one!! But: I doubt that it could be possible!!
Last but not least, the true surprise has been the 'magical' guitar artistry of Andrew Hardin (whether there is any connection with the above-mentioned partner Patricia Hardin - I really don't know). What a talented player! Not only technically prominent but with a very good taste for arrangements and a well-measured presence on stage! A really impressive (and shy) talent that would have been a brilliant performer among the many other (mostly boring) pickers tributing the late John Fahey a couple of weeks before!!!
The best part of the show was the last 40 minutes, when Russell, Alvin, Hardin and a good accordion player (I couldn't understand his name) performed together: apparently, to give his best, Russell needs not to stand in the focus alone; with the limelight shifting to somebody else, he sings and plays at his best. Maybe a kind of stage fright??

Крутые мужики в ковбойских шляпах с низкими голосами, высокими тульями.


Концерт Мела Хаггарда в "помидорной деревне".
Люди приходят со стульями, пивом. Женщины сухи, как выхолощенный стручок гороха, строги. Остановят коня.
Концерт на открытом воздухе, на открытой поляне. Перед концертом выступают пять идиотов. Местные братья. Ни у кого нету слуха. Поют.
Мужчины в белых ковбойских шляпах с полями
В грузовике - сено (поваляться в полях)
Крепкие руки, сигары, их сильные женщины
Кругом - красные ковры помидоров
Коридор помидоров, коррида!!
...Мерл Хаггард! Он сидел (ограбление банка), he is a seasoned tough man, у него молодая жена, он когда-то тоже собирал помидоры, а теперь он - региональный герой!
Десять пластмассовых переносных туалетов стоят на опушке
Мочевой пузырь, наполненный пивом, жаждет высвобождения жидкости
Одеяла, боевые подруги, огромные ковбойские пряжки, вздетые на ремень -
у кого больше?

September 9th, 2001
Turlock, CA

Driving to Turlock on a warm Sunday afternoon, we decided to stop for a lunch in Modesto: the small city looked enveloped in the summer heat, almost ghostly, unreal. We were laughing thinking about the 'most important' event of the current American summer: the 'drama' of congressman Gary Condit - from Modesto - and his alleged involvement in an extra-marital love affair and in a 'missing person' case.
We were discussing the quality of life in Modesto, probably so boring and uninteresting that it pushed some people to insane acts, just to inject some color into a black'n'white life. But this happened 'before the flood', before that September 11th that changed forever everybody's life.
However, the only person in the U.S. that actually got something positive out of that day has probably been Condit himself, as now nobody even remembers his case anymore. But why am I writing about this? What's the connection with Haggard? Very obvious, as both men did something 'wrong' and/or 'inappropriate' in their life: but, once again, entertainment shows its superiority to politics! Condit tried to cover up the whole thing, failed, and looked to most of the people as highly 'suspicious'; Haggard, much smarter, built an image on his past (as a convict at San Quentin) for his entire career, as a kind of 'tough guy', 'formerly outlaw', 'prodigal son'.
But now let's talk about the concert. The show actually was scheduled not in Modesto, but in the campus of California University in Turlock, a few miles away. As very common in the U.S., this university is in a really pleasant location: surrounded by nature (we were waiting in line to get in beside an artificial stream), perfectly managed, with a professional organization: the venue - an open-air amphitheater able to host up to 8,000 seats (not bad for a 50,000 inhabitants town!!) - was wide enough too let everybody relax and enjoy a very good view and a professional sound (only the electric guitar would be noticed as too loud during the show).
The audience was - well, the typical audience that you can expect for a country music concert in California. Faraway from the progressive Bay Area or from the glamorous Los Angeles! But also faraway from the 'red-neck' Middle West! A kind of quiet middle-class, on a Sunday picnic with a local hero (let's not forget: Haggard grew up few miles from here!!). Maybe not so 'stylish' but: who actually cares?
Now - about the music. Haggard is a highly respected composer (Tom Waits wrote of him: 'if you want to learn how to write a song, then look at Merle Haggard'), with a forty years long career. For sure, he's in the top ten country artists list of all times, together with Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, Hank Williams, Patsy Cline, the Carter Family. But - honestly - I wouldn't rank him as a genius. He wrote a couple of very good songs (I first knew about him listening to the brilliant covers the Grateful Dead sang in the seventies): 'Mama Tried' and, particularly, that beautiful nostalgic song that's 'Sing Me Back Home'.
His latest CD ('If I Could Only Fly') is pretty good - but not a memorable one -. He's good, and his concert and his band were good too. But I found the whole thing a little bit boring, a kind of 'routine'. I couldn't notice the 'drive' for a strong performance: it looked as his biggest desire was not to sing or play, but to have fun with old friends (even a former wife was on stage as a singer!), around a barbecue, telling old stories and jokes and drinking cold beers. The music sounded only as a background! In fact, even the versions of the songs I like the most were 'flat', similar to every other song they played. It looked as the whole performance was built around the same song, extended to last for two hours.
After two hours, we decided to leave while the show was still on: but I don't think we missed that much!!


