Thanks to old friend Ray Simboli for suggesting a photo safari on a soggy, gray day when rain fell about every 15 minutes and I might otherwise not have dragged my camera out into the wet.

I’m posting these despite believing – as I told Ray – he might have shot all the good ones.

Here’s where we went: At the Albany Institute of History and Art (whose chief Tammis Groft I met on Cuttyhunk Island years ago and who just announced her retirement) we saw cool railroad art, the ‘Tute’s impressive Hudson River School landscapes and historic views by Len Tantillo.

The railroad collection features artworks and artifacts including dining car dishware, menus and photos – EVERYBODY is dressed up, EVERYBODY is smoking – also advertising posters next to their hand-painted originals. I gravitated to a gleaming-black model of an ALCO (American Locomotive Company) engine and tender. Our family came to Schenectady when my dad took a job there.

Then the Hudson River School landscape masterpieces worked their usual magic, transforming places we might know into mysterious marvels where fact and imagination don’t so much fight it out as conspire to awe.

I had to share this tasty Tantillo: I live on Van Curler Avenue…

…in Schenectady

Then we headed to Cohoes, to gawk at the famous falls, and grumble about the power lines

After blundering around Waterford’s confusing – even to GoogleMaps! – streets and Canal-scapes, we found some locks; no bagels, however.

And the super-green, super-swampy Vischer Ferry wet-scape showed us another Great Blue Heron

A few weeks before, Zak and I roamed the same territory – except for the Albany Institute of History and Art, and in drier weather; grumbled about the power lines then, too.

How fun to re-visit cool places, in good company – and good weather: ALL weather is good weather in cool places

ROAD (rock) Trip

Files of marching mist-men, wraiths robed in fog, stalked the valleys of the Green Mountains as I drove to Brattleboro Saturday. They seemed spooky, spectral; until I decided they were the ghosts of the plague, leaving town, and unease turned to relief.

I was going to see NRBQ for the first time in way too long, so driving through the rain on roads twisty-slick as a wet corkscrew was part of a happy pilgrimage.

NRBQ at the Stone Church July 3, 2021; from left, saxophonist/singer/accordionist Klem Klimek, guitarist-singer Scott Ligon, bassist-singer Casey McDonough, drummer/singer/guitarist John Perrin, and leader, co-founder, keyboardist and singer Terry Adams

Brattleboro’s Stone Church is just that, a former Unitarian church minimally modified by adding a bar, sound and lights. Its website merchandise page offers the usual shirts, caps and mugs, but also face-masks and rolling papers.

My brother Jim Hoke suggested I see the sound check; a guest on hundreds of NRBQ shows and a dozen albums, he knows. The crew, led by longtime stage manager John Krucke, had set up amps, mics and monitors. Saxophonist/singer/accordionist Klem Klimek fitted a reed to his alto and greeted me as casually if I’d been there the previous night for the ‘Q’s first show in 15 months. Next came bassist/singer Casey McDonough, a Chicagoan like guitarist Scott Ligon and drummer John Perrin. McDonough said, “It’s wonderful!” to play together again. “I can’t believe it’s happening!” Ligon and I shared our relief at being back together again at a gig. “It’s good to BE,” he said. Pianist/co-founder-leader Terry Adams came in, hugged me, called me Brother Mike, then tended to piano and clavinet. 

“At sound check, they’re musicians,” Jim had said. “In the show, they’re performers, and there’s a difference.” I saw that as Klimek squeezed out a vaguely Latin accordion riff. The guys listened, not for very long, and fell into a tune that wasn’t there minutes before. They quickly had it, so they stopped. Klimek called it “Mexican Puck Dance.” Puck is his dog. I think he wants people hearing him call it to think he’s yelling something else.

The sound-check version was fresher and more fun than the version in the show, but I digress.

