The sultry September summer air drifted in through the open doors of the theater mixing the smell of decaying plaster and patchouli; reminiscent of the mixed generations of people who showed up for a beautifully intimate performance by Steve Gunn in the lobby of the historic Lansdowne Theater. Industrial fans, set up like sentries at both sides of the lobby where the bathrooms once were, blew through the heavy humidity. Light, occasionally flickering in, found its way onto the ancient scrolls of flaking paint on the walls and ornate carvings marking steps across the ceiling. Faded paintings of ships sailed above the cracked concrete where fountains used to stand and greet visitors.
With, at most, 100 seats, the lobby was completely full of people as an old friend of Mr. Gunn's took the stage to introduce him. His preamble was an amazing, rambling homage to the community that he and Steve created in Lansdowne as kids. It marked the occasion perfectly; this was a homecoming and a celebration of community, of saving a special part of the past for the future while performing in the present. As an outsider who never stepped foot in Lansdowne and, honestly, only came because I am in love with Gunn's music, I was moved by the connections to place, home, and family that were celebrated at last night's show that was set up to raise money to restore the Lansdowne Theater.
The meandering introduction to "Water Wheel", relaxed and cyclical, like a a small stream low after a long drought gently pushing the wheel for another spin, set the rhythm for the night. Each song was full of Gunn's sweat and sweet improvisation. "Night Wanderer", about a cat prowling around Lansdowne at night, was next and the first track played off of his latest record, Eyes on the Lines. The song, stripped down like it was, connected eloquently back to the introduction and the powerful connection to this austere place the audience and musician have.
I was giddy when Gunn took a few minutes to tune his guitar and mention that, because of the heat, he was going to take the next song slow and that "it'll be kind of long". I knew it was going to be "Old Strange", a personal favorite of mine. Gunn played the intro for a few minutes and abruptly stopped to let us know that it was borrowed from an old Greek folk tune and that the song was in honor of a local Greek Pizzeria, which drew a loud applause from the hometown crowd. There's this lick inside of that track that, even when the music goes far beyond where it started, is still lifting the tune on its back and taking it through the dark woods and a "path through the fields/to find out what was real....". That riff shows up throughout my days, playing a subtle rhythm while I'm teaching the kids about the rhetorical situation or mowing my grass or walking Whitman down to the river. It's beautiful and I never want it to end. I could have sat there on that hard plastic folding chair with my eyes closed and listened to him play that song for hours, days, forever, just to watch that melody come back and leave, come back, leave, diminish, then expand, endlessly going back and forth and reaching itself out like a patch of mint that grows and dies and with each death comes back even taller and further out from where it sprouted.
Gunn then went into a set of newer numbers from the last two records - "Ancient Jules", "Milly's Garden", "Way Out Weather" and "Ark" with winsome stories about his championship youth soccer team (which, I think, Kurt Vile also played on), skateboarding in the parking lot out back, and his short run with the Boy Scouts scattered throughout. "Milly's Garden" was more of an improvisational track. He sang the first stanza a few times until eventually making his way to the chorus. We were left to fill in the rest of the lyrics as he kept coming back to remind us that "...your faith is savage, your mind is damaged, you're more than halfway there..." while taking the song into all the corners and cracks of the lobby. "Ancient Jules" has been the soundtrack to my summer since it came out earlier this year with the lines "take your time, ease up, look around, and waste the day". It was my mantra for my summer vacation and it took me to some beautiful places. Thank you, Steve.
The show ended with "Wildwood", which Gunn mentioned was his father's, who recently passed, favorite song. He dedicated it to his mother and sister who were in the audience and mentioned how much it meant for him to play it that night; a perfect ending to this great homecoming and celebration of place, family, friends, and great music.
Way Out Weather
I stumbled upon the name "Raftman's Path" walking the river trail that traverses through the little town I live in. It was named during the days when lumber was a huge commodity in this area. The Susquehanna River was an industrial thoroughfare - bearing down loads of lumber from the northern reaches of Pennsylvania towards the Chesapeake. Marietta was a stopping point, a place for the lumber either to go to the mills lining its banks or shoot further downstream through pig iron smoke. Raftmen would guide the lumber down to the mouth of the Susquehanna into the Chesapeake - an estuary of salt, water, lumber, ore, eel and shad. When their job was done, they would walk the raftman's path back through the Susquehanna Riverlands of Lancaster County towards their homes. The path is now wooded and meanders through some of the only "wild" places left in the county.