Концерт на вилле Монтальво, в холодном сердце Силиконовых Богачей.
В первую же секунду Рави Шанкар, как хайджекер, как доктор Джекил, захватывает тихо млеющий под открытыми звездами зал, и неземным звуком уносит его, как террорист, в небеса.
Как он плющит, как он хуярит, как он лабает!
...Перед концертом. Богатая еврейская пара, супруг и супруга.
- Нет, нет, сравнивая Сан-Франциско и Париж, я предпочитаю Париж.
- Наша дочка учится в Беркли.
- А вот когда мы ездили в Рио-де-Жанейро...
На руке у пожилого супруга браслет "Medic alert".

За столом еще двое мужчин, один рассказывает про дочь, второй - про Карнеги-холл, город Нью-Йорк. Мне нравится тот, что справа. Перевожу взгляд: тот, что слева, тоже хорош.
Они держатся за руки.

Третья гетеропара скучает и глядит на всех с видом: "какие жлобы!"
Пожилые супруги:
"Дочка обещала приехать, но разве дождешься..!"
"Нет, мы не ходим в Мак-Дональдс".
"Наш сын в Вашингтоне".
"Мы были в Европе..."

Они выбрали нас.
Они выбрали нас и подарили нам билеты на званый обед за семьдесят баксов. Подошли к нам в толпе. Мы пьем вино и едим вместе с ними. Мы заменяем их непришедших детей.
А затем - открытое небо, ситары.
Final tour - прощальный концерт Рави Шанкара на Вилле Монтальво.

September 18th, 2001
Saratoga, CA

How easy could have been to grow up in the Indian city of Benares, in the Twenties and Thirties? How many chances there were to become somehow hostile towards the wealthy "first world" as - in the meantime - Britain was ruling the country, by force, against the will of most of its people? Ravi Shankar has been able through his long life and career to show that a "bridge" between different traditions is always possible as long as culture and willingness to understand are present. He - mostly alone - introduced to Americans and Europeans the shiny beauty of Indian music. Opposite to Western Music - mostly written - India, without a sharp distinction between Classical and Popular Music as in the West, always sets off the improvisational aspect. So, it's up to the performer to mesmerize the audience (or to "kill" listener's attention). I'm not planning to go deep into an introduction to Indian music - as I lack the mandatory knowledge - but I cannot forget how everybody attending the September 18th performance (postponed in the aftermath of the tragic events of September 11th), even the most unaware of the depth and charm of this music, stood up and clapped when Mr. Shankar entered the stage - as to show respect to an outstanding and unique artist.
How many western musicians have been influenced by his artistry: countless, from the late Sandy Bull, John Fahey and Robbie Basho to the Rolling Stones [does anybody remember the sitar beats of "Paint It Black" (1965)?], to George Harrison (the mystical Beatle) to Jimi Hendrix and so on. When the "Summer of Love" was blooming, at the 1967 Monterey Festival, he was there. In Woodstock, he was there. Who has been revered as "a genius" that "can only be compared to ... Mozart" by the great violin maestro Yehudi Menuhin? Who can list collaborations with Jean Pierre Rampal, Andre' Previn, Zubin Metha, Philip Glass? Who, then, has the privilege to be the 81 years old father of an incredibly talented daughter, Anoushka, just out of her teens, who was able to warm up the hearts of a still under-shock audience, made up of a mixture from the Bay Area top musical xenophiles and the Silicon Valley intellectual elite of Indian descent?
Even if this tour has been labeled as "Final", our frail soul, always searching for the healing comfort granted by music, can rely on her talent for the future to come. We began to realize that the evening was going to become "special" when we first reached the wonderful venue, the "Villa Montalvo Center For The Arts", up on the Saratoga hills. An approximately 100 years old mansion framed in a bucolic environment, with an outdoor amphitheater surrounded by a luxuriant and carefully maintained wood.
Organization was perfectly efficient, matching the tickets cost, perfectly expensive. While we were looking for some food, mentally protesting the high prices they were charging, we were approached by a couple that, with a kind smile, held out to us two prepaid tickets for a fancy buffet, as their daughter - the former recipient - "wasn't able to join them on time". May God bless you and your wife, Mr. Bradley Perkins! You taught us once more that "senseless acts of kindness", even in this troubled world, still can happen. As everybody knows, when the body is "in peace", then also the mind is "at its best" to wholly savor any intellectual nourishment. That's what happened to us, as we were reaching our seats.
The first part of the concert was focused on Anoushka's performance. To be honest, because of my lack of knowledge I was thinking of her as another "spoilt young little girl", as frequently are famous artists' children. How was I wrong! She performed a brilliant set, showing her astonishing mastery of the instrument, supported by two tablas (a two-piece drum) and two tambouras (a string instrument that gives an essential drone background to all Indian music).
Then, after a break, Ravi went on stage. "The show must go on" he said with a saddened voice, before playing a somber piece, as in memory of the recent victims. Our minds were then filled with an one hour-long notes waterfall, a kind of acoustic maelstrom were thoughts could easily get lost. Ragas were played while father and daughter, performing together, were showing the audience the meaning of words as "Art", "Love", "Spirit", "Compassion"... Thank you Anoushka and Ravi: you cannot imagine how we all needed the warmth you gave us, on that magical night!

Andrew Meklin (English)
Маргарита Меклина (Russian)