Downstairs in the dressing room, we could hear fans filing into the Church as we talked of the plague. Everybody stayed busy. Klimek played with bands and singers on Cape Cod. Ligon and McDonough finished a Flat Five (their other band) album in Chicago. Adams lovingly compiled the last recorded work of founding ‘Q guitarist Steve Ferguson. But Adams also said the isolation felt productive only to a point. “I couldn’t see anybody, I didn’t see anybody!” 

Back upstairs, I was surprised to see many fans and staff wearing masks, although Vermont has highest vaccination rate of any state. But, this was The Stone Church’s first show in more than a year. Then, gradually, many masks came off, and I recognized fans from decades of ‘Q shows across New England.

From the first beat, it was clear the guys had been practicing.

They started with a perfect choice; “Do You Feel It?” Did we ever!  Everybody loved them, felt 14 again and got happy. The ‘Q was in a great mood so it had that feedback loop thing where a happy crowd inspires a happy band and vice versa, until you think the whole building would levitate. It felt like an adrenaline tornado in a funhouse.

Folks eased into dancing, doing the Writhe, the White Youth, the Octopus, the Hippie With A Touch of Arthritis, the Frat-house Drunk, the Peyote Temple, the Tennis Elbow, the Magic-Mushroom Monster Mash.

Song by song, it went like this:

“Do You Feel It?” A great greeting-invitation-affirmation. And, yeah, we did

“This Flat Tire” Wry ‘Q whimsy, with big lift-off in Ligon’s guitar solo

“Wouldn’t It Be Nice” Terrific vocal from McDonough on this Beach Boys classic; he sang it on a Brian Wilson tour

“Call of the Wild” Adams sang this seduction tune, plaintively but proudly

“Flat Foot Flewzy” Adams starred here, too, but with a blistering piano break, first tune that hit that irresistible caffeinated rockabilly groove

“This Love is True” Then it was sweet time; Ligon crooning the vocal and Adams’ octave piano runs on the coda the essence of swing

“Let’s Keep This Love Going” Cruising upbeat with the same sentiment, this also had the same strengths vocally and instrumentally

“Moonlight Serenade” Adams recounted his parents’ anniversary-vows renewal to intro this mellow Glenn Miller slow-dance serenade, then etched a Valentine of a piano solo

“Can’t Wait to Kiss You” An upbeat love-song, Ligon strong at the mic

“Leavin’ It All Up To You” Harmony vocals lit up this vintage country hesitation waltz

“That’s Neat That’s Nice” Two heart-pumping Perrin drum breaks and Klimek’s tenor solo bounced this upbeat rocker behind Adams’ vocal

“Hobbies” An oblique melody, and plenty strange

Jim Hoke put it this way: “…The tune of it – especially those first five ‘ah’s – are in a different key than…the instruments… It’s very hard to sing. I’ve never figured it out and would have a hard time singing it even if I knew what the notes are…You could refer to that tune as being poly-tonal, from a different neighborhood….”

“Turn Turn Turn” Yeah, the Byrds’ classic, with three-part harmony and Ligon echoing that familiar chiming guitar sound

After a break, they came back upstairs to happy cheers and did this:

“Shaggy Dog” Perrin strapped on a guitar and sang this upbeat rocker, and pretty well, while Ligon jumped on the drum kit

“Rain at the Drive-In” A teen-romance recollection with right-now sweetness

“Mouthwaterin’” Klimek’s tenor sax starred in this rollicking instrumental

“Don’t Ever Change” This began a very pretty run of three love songs

“Things to You” McDonough sang at his sincere, plainspoken best in this original ‘Q masterpiece; their simplest melody ever, and most simply beautiful

“All I Have to Do is Dream” The Everly Brothers’ timeless love-as-salvation tune; this is the B-side of the new NRBQ single – yes, a single! – “I’m Not Here”

“Howard Johnson’s Got His Ho-Jo Working” McDonough at the mic again in this careening, joyful romp 

Then came an instrumental I didn’t recognize, built on the same chords as “Ho-Jo”

“Never is a Long Long Time” This love song in turn had the same momentum as the instrumental just before 

“Mexican Puck Dance” Klimek’s fractured Latin-polka accordion instrumental, invented at sound check

