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THE FRANKLIN THEATRE IS DECADENT AND DEPRAVED

I just moved to Tennessee. I’ve been living in Boston for the last ten years. I’ve been in New England my whole life. That means I’m saddled with the most objectionable of tasks: meeting new people.

One of the first people I met was Lindsey Vonn’s boyfriend. I’m terrible with names. That’s probably a horrible attribute in a writer. Someone said he plays hockey, so I’ve been frequenting the pick-up games at Centennial Sportsplex. He hasn’t shown. I’m getting the sense that he’s actively resisting my follow-ups. I’m not sure what went wrong.

Just about all my other networking has been accomplished through a Sherman’s March to the Sea of consumer credit destruction throughout downtown Nashville as well as short hit-and-run missions into the Gulch and East Nashville. Reviewing my credit card statements on the first of the month brought on a sense of dread.

Realizing, in actuality, that I compiled those numbers in fifteen (15) days invoked a sense of something akin to Shock & Awe.

I could probably use my refrigerator for storage at this juncture. If I didn’t need ice cubes for my whiskey (why is whiskey more expensive in Tennessee than New Hampshire?!), that appliance could be unplugged altogether.

I went into Design Within Reach in order to splurge on a nice desk chair. I left with an interior decorator on my hands. She’s been emailing me every day with ideas for how to spend my money. She recently escalated to handwritten notes. This lady talks to me more than my Significant Other. The last time I spoke with her, she said “We need art for our space.”

By “We” and “Our” she meant me and her, the interior decorator.

I went into Nordstrom’s last week just to kill some time. I left that establishment with an image consultant. She may be even more efficient at spending my money than the interior decorator [~$1k in under 45 minutes (I was totally just looking!)].

I have managed to make a few acquaintances outside the context of stimulating Nashville’s local economy. In those cases, my beagle serves as the social lubricant.

I met what I thought was just a guy in a dog park. Dog parks are weird. You end up talking to the strangest people – just because your dogs start playing. I ended up in a trainwreck of a conversation the other day because Andy [AKA Bubby (AKA “you little @%$&#!”)] wouldn’t stop sniffing some homeless dude. Actually, that’s an opinion. This dude might not have been homeless. That this guy was on enough meth and/or opiates to kill a decent-sized monkey is fact, not opinion.

He was tormenting me with a Beavis [or Butthead (maybe both?)] impersonation. Actually, that’s an opinion too. Maybe that’s just the way all the meth and opiates had his voice sounding. He was muttering some gibberish about how my life was a dream because I had Netflix and got to watch all the reruns. That agitated me because I haven’t even set up my TV and I took offense to the insinuation that I sit around all day binge-watching Netflix. I came this close to getting pulled into his vortex and debating him point-by-point.

I couldn’t take his antagonism.

Bubby loved him. Based on some of the smells Bubby finds intriguing, that’s an indictment of the highest order on that individual’s daily hygiene ritual (lack thereof).

Bubby wasn’t quite as interested in this other guy, so he can possibly take solace in the integrity of his personal hygiene. Bubby got along with his dog, a super miniature dachshund or something like that (Bubby prefers being the big dog in his intra-canine affairs).

This guy’s name is Kelly…Kelly Frey. For the longest time I thought he was just a guy. I told him how I was in town to do some freelance writing. I told him how I wanted to write about music, particularly the Blues.

Kelly responded to my interest in the Blues by telling me to check out the Franklin Theatre, and Franklin in general. He called the theatre “the best 300-seat music venue in the world” and the city as “Mayberry, but with money”.

So I bombed down there one day. Bubby needed a walk and I needed to refine my sense of the local geography. I could see what he was saying. It looked like a set piece for a movie or TV series set in a quintessential quaint Main Street community – you know – the type that doesn’t exist anymore. Historical sites are interwoven into vibrant local businesses. The street also manages to integrate the harsh reality of corporate overlords (retail outlets like Anthropologie and the token Starbucks on the corner) without selling its soul and being cannibalized.

