Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Mountain Stage

Last night I went downtown for the Mountain Stage, a live radio show aired on NPR. I drove the 25 minutes to see The Indigo Girls at the Clay Center hoping that I wouldn't regret parting with my $20. "One ticket please," I said at the box office.

"Someone left an extra ticket here," the woman at the counter said. "They told me to give it to the next person in line if the seat's okay with you."

I reveled in my luck as I walked toward the front of the auditorium to row A, seat six. I suffered a rush of empathetic stage fright for the host and performers when the "On Air" lights flickered on. Gary Jules opened the evening at 8 p.m., singing and strumming his high-strapped guitar alone on stage. The Asheville resident wore a fedora and cuffed jeans that revealed the red socks under his loafers. His songs were so simple yet lovely that I wished I had a smartphone so I could download them from iTunes on the spot. I'm a sucker for haunting melodies (and listening to my favorite, "Horses," on MySpace right now).

Billboard Magazine profiled Jules when his song "Falling Awake" broke the top 100 despite being only available on iTunes after it played during a dramatic episode of Grey's Anatomy. "I actually wrote it as a happy song about my son being born," Jules said of the tune, which played in a scene where doctors pulled the life-support plug on the father of one of the lead characters.

Then another lone guitarist named Chris Smither took the spotlight, looking like a '70s photograph with his shagged hair and button-up shirt tucked into slim-cut jeans. The story-telling musician has released 11 albums over the past 40 years. I liked his song about the constant questions his three-year-old adopted daughter from China asks. The audience laughed to lyrics like "Were you as big as you are now when I was born? I been this big a long time, that's why my face is worn / But were you ever little, and if so where was I? Yes I was, but you weren't anywhere or anywhy ..."

Next a woman with an actress-lithe body and toned arms stepped on stage carrying a guitar. Turns out she was Jill Hennessy, the eponymous lead of Crossing Jordan, a former Law and Order cast member and a Broadway veteran. So not only is she a beautiful TV star, but she also writes country songs that she sings with her deep, powerful voice. "I sang for money on the streets of Toronto 20 years ago," she said. "The Indigo Girls had a show one night. By the time I made enough money for a ticket, they wouldn't let me in."

After Hennessy came one of the world's best banjo pickers, Alison Brown. The Harvard grad said an astronaut took her new CD on a recent Hubble mission. He wanted to listen to it for the first time in space. I expected to see a woman rocking out bluegrass on the banjo, picking the life out of the strings and breaking into wild, spontaneous jigs. But Brown moved nothing besides her fingers as she played a set that reminded me of elevator music, making it look like she could strum in her sleep.

At 10 p.m. The Indigo Girls took the stage. Unlike most musicians I see in concert, I wasn't taken aback by how attractive, stylish and slim they were. But I couldn't get over their dream-like harmonies, solid acoustic talent and poetic songwriting. I wanted to call someone up and tell them to turn on their radio. I didn't want songs like "On the Way to Fine" and "Sugar Tongue" to end, but even when they did they kept replaying in my head the whole drive home.

So I guess you know you're from Appalachia when you're into folk music, even though you've never been able to develop a liking for country or Southern rock. Come to think of it, the Mountain Stage fit my mission of embracing my West Virginia roots while I'm stuck here. And I wouldn't have minded parting with my 20 bucks one bit.

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