“Yes I Have a Banana” McDonough sang this deceptively straight, turning “Yes, I Have No Bananas” inside out 

“A Smile and A Ribbon In My Hair” Adams sang this with just the right antique swing

“Don’t Talk About My Music” Ligon howled this warning with fiery rock and roll defiance

“You Got Me Goin’” Klimek sang powerhouse lead here

“The Great State of Texas” Wow. The saddest waltz, ever. Ligon took over the stage to sing this alone at the piano, a surprise punch-line lament written by his brother Chris and heard on a Flat Five album

“Honey Hush” How amazing that Ligon could recover from “Texas” to rub righteous rock and roll mojo all over this classic, a chestnut stretched by an energetic Adams piano romp, Klimek’s tenor blast and Ligon’s stun-strum guitar blitz

“Ain’t it Alright” Ligon also lit up this rockabilly romp with fast-spinning wheels and loud exhaust

“I Want You Bad” Like the love-song trio in the first set, this overdrive run built momentum song to song. This had standout fast-clatter drumming, an insistent vocal from Ligon and the same deep-groove energy as the previous two high-octane tunes – a dynamite set-closer.

By-now-crazed fans seemed to know the dressing room was directly downstairs; everybody stomped on the floor, hard, in time, for an encore.

They came back and Adams led off “Magnet” with a big piano intro, like Chopin getting the blues, then McDonough sang it strong. They let us down easy with “Be My Love” – yeah, the dramatic 50s ballad; all intimate, cozy.

Then Adams announced, “That was our last song” and they headed off. But the crowd went intensely bat-shit, boo-ing or laughing. So the guys stopped to confer at the edge of the stage. After a few minutes, Adams announced, “We talked it over, and yeah – that was our last song” and they resumed their march off-stage.

But then they stopped, turned around, grabbed up their instruments and did “Next Stop Brattleboro” with super-tasty Adams piano.

The pained “Playing With My Heart,” “Chicken Hearted” with its rueful “I should have been honest” refrain, and the touching paean to fidelity “Boozoo and Leona” built as beautifully as the two previous three-song suites.

Looking for the familiar set-list format? (They don’t use one: Adams calls the show song by song or sometimes just starts playing a tune without cueing the boys. But I digress.) Here you go:

Encore 1

“Magnet”

“Be My Love”

Encore 2 

“Next Stop Brattleboro” 

“Playin’ With My Heart”

“Chicken Hearted”

“Boozo and Leona”

NRBQ plays Friday, Aug. 27 at the Bearsville Theater outside Woodstock.

Before the plague, NRBQ was matchless musical fun. No other band was as agile, as magical; so playfully capable of tugging any tune, any style, from a bottomless top hat of inspiration and boisterous, bouncy zip. And no other band so visibly, so credibly, meant every note and nuance, played from and directly to the soul.

Now, the plague is receding; no fateful robed wraiths came in sight as I drove in the wet dark from Brattleboro to my friends’ home in Northampton. There, good company and a nice bourbon awaited, my first overnight visit in more than a year. 

And NRBQ is still that band. There may be no more hopeful sign of the world waking up, and maybe none could ever sound as good.

Jazz on Jay No. 3: Matty Stecks and The 518, June 24

Indulging his inner “jazz nerd,” saxophonist Matty Stecks said he and his quartet The 518 would install new chords in the familiar “East of the Sun And West of the Moon.” After this jaunty moon-shot under Thursday’s bright sun, he noted his bassist Rich Syracuse had played this standard many times with Stecks’ teacher, the late, great Nick Brignola.

Blending imagination and tradition, experience and exploration, the quartet played the best yet Jazz on Jay lunch-hour in this free series on Schenectady’s shopping and hospitality side-street.

Rich Syracuse

Always a friends-rich environment, this one felt extra welcoming thanks to (yet another!) perfect weather experience, shade-tents added by merchants, and with a growing sense of ease and social energy in a waking world.