I would’ve liked to have ventured through a few storefronts, but I had Bubby in tow. There were dog bowls outside many of them. Allegedly, that means a place is pet-friendly. Even if that’s true, I don’t know if they’re Bubby-friendly. He can be a disruptive presence in a retail environment. I’m talking Chris Nilan-level havoc.

Anyway, about a week ago I ran into Kelly again at the dog park, like I do almost any day. He told me he was giving me two tickets for the Taj Mahal show. That prompted two questions:

What are his expectations w/r/t returning the favor for these tickets?

AND…

Where do I find someone to bring to this show?

Kelly assured me that all he wanted was to give me a writing opportunity. He sounded more or less sincere. I still felt it was prudent to dig into his background a little deeper. I asked around about him at the dog park. It turns out he’s happily married. That was reassuring. He also has no known history of predation, sexual or otherwise. That was very reassuring.

My background check also revealed that this Kelly isn’t just a guy. He’s a GUY (the guy?). He’s some kind of hotshot lawyer in town, has judges shivering in their own sweat in their own courtrooms when he walks in. He’s some kind of movie producer on the side or something (Eating You Alive; 60:00 Minutes to Live or Die). He’s also on the board of just about every halfway reputable organization this side of the Mississippi. As it so happens, he’s President of the Board of the Franklin Theatre.

Therefore, no longer concerned about threats to my virtue, I was free to agonize over who to manipulate into spending an evening with me. I knew seeing Taj Mahal at the Franklin Theatre would offer me some traction. But I also knew it was me, so this incentive was far from a deal-closer.

At first, I invited my neighbor. He not only accepted but offered, unsolicited, to purchase two additional tickets for his girlfriend and a companion for myself which he would personally secure (he remained vague on the legality of said companion). Unfortunately, my neighbor has a tenuous grip with the concept of follow-through. As predicted, he rescinded. He rescinded on all his commitments: solicited, unsolicited, and otherwise.

He rescinded, like, two days before the show.

Left in the lurch, I was going to reach out to my aforementioned interior decorator. I decided against this tack. I was concerned a few hours with her would only hasten my aforementioned retail consumer credit reckoning.

Instead, I solicited the aforementioned image consultant. Image Consultant is also an existential threat to my long-term creditworthiness. But she also moonlights as a DJ. This attribute would be effective for fencing and parrying. She would probe for consumer weakness. I would deflect with open-ended questions about her music.

It was still precarious.

There was a lag between my text and her response. I’m reasonably certain Image Consultant was grappling with her own concerns about her own virtue. Either she conducted her own background check or she’s reckless or, maybe, she’s just surgical with a bitchslap when those are warranted.

Fortunately, it never came to any of that. We drove out to Franklin and got a bite to eat at Drake’s. Drake’s was a recommendation from the hostess at Ellington’s in downtown Nashville. This lady may actually be better at spending my money than Image Consultant and my interior decorator put together. She’s so good at it she should find a way to monetize her skill, either through the Chamber of Commerce or the swath of dining establishments she’s guided my path of destruction toward (Henley, Sunda, Bastion, Hemingway’s, Kayne Prime, Marsh House, Sambuca, Kuchnia & Keller, Saint Anejo, Don Juan’s Taco Shop, Pfunk Seoul Brothers, Tansuo, Mockingbird, Henrietta Red, Urban Grub, Butchertown Hall, Virago, Rolf & Daughters, Husk, etc).

I kept Image Consultant on the defensive talking about good shows to watch on Netflix [Image Consultant: Power (Me: The Wire)], the lack of a data literacy curriculum in the public school system, and resistance to nima washi in the retail and hospitality industries.

Finally, we went to the show. There was an open parking spot a half-block from the theatre. I was going to keep driving but Image Consultant said to park there. I explained to her how the fact that it was open meant it was a handicapped space, there was a hydrant, or it was flagged for overnight construction. She told me to stop thinking like a Bostonian, that I was in Franklin. I got out and there wasn’t a meter, so I looked for one of those newfangled credit card pay stations. There was none in either direction, as far as the eye could see. I explained this to Image Consultant, told her I knew there was some kind of rational explanation for the open spot right next to the theatre. It was the lack of pay stations within walking distance. She reiterated her advice to stop thinking like a Bostonian. There’s no paying for parking. We’re in Franklin now.

