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
Oftentimes in the middle of the winter, when I'm feeling cooped up from the cold and drained from constant interaction with my students, I begin daydreaming and plotting where I'll go over my summer vacation. A lot of those ideas and plans fall through or get pushed aside for others. This one stuck and turned out to be a great time for reflection, rejuvenation, and landing beautiful fish.
My grand plan was to spend a week camping and fly fishing in and around Potter County. The Wilds of PA, God's Country. There were quite a few streams I wanted to check out so I chose two camping spots as my home base - Little Pine State Park and Ole Bull State Park. These would put me in the Pine Creek and Kettle Creek Watersheds respectively.
I spent the most of the week at Little Pine State Park. I fished Pine Creek proper and landed some beautiful browns and some beat up rainbows (all on really small prince nymphs). I spent another few days exploring some of Pine's great tribs (Slate, Cedar, etc) and some other watersheds that run parallel to Pine through Sproul State Forest. Slate Run is a crazy stream. I drove way back Slate Run Rd. to access the stream and successfully freaked myself out after a few hours of slipping on the slate-like rocks and convincing myself I was hearing Rattlers around every bend and branch. It's streamside is covered with high grass and ferns. Beautiful to look at, but creepy to walk through when your by yourself in the middle of rattler country and far from anyone or anything. It's good to be humbled by nature on a regular basis. The only downside to fishing alone is that there is always a small voice in the back of your head reminding you that if you were to fall, get bitten, etc, no one would likely find you for a few days. Eh, it's worth it though.
After a few days in the Pine Creek valley, I packed up and moved on over to Ole Bull - up and over the next set of mountains and into the Kettle Creek Watershed. Unfortunately, due to a few days of downpour, I only got to fish Kettle Creek and missed a few gems that I really wanted to get to. I landed quite a few beautiful browns in the FFO section of Kettle Creek and even got a few to take a wicked small grifffith's gnat. I'm hoping to make this an annual thing and to make it back up to Ole Bull sooner rather than later. Having explored new water the entire trip, I quickly realized how much I had to realize on my instinct to find fish. This, in turn, showed me that I actually have learned quite a bit over the past year or two since fly fishing has become something I do quite frequently.
A few random non-fishing thoughts - it was really great to get away by myself for a few days and to let things settle. I end up spending a lot of time alone anyway simply because of what I enjoy doing - fly fishing, biking, etc - but this was different. Most days I barely interacted with more than two people and probably only said a total of a few sentences. It was nice to get away from the ego a bit, to wake up and have nothing to do but explore remote streams and try new water, to get of routines and to get back into just being. It's all pretty simple, really - just be.
My soundtrack for the week of solitude and fly fishing including a lot of Steve Gunn. Love this guy's music. His album Time Off is actually what got me into the Dead a couple of years ago.
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.