Matty Stecks, alto sax

As applause greeted almost every solo, it had the feel of a jazz club of aficionados.

“March Nor’Easter” launched in slow-drag funk mode before easing into a bossa. Stecks led with increasingly aggressive alto runs, pianist David Gleason seethed in the second solo spot, Syracuse supplied confident undertow and drummer Dave Berger steered the beat. In nine tunes over 90 minutes, they moved more efficiently than restlessly. They always went deep enough to avoid that Baskin & Robbins pink-spoon sampler feel. They gave big scoops, flavorful and cool.

Matty Stecks, tenor sax

“Begging the Beguine” rendered its source in the standard “Begin the Beguine” barely recognizable, Stecks slippery on soprano sax at first, brisk on flute later, as Gleason followed Syracuse’s repeating riff into explosions over Latin beats by Berger.

Stecks moved to tenor in the cheerful “Polaris Commune,” holding the mood, and the same horn, in Ron Carter’s driving “Eighty One.” Then their first full-on ballad “The Chrysalis” celebrated springtime in gentle terms. 

Gleason proved an especially supportive accompanist here, then a sweet-sound soloist. A close-listening co-pilot on the changes with Stecks all the way, he also forged strong links to the rhythm section.

David Gleason

“MB Blues” both acknowledged Stecks’s three-year stint in Manitoba and spun the globe to New Orleans. When Berger set up an energetic Second Line clatter, Stecks (playing gruff tenor here) turned and smiled “I like THAT!” and later nod-cued a solo by the resourceful drummer. A highlight, this roamed prairie-province expanses at times, but also got way down with street-parade energy. Everybody starred in this one, enjoying its sunny tambourine swing and grooving high.

Dave Berger
Drummer Dave Berger, left nearest the camera; pianist Dave Gleason, far left; saxophonist Matty Stecks; and bassist Rich Syracuse, right

Stecks called his “East of the Sun” mutation “Vegas Mode,” an agile mid-tempo swing number with Stecks’ alto leading in section-like swaps and echoes.

“I’d Know It if I Heard It” went playful/busy, Stecks’ soprano sax carrying everybody fairly fair up and out, then cruising back to earth.

Wayne Shorter’s “Speak No Evil” featured Stecks leading both its expansive melody and stop and go cadence with tasty tenor sax licks in an episodic exploration.

After the set, Stecks pointed out the subtle Miles Davis vibe implicit in the set, with covers by bassist Ron Carter and saxophonist Wayne Shorter; both alums of Miles’ mid-1960s crew. 

In their easy unity and crisp all-in ensemble riffing that framed confident solos, Stecks and crew echoed the swagger of Miles’ band and other landmark modernist post-bop crews.

SETLIST

March Nor’Easter

Begging the Beguine

Polaris Commune

Eighty-One (Ron Carter)

Chrysalis

MB Blues

Vegas Mode

I’d Know It If I Heard It

Speak No Evil (Wayne Shorter)

Live Jazz: Quinton Cain Quartet at Jazz on Jay June 17, 2021

The Quinton Cain Quartet charged through the door of live, free outdoor jazz at Jazz on Jay Thursday, June 17; a door Azzaam Hameed and friends kicked open on June 10.

While Hameed’s quartet honored venerable touchstones (not tombstones…) of soul, funk and modal jazz, Cain and crew went modern, groovin’ high with plenty of crunch and glide.

Nobody had a problem when wind blew the charts off their stands: The interactive band linked and locked, listened and glistened. It was sunny. It was sweet. It had altitude and attitude and an easy bravado they rode to seque and sweep from one tune to another.

Drummer-leader/composer Quinton Cain

They didn’t stop for nearly half an hour at the start, as fans toted lawn chairs and just-bought lunches into the busy, at times bristly, sound-scape. “Retrogression” eased from slow to faster, and stranger, as guitarist Luke Franco tossed the ball to trombonist Joe Giordano whose wordless vocals mystery’ed up the tune and they eased into Giordano’s “A.P.V.” Cain’s drums drove the bus, and everybody, while Tarik Shah’s always-on-the-move muscular bass built a head of steam from which solos would burst and billow.