From the outside, my first impression was that it looked like a theatre that belonged in Hill Valley in Back to the Future. I guess that means it looks like a traditional 50’s-style theatre. For me, when I think about the 50’s, I think Hill Valley from coast to coast.

As I stepped inside I was surprised to have my tickets scanned by a handheld reader. I’m not sure why. I’ve been getting my tickets scanned at concerts and hockey games by those devices for probably a decade now. Maybe it was the juxtaposition, having the latest in technology utilized somewhere so historic. Or maybe it wasn’t that at all. Maybe it was just the usher being happy to see me as opposed to being as faded as the aforementioned guy from the dog park {Not Kelly [He’s a teetotaler for all I know (I DO NOT want to get mixed up in any litigation with that individual!)!!]!!!}.

Once we got into the actual theatre I had one distinct first impression about the place: They need to do comedy shows here.

It would be perfect because of the way the camera follows the comedian as they stalk the stage and how it scans the crowd’s reaction. Onstage, there’s an actual proscenium arch framing the curtain when its closed and, when its open, the performance. As the walls and ceiling extend into the crowd there are more arch’s at regular intervals {I don’t know if those are considered proscenium arches [Don’t proscenium arches have to be on a stage? (I probably should have stopped my architectural discussion onstage when it at least left the insinuation that I had a degree of acuity on the topic)]}. I just think it would look bad-ass for somebody watching a comedy special on Netflix and seeing all that when the camera followed the comedian and panned the crowd for laughter.

I was going to reveal some of my architectural insights to Image Consultant in order to allow her to understand the magnitude of my sophistication and refinement. However, I was concerned about intimidating her this early in our professional relationship. Better to spoon feed that sort of thing so she has time to adjust or else it’s like coming up from scuba diving too fast – she’ll get the bends {I’m pretty sure this is the mistake I made with Lindsey Vonn’s boyfriend [poor little (5’10 I’m guessing) guy (maybe I can talk Lindsey into bringing him some milk & cookies)]}.

I was also experiencing a degree of anxiety myself. I dragged Image Consultant to this show. She’s like an Encyclopedia Brown of music. This Taj Mahal, his stuff sounds good coming out of my speakers but (who’s kidding who?) the guy’s older than dirt. He’s been touring since, like, the 50’s. For all I know, he was the Franklin Theatre’s inaugural act.

I’ve been to my share of bad concerts. {Rolling Stones, Voodoo Lounge Tour [Centre Bell, Montréal (~45 minutes, no encore)]}. 95% of the time, bad concerts happen for 1 of 3 reasons: Someone in the band is too sick. Someone in the band did way too much of their drug of choice. Some or all of the band had one foot in the grave. In the case of the aforementioned Rolling Stones concert, I may have experienced the rare 3 for 3 parlay.

I’m looking at this older-than-dirt Taj Mahal and this guy fits the profile of the one-foot-in-the-grave bad concert with scary precision. I could piece it all together in my mind. He was probably rolling through a successful career just fine, probably planning to taper off in the mid-eighties. Then he did a four-night stand in Vegas (maybe Atlantic City) and just went on a total bender – booze and drugs and women and gambling. It all culminated on the last night where he blew off the show to make it all back on the Roulette Wheel. He put whatever was left of his life savings on black.

And he busted. Now he’s schlepping around America in 2018, unable to retire on his social security benefits alone. He probably tours one region of the country for a little while until that population gets wise to his scam. Then he preys on another society. Then he retraces his steps when he figures the complaints and grievances about his act back there have settled to a dull roar.

Now, me, Image Consultant, and everyone else in the Franklin Theatre are his latest innocent victims.

But he actually didn’t suck so bad after all.

