Music in the Present Tense
By Fred Rudofsky
He pauses, sets aside the marker that he’s been using to sign autographs for a small group of fans, some new and some old. His wife of 30 years is by his side, smiling with love and pride and displaying a variety of CDs and prized 180 gram vinyl reissues. His son, a terrific guitarist, is loading up gear 30 feet away. A cool rain pours steadily, while a round of pre-scheduled fireworks bursts in various shades down the river at an empty Jennings Landing. One cannot be thankful enough for the aegis of the I-787 overpass on this evening. Summer’s almost gone.
I mention recently watching a vintage concert clip of the Genius of Soul c. 1961.
“Ray Charles! That man is the reason I got into music!” he exclaims with immediate reverence. He pauses again. He’s a Hammond B-3 master of several decades. He is a fan forever.
Booker T. Jones, who had just headlined the Albany Riverfront Jazz Festival and paid tribute to the “beautiful spirits” of Muddy Waters, Jimi Hendrix, Otis Redding and the Beatles throughout an electrifying 90-minute set, scans his memory.
I imagine Jones is hearing echoes of his idol’s glorious string of 45s on Atlantic Records, the summit collaborations with Quincy Jones, the bold albums that took a 90-degree turn to embrace and innovate sounds in country and western. Imagine hearing “Georgia On My Mind” the day it came out. How great to be young at that time.
Perhaps young Jones got to witness first-hand live performances by Brother Ray and his marvelous band in a segregated South, concerts that often inspired young dancers to tear down partitions in regal theaters and rough-and-tumble nightclubs and mingle to a joyful noise. In the early 1960s, Jones himself would make his mark with the racially-integrated Booker T & the MGs in Memphis for Stax Records, often backing Otis Redding, Carla Thomas, Sam & Dave and others who defined soul music for a new generation.
Some of the best moments about going out to see live music occur after the show is over, whether it is during a traditional meet-and-greet, or a quick, spontaneous conversation. I recall musicians, who’ve sadly passed, who told me about their heroes:
Johnny “Clyde” Copeland signing an album backstage on a blizzard night after playing to 30 hardy souls in a student union (“The story of Lightnin’ Hopkins would be the greatest ever told!”).
Dave Van Ronk sitting on the edge of the stage after a show at the Eighth Step Coffee House while Garth Hudson looks on (“You need to check out some Rev. Gary Davis albums – go to the source!”).
Levon Helm during a meet-and-greet at The Egg (“Muddy Waters! Howlin’ Wolf! Fats Domino! Little Walter! You know I was listening to them every chance I got!”).
Ian McLagan over a pint at the Bearsville Theater (“Hearing Otis Spann changed my life’s direction, Fred, it really did!”).
Wendell Holmes packing up his guitar and amp after two incredible sets at the original Club Helsinki in Great Barrington (“Sister Rosetta Tharpe had that voice and guitar, and when I heard her I just had to shout, ‘Wow!'”).
More than anything, these moments speak volumes about inspiration, influence, joy and often simple gratitude. Such easy portals may seem increasingly hard to find in the 21st century, when the music of many lives has become a passive soundtrack, increasingly digitized and without a ticket stub, set of liner notes or a live human voice to say, “Listen to this, it’s really good.”
“Ray Charles!” says Jones one more time, not wistfully but mindfully with a smile, like he is sharing a mantra for good times and bad.
Music in the present tense. Seek it out.