Trombonist/keyboardist/singer Joe Giordano

Bassist Tarik Shah

Cain’s slower, sweeter “Pollen Colored Fantasy” blurred impressionistic, pretty and plush. But then they stripped down and beefed up in a mid-funk romp. Giorgano was the star here. While he took bold, brassy risks early, he settled into the pocket, giving the chords a work-out but staying on the map. As Giordano settled in, Franco began to play more outside, body-rocking to the beat, comping big and soloing way over there. Cain’s splashy cymbals flew like spray off a breaking wave as Shah again proved the band’s Most Valuable Player: Hearing a particularly tasty guitar lick, he immediately echoed it, repeated then built it. 

This second medley climaxed, that’s the right word, with the late, great trumpeter Roy Hargrove’s “Roy Allan,” a tribute and a trip; gracious and graceful.

Guitarist Luke Franco

Then Cain and crew reached back into his own songbook for “As the Sun Sets” and “Transience and Transcendence,” again linking songs and again without seams. Giordano grabbed the spotlight here, finding the “Woody Woodpecker” theme in a mountains-and-valleys solo; later in the tune, repetitions evolved into Coltrane-y oscillations. In “Sun,” the guys took turns going double-time as everybody else held the beat steady, a great attention-grabbing trick. 

Quinton Cain Quartet

When they upshifted from “Sun” into “Transience and Transendence,” Giordano again sparkled, though Franco and Shah got their own tasty pieces of the pie. Happy in the driver’s seat, Cain drove strong, taking the crowd home in a mood as sunny as a Trombone Shorty funk-as-fun number.

Jazz on Jay continues Thursday, June 24 with saxophonist Matty Stecks & The 518.

Live, Alive-O! Azzaam Hameed and Friends at Jazz on Jay

Gathering at Jazz on Jay Thursday wasn’t just that warm buzz of being with people; it was the particular joy of being with MY people; both the jazz fans I’d see at every cool show before the plague and Schenectady in all its diverse and goofy glory.

Jazz on Jay crowds are as rainbow-y as at Music Haven. Jazz on Jay got up and running again Thursday with pianist-sometime-singer Azzaam Hameed and Friends, first of 15 free shows outdoors where Jay Street T’s onto State. While Music Haven remains on hiatus, the Central Park venue may present pop-up shows over the summer. Jazz on Jay features local and regional artists, much easier to book than Music Haven’s world music offerings.

In short, nobody needed a visa for fun Thursday. 

It was show up, smile up whether masked up or not, raise our voices and clap hands up; spirits, too.

It was, as Hameed’s quartet asserted halfway through its 80-minute set, a “Lovely Day” in the words and melody of the great and recently departed Bill Withers – guitarist Hayes Mills strong at the vocal mic.

Fans lined the storefronts and toted chairs into shady spots, grabbed lunch and drinks, happily greeted familiar faces and danced some as the band played under a tent, facing northward (toward Perreca’s) up Jay Street.

Celebrating the series’s youth movement Indiana Nash highlighted in Thursday’s Gazette, Hameed generously showcased young (high-school) talents: pianist Jordan Gamble and singer-pianist Paris Bouldin. Gamble etched a muscular groove in “Sunny” then a short vamp, neither developing quite enough; Bouldin sang “River” with good feel and force – both earning warm welcomes from band and audience.

Hameed and band played loose and easy, almost too laid back at first, then muscled up and swung to impressive effect in “Wade in the Water” half an hour in. 

Hameed crooned “Fly Me To the Moon” with easy warmth but guitarist Hayes Fields sang more often, drawing fans to clap and sing along in “Lovely Day.” Other soft-soul-pop hits swung breezy and sweet: the Stylistics’ “People Make the World Go Round” and Earth Wind & Fire’s “That’s the Way of the World” cruising in light instrumental arrangements, a radioactive Michael Jackson pop hit wrapping up. 