He couldn’t really stand all that well. He propped himself up on something that’s best described as a cross between a stool and a motorcycle seat. Despite this, he was oozing with energy. He bantered with the crowd between songs. He bantered with the roadies when he changed out guitars {he might have had a dozen guitars onstage [he loves changing out his guitar (demonstrates apathy or even outright contempt for cords and other forms of technology)]}. At points I wondered if the banter with the roadies was planned. I wondered if they were the straight men, the Ron Maclean to Taj Mahal’s Don Cherry.

There was even a surprise appearance from Keb’ Mo’ that brought the crowd to their feet [I guess he’s a local (who knew?)].

I was into the music. So was Image Consultant. Her endorsement is much more reputable than mine. I was worried at first that she was just being graceful. But she was genuine. My BS detector didn’t go off, and it’s well calibrated. It’s been battle-tested.

Taj Mahal’s music plays with people’s emotions. I think he knows this. He thinks it’s funny. He get’s off on it, switching from fast and rowdy to melodic and pensive. Sometimes a new song introduces a new mood. Other times, a guitar-change from acoustic to resonator is the tip-off. Oftentimes, it’s seemingly indiscriminate. He’ll go and do it from chord to chord. It’s jarring but magnetizing. His music takes you from the girl you miss to Saturday night to the state of the world today in the span of one complete thought – all at the same time. It’s maybe not how a music teacher would instruct but it pulls you right into his vortex, drags you into his fight.

It took me somewhere I hadn’t been in years and years. I felt like I had wandered into an open mic on a slow night at a dive bar, just another roadside attraction. But Taj Mahal had wound up there too, and he brought guitars. He was playing. I was listening. The other half-dozen people in the bar were distracted with their shots of Jagermeister and idle banter. He was playing just for me. Maybe that wasn’t Taj Mahal setting that tone. Maybe that was the intimacy of the theatre. Maybe that was a little of both.

I hate writing about music…unless it’s bad music. I love writing about bad music. It’s so much fun skewering other people when they offer up the fodder for their own destruction. The words flow like the Mississippi from my fingertips through the keyboard onto the monitor. It’s like I’m in the matrix. But when they’re actually good, not so much. When they’re actually good it seems pointless to describe. How often do you sit around describing an album you like to a friend?

You don’t. You just tell them to listen.

Describing good music is like trying to explain the color orange to a blind dude. It’s like trying to describe a Robert Frost poem. You’re better off just handing over the damn poem.

If I had to describe it (and I guess I kind of have to) I would compare Taj Mahal to Gord Downie. Downie was the frontman for the Tragically Hip until he died of brain cancer a couple years ago. If he never got cancer, and he had gotten old enough to get to have one foot in the grave, I think he might have ended up something like Taj Mahal. He’s wasn’t black, rarely played the guitar, and wasn’t exactly a bluesman.

 

But he’s just like Taj Mahal. They’re both madmen. They’re both all-in. Downie once described his philosophy on making music. “Just leave nothing on the table, really, let it all out.”

Based on his performance, I wouldn’t be surprised to hear Taj Mahal say something similar.

I’m trying to describe a bluesman to a Tennessee audience by invoking a comparison to an obscure band, virtually unknown outside of Canada. I guess that’s my way of avoiding the thankless task of describing Taj Mahal’s music. It’s probably also my way of telling some new friends to go out and listen to some Tragically Hip.

I ran into Dan Hays after the show. He’s the Executive Director of the theatre. I introduced myself. I was going to introduce Image Consultant but she ran off, distracted by the free popcorn they hand out after all the shows. Dan said about Taj Mahal:

“Taj Mahal is a creative force of nature, with his own unique emphasis on the word “creative”! It’s a joy to hear how he marries different genres and sounds into one special musical experience for his audience. And it’s always a treat when Keb’ Mo’ and his family drop by and he guests with an artist. We are privileged to have artistic legends and remarkable talents appear here and who always seem to love performing for audiences in Franklin.”

I just wish I would have run into Dan before the show, so he could have told me that then. It would have saved me some worry.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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