Craft Music (Newport)

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I’ve always had a thing for upright bass players. I think it started when I saw Christian McBride break a string mid-set at a small supper-club style venue in a strip mall in Baltimore called the New Haven Lounge in the early ’90s. A fan- an exuberant high school student- ran home and brought back his own bass (take a moment to picture that) which Christian humbly accepted and played for the rest of the night. Everyone was so excited- the room was glowing with bass player affection.

But the bass is not what I expected to focus on when I went to see JD McPherson at the Newport Folk Festival. I was there to see a live performance of the music I’d been listening to ever since I first heard it the week before in Bamberg (see previous post), and to interview JD himself. I will get to that.

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But wow! Do you see how the man above is standing and holding his bass? He moved with it like a dance partner- sometimes like a lover- tickling, slapping, absolutely flirting- in front of everyone. I was mesmerized. They were having so much fun! The look on his face was disbelief of a windfall- like he couldn’t believe she was dancing with him; that he was surprised they were so good together. Don’t get me wrong- the whole band was fantastic. All the buildup of the week before was amazingly surpassed by the performance. Even in the rain with my feet squishing on the soggy ground. But I could not take my eyes off the couple – man and instrument- moving around up there. I had to remember to close my mouth a few times.

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And of course I must mention the beer. Newport Storm’s IPA is an excellent attitude adjustment for a dour day of sideways rain.

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The bassist is called Jimmy Sutton. I did not interview him. In truth I feel like I witnessed something I perhaps wasn’t supposed to watch- I was a music voyeur. I would have been too shy to talk to him anyway (yes, me) so it’s just as well.

So on to the interview with JD, pictured above.

Me: When I first heard you, I thought you were a heavy middle-aged black man.

JD: Thank you.

I liked him right off the bat. Getting to him wasn’t easy. I went through the press contact on the website, got a reply from the manager, got his tour manager’s text number who sent me to a special place to meet. He gave security a knowing nod and I was whisked back to a secret area. It was really just a room with some coke machines and plastic tables, but I dug the pomp. And that it was dry, since at that point nothing else was.

Me: (I handed JD a couple of decks of playing cards with maps on them. A gift. I wanted to give him a beer but you’re not allowed to bring it to the fest.) I understand you earned graduate credit for performance card magic, or something like that. Tell me about it.

JD: (Immediately opening one of the decks and doing some kind of complicated walking-shuffling thing.) It was really a one hour of credit with Professor Godsey, an elderly teacher. A magician, a fiddler- a true Renaissance man.

Me: Has the smartphone changed anything about your music or how you relate to fans?

JD: Yes. We don’t try out new material in front of audiences anymore because it will be on YouTube the next day. We wait until we record it.

Me: What would you be doing if you weren’t involved in the arts?

JD: I’d be a rancher or a farmer. No- I’d own a restaurant. But not if I had to work in it. It would have wirwar (a Tulsa hodge podge), zucchini soup, a Hank Williams jukebox, and [craft- I’m sure that’s what he meant] beer.

Me: (To myself, in my head) I’d eat there.

Me: (Out loud) When will your next album be out?

JD: Aiming for early spring.

Me: Super! Will you please play in Bamberg and make a beer with Stephan at Mahr’s? He’s a big fan.

JD: Sure. Maybe with the new album.

Me: Groovy. Who is your favorite pre-bop jazz violinist?

JD: Stephane Grappelli

I don’t know anyone else (believe me, I’ve been searching) who can even name a single pre-bop jazz violinist, let alone state a favorite. Impressive. I also learned that he does not play bridge, he hates the creative process (especially delivering material on demand), his birthday is April 14, 1977, he is just as creative when his life is calm as when it is chaotic, he loves St. Bernardus 12, and he does not ever, ever, ever drink when writing music or performing. Although he does enjoy beer. He had just come from a gig at Ommegang where he had plenty of Maredsous 8, which he prefers to the 10. I like that.

What a swell guy!

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A couple of days later, while harvesting heather with a dozen others for Cambridge Brewing Company’s annual Heather Ale (which is to say outside hunkered over tiny plants for a few hours of trimming, sweating, and being bug food) I put on JD’s music. It was a diverse group: an opera major, metal fans, a few indie rock folks. They all loved it. It’s hard not to. Keep an ear out for this one- I don’t think that restaurant will be opening anytime soon.

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