This followed not long after the band hit its top altitude, and attitude, in Miles Davis’s “So What.” Bassist Al Brisbane and drummer George Spence took confident advantage of scarce solo opportunities. Fields and Hameed generally led throughout the show, but everybody gave this timeless, jaunty classic a fine and frisky ride. The beat was strong, the vamps and solos solid and cohesive.

Jazz on Jay continues next Thursday with drummer Quinton Cain’s quartet.

Wise-Ass Wednesday (or whenever)

Takes a REAL wise-ass, a persistent curmudgeon, to post a Wednesday rant days later…

But I digress.

Vin Diesel has much to answer for. 

Drivers are emulating his “Fast & Furious” film antics and turning roads into raceways. Meanwhile, COVID is tearing up conventional behavioral restraints as police departments face calls for reform and deadly, rising rates of gunfire – while ignoring almost everything else.

Race-tuned road rockets blast past and backfire at all hours of the day and night.

This is to request whatever entity operates re-incarnation to bring Diesel and the whole F&F cast and production team back in a very specific way:

Bring them back as speed-bumps, on MY street. 

This may discourage the manic motor-heads roaring past my place – and endangering anybody unlucky enough to be walking or driving there – by beating the blazing crap out of their cars. With every crashing lurch, this would impose valuable lessons in car karma on those intoxicated by a dangerous cocktail of gasoline, hormones and entitled narcissism.

And it would give Vin Diesel et al some bumps and bruises, too.

“…the rest of the story…”

CBS Sunday Morning swung and missed badly in their May 23 Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young story.

Celebrating the quartet’s 1970 “Deja Vu” album, CBS went all obvious. They recalled romances and breakups and discord within the band and its celebrated second gig at Woodstock.

Touting what Rhino Records calls a super deluxe version of “Deja Vu” (four CDs and a vinyl LP, with many out-takes and demos), the story featured interviews with all members but Young. Nash cites an included demo version of “Our House,” singing with then-girlfriend Joni Mitchell who inspired that cozy tune.

In this superficial telling, however, CBS completely ignored how two C,S,N&Y songs of that era encapsulated the band’s unlikely blended history of happy harmony singing and angry activism.

On May 4, 1970 – fifty one years and a few weeks ago – Ohio National Guard troops shot dead four unarmed, un-menacing students at an anti-Vietnam War protest on the campus of Kent State University. They also wounded nine other student protesters.

As Graham Nash told me in an interview some years ago, C,S,N&Y were riding high that week with “Teach Your Children.” A gentle cautionary tale that Nash has said was inspired by a celebrated Diane Arbus photo of a young boy in shorts, grimacing as he held a toy grenade, the song featured a sweet Jerry Garcia (Grateful Dead) pedal steel solo on an easy country-rock groove. It peaked at No. 16 on Billboard’s Hot 100.

In a hot rush, almost immediately after the Kent State shootings, Neil Young wrote “Ohio,” a protest anthem that angrily mourned “four dead in Ohio.” They hurried to record it but had to fight their record label to release it as a single, backed with Stephen Stills’ thematically related, somber “Find the Cost of Freedom.” 

Nash told me their record company wanted to delay “Ohio” since it would likely push “Teach Your Children” down the singles chart. But C,S,N&Y stood their ground.

In a sense, the record company was right: “Ohio” surged to No. 14 on the Hot 100 as “Teach” slid down. 

But Nash also said they were proud of their defiance.

Insisting on relevance, they ultimately won the long-view argument by releasing a protest song of enormous, timely impact. However, as predicted, releasing “Ohio” also marginalized “Teach Your Children” – which otherwise would have paid Nash greater songwriter royalties without Young’s “Ohio” making a bigger noise and sales.

Too bad CBS went all “People” mag – and I don’t mean that in a good way – and ignored this key facet in the endlessly complex tale of C,S,N&Y.

Their last chapter is far from written, but the “Teach Your Children”/“Ohio” story may be their proudest.

A walk in the woods and the wet

We must have passed the place a thousand times without stopping: a roadside parking lot with a quiet sign inviting visitors. Then a miniature windmill was added, amplifying the welcome. So when we found the Plotterkill Preserve overflowing on Mothers Day, the Great Flats Nature Trail proved a fine Plan B.

Clouds cloaked the sun by the time we hit the trail. In an hour of slow walking and gawking under gray skies, we met only four other groups of wanderers. All were families; half with dogs, securely leashed. Nobody wore masks, but distancing was easy and everybody did.

The trails mostly offered dry footing; where some went soupy, logs laced our way across ink-black mud. Wooden platforms spanned the swampy parts. Walking there was its own reward, among endless varieties of green. Gray and brown vines reached upward on trunks from boggy flatlands, sometimes eclipsing the trees supporting them. Ponds and streams threaded through rusting dried grasses; some bubbly-alive, some stagnant-still. Wildflowers clumped sociably together. 

Enough people roamed the place that wild-life seemed scarce, hiding from us – except for birds. Cardinals, red-winged blackbirds and mallards perched, flew or swam nearby. Some yelled at us, others kept up their everyday conversations; bragging about the Red Sox leading the American League east, complaining about the weather, ridiculing what we wore.

This was their place and we were just visiting.

Help…

Three strangers said “God bless you” and a woman handed Ellie an umbrella from her car window and drove on.

Ellie and I were standing in the rain directing drivers to a drive through food distribution event Wednesday in Collins Park – a miserably wonderful experience, and vice versa. With our son Zak, we joined a few dozen volunteers at 4 p.m. to prepare for the 6 p.m. distribution, but customers started lining up even before we arrived. 

We never actually saw the distribution across the park, but saw everybody drive in, then out. 

By 5 p.m., we’d waved more than 100 cars into line as sprinkles muscled up into a downpour for real.

Drivers were grateful, but some seemed shy as if they’d had to suppress their pride to take free food in a public place. As rain poured down and Ellie and I refined our direction raps, the most common emotion coming through their open car windows was sincere thankfulness, but sometimes a desperation we could feel.

To keep traffic from backing up onto the roadway, Ellie stood near the corner and waved cars on to me. I waved them forward and told them to stay on the road, not turn into the parking lots alongside it. As I spoke to the first driver and more cars drove in, Ellie addressed the second while the third, fourth, fifth and sixth waited.

Complicating things, a baseball game, an event at the adjacent Beukendal Lodge and a young girls’ track and field event also brought people to the park, as did the usual attractions of the lake and picnic areas.

When I waved a car to a stop, I’d ask, “Here for the food drive?” – in a way I hoped felt neutral. If “no,” if they came for baseball or track, I’d apologize for stopping them. If “yes,” I’d ask, “Picking up?” If “yes” again, I’d say, “Great! – you’re in exactly the right place.” I assured them, “You’ll be there in a minute; thanks for coming.” If they came to volunteer, I sent them to the parking lots, again with thanks.

Masked, I stood back from the car windows. 

As customers drove in, some thanked me and said, “God bless you.”

We saw folks of all ages and conditions, in all sorts of vehicles from battered sedans and pickups to newish, pricey SUVs. Some seemed to be in their last miles, and several drivers seemed to be living in their cars. A mother and daughter, both in good moods, ate ice cream cones from Jumpin’ Jacks near the park entrance. Many were un-masked, some held their hands over their mouths. A guy with Confederate flag headrest covers in his beater pickup rushed to put his mask on before opening his window. He was poignantly grateful; so was the young couple in a pickup with REDNECK CHICK across the windshield. A well-dressed couple in a new Porsche SUV avoided eye contact. Hunger can hit anyone.

Folks driving away with their food bags – our son Zak helped pack and hand them out – waved gratefully. They mouthed “Thank you” or stopped to say it, relieved and happy. An outbound woman stopped to wave Ellie closer and handed an umbrella out her window. Ellie tried to decline this sweet gift: “How would I ever get this back to you?’ The woman waved and left. I could tell Ellie was smiling through her mask.

Set to run from 6 to 8 p.m., the Drive-Thru was all but over by 6:15. 

In-bound traffic peaked around 5. Outbound drivers soon started warning us “They’re running out.” Zak texted from the distribution line that the food was all bagged; his work was done. He told the volunteer coordinators about his “two old folks directing traffic” – could we go?

Wet shoes squished as we walked to Ellie’s car, cold and emotional. 

We’d seen people in dire straits, trying to hide desperation that was often all too clear and deeply sad as they drove in; and we felt their gratitude as they drove away.

Realizing that this scene of volunteers handing donated food to our neighbors is playing out across America brought a disturbing recognition. Something is deeply, maddeningly wrong.

In what some claim is the greatest country in the world, we had seen desperate people in their hungry hundreds lining up for donated food. The embarrassment some seemed to feel was in the wrong place. It belongs instead to a society or system that rewards selfishness and pushes millions down through the cracks. 

For a nation that worships winners, we tend to overlook how each winner requires a sacrifice by dozens or hundreds of “losers,” some struggling, some dead. For each Bezos, multitudes of marginalized workers literally piss into bottles, working without breaks in warehouses. Hunger and homelessness are essential in this system for the greedy to win. 

Fortunately, resources – both material and human – are gathering to meet this gnawing need. There IS help, and helpers.

Earlier in the pandemic, we’d stifled our own impulse to join those helpers. Now, all three of us vaccinated, we were glad to volunteer – and felt a little uncomfortable at the gratitude that greeted us. 

As we peeled off wet clothes and started to make dinner, we realized we had seen humanity at its worst in the inequality that brought people to us in such desperation. And we had seen humankind at its best in both our fellow volunteers and the gratitude of those we helped.

This made the experience of sharing simply wonderful, delicious and nourishing.

Sad news on a stormy day

Nobody who loves music hereabouts wanted to believe that bassist and producer Tony Markellis has passed. Sadly, devastatingly true; among the most terrible news of a wretched time. How unfair that he moves on just as the world begins to recover.

Tony was my second favorite musician after my brother Jim. A player of subtle supportive listening on ballads or mighty muscular force in any groove, Tony made every song he played on better, every band he played in both more poetic and more powerful.

A round guy whose email address proclaimed him the meat man, Tony had an easy calm way about him. He’d been everywhere, but still loved to move along. He’d played everything but still loved to lay it down.

When I talked once with Trey Anastasio, who had the exquisite taste to bring Tony into the Trey Anastasio Band, he said it was fine with him “to just watch and listen to Tony, all night.” Trey did so, himself; and I did that whenever I heard him play, starting from an early-70s David Bromberg Band gig in Binghamton. The sound system died, but not the music. As Bromberg led his strings and horn players to the lip of the stage, Tony turned down his amp and laid down the groove so everybody could hear everything.

He loved playing with thoughtful singer-songwriters, especially Michael Jerling, as much as with rocking bands. And he always swung, always.

However, some of my favorite times with Tony were when he didn’t play. 

Many a night when I climbed the steep stairs at Caffe Lena, there was Tony at the top, listening, and knowing everything about the music and musicians. I could have written my Gazette reviews just by jotting down what Tony said.

When Davell Crawford, the “Piano Prince of New Orleans,” played the Cock ’N’ Bull in Galway, Tony joined the two of us in the bar after the show. Davell was born into the New Orleans tradition, the grandson of James “Sugarboy” Crawford and godson of Carol Fran, though Roberta Flack took over that job when Fran passed. But for Tony, New Orleans was just one of the many streams he navigated with unerring taste on his bass. And, believe me, Tony had better New Orleans musician stories than Davell. 

The many musicians he played with here and everywhere will be telling Tony stories in every green room, every tour-stop bar and every recording studio here for years.

If you’re ever lucky enough to be back there, listen up, and raise a glass to our own thunder sage, our groove giant, our boss of the beat.

To Tony Markellis.