The Gods Await to Delight in You: Playing and Enjoying Music in the Catskills
By Robert Burke Warren
Hudson Valley life affords me more opportunities to play music in front of people than any other place I’ve lived, and that includes New York City. The Catskills, in fact, feel like one big stage, with accommodating spirits hovering, encouraging, constantly offering chances for musicians and music lovers to step out of everyday life and into the timelessness of song. I completely understand why Dylan, the Band, Hendrix, Sebastian, Van Morrison, Rundgren, the B-52’s, Bowie, and many other musicians have lived – or still live – here. And why Woodstock (in Bethel) happened in these hills, and why its scope and vibe has never really been repeated elsewhere.
In his poem, “The Laughing Heart”, Charles Bukowski wrote, “The gods await to delight in you.” Our rolling, mysterious hills give this notion wings. Local gods, in the rocks, the waterways, and lush mountainsides, all await to delight in musicians and music-lovers alike. Their desire is palpable.
I’ve actually lost track of the venues in which I’ve performed. The list runs the gamut from the Bardavon and First Steps Preschool, to the Bearsville Theater and the Woodstock Farm Festival. Almost every church. Definitely every school in the Onteora system. Mountain Jam? Did it, more than once. Santa’s arrival on the Woodstock Green? Played that, with my band, on a flatbed truck, with Santa himself on lead guitar. Adoption ceremony in Delhi, at which foster kids officially became family members? Check. Garlic Festival? Several times, ate the garlic ice cream. Glenford Church? I turned fifty on that stage. New World Home Cooking? Yes, broadcast on WAMC. Opus 40? Was bit by a dog beforehand, but the show must, and did, go on. Utopia Soundstage? A lot. Levon’s Barn? God yes, with Levon on drums. Harmony Café? Yes, and walked off with a cannabis-scented, crisp fifty dollar bill, pressed into my hand by a very friendly, very high dude in a Grateful Dead hoodie.
Also: Kleinert/James, Byrdcliffe Theater and Barn, Colony Café, Tinker Street Café, every bookstore in the region, every library, Proctors, The Linda, Rosendale Café/Street Festival/ Theater, Clearwater (Sloop and Fest), Taste of the Catskills, Belleayre, summer and winter Hoots, Tinker St. Cinema, the Shandaken Theatrical Society (now the Phoenicia Playhouse), Empire State Railway Museum, Woodstock Animal Sanctuary, Woodstock Community Center, ‘Cue, BSP, Market Market, and probably your neighbor’s house. Maybe even your house.
Every venue offers something different, and affects music, music-maker, and audience. As a musician, you become accustomed to how you sound while practicing, usually at home, or in some hovel. But once you play out, that sound changes; the music takes on characteristics of the room (or the outdoor space), the people, the communal vibe of the day, which is nigh impossible to predict. After some time, you learn to gauge the space, the people, and adjust. You learn to pivot. Sometimes the venue is charmed, and energizes, imbues you with power. Alternatively, even in our music-friendly region, a space can work against you, with bad tech, crappy acoustics, and/or a clueless or hostile crowd that’ll make you feel like you’ve been thrown to the lions. At which point you must suck it up and play on.
In my experience, the local venues I’ve loved playing are, not surprisingly, often the venues in which I’ve also seen some unforgettable shows. Best acoustics? Easy: Levon’s Barn. Thick, rough-hewn wood, few windows, and somehow, even though you feel you’re in someone’s home (because you are in someone’s home), the Barn features top-notch sound equipment and sound operators – usually Brendan McDonough.
When I played the Kids Ramble in 2007, I stepped onto the thick rugs of the performance area and recalled how, three years before, I’d seen Levon sit in with Ollabelle at the first Midnight Ramble I attended. We’d been told Levon couldn’t sing, due to his cancer treatments. But to everyone’s astonishment, he did sing, in duets with his daughter, Amy. The energy between them was magic, a glowing thing. And like I say, it all sounded fantastic; perfect volume, all instruments discernible as individual waves, but also part of a whole, touching the audience’s insides, enlivening us, making us one.
Because most of us listen to music on substandard speakers, earbuds, or through bad systems operated by amateurs, you forget how great amplified sound can be. So, excellent live sound is often revelatory. And that’s what you get at the Barn.
And by the way, Levon was not supposed to play at that 2007 Kids Ramble gig, either. But he did. Elizabeth Mitchell and You Are My Flower, with whom I, as Uncle Rock, shared the bill, played the Velvet Underground’s “What Goes On,” and they drafted me to play bass an arm’s reach from Levon, who laid down a funky beat and grinned at me like a Cheshire cat. I will take that one with me when I go.
When folks talk – and/or post – about “best concert(s) I ever saw,” I always include Richard Thompson at the Bearsville Theater, solo acoustic, Rumor & Sigh tour, 1991. (My wife and I were weekenders then.) First time I saw him, first time I heard his now classic “1952 Vincent Black Lightning.” The sold out, 400-person capacity room was the perfect venue. Any bigger, and it might’ve lost some intensity; any smaller, and the crush of people would’ve distracted. His songs, jaw-dropping fingerpicking wizardry, and quiet charisma, mixed with a mysterious element he conjured among the congregation, a sense of community. I’ve seen many shows in this room, full bands and solo performers, and I’ve played in various configurations – solo, band, huge band – and for me, the Bearsville Theater excels with smaller-scale acts. Again, much wood makes for good acoustics, the vaulted, church-like ceiling gives a sense of quiet grandeur, and the separate space for the bar means no glasses clinking during quieter moments.
When I finally played Bearsville Theater about fifteen years later, my first thought was, “This is where I saw that amazing Richard Thompson gig.”
My favorite local gig of all – one that I played – was impromptu. I’d performed at Mike and Ruthy’s inaugural summer Hoot at the Ashokan Center, first on the Toshi Seeger stage, then throughout the grounds over the course of the day. It was a perfect summer day, ideal temperature, few bugs, verdant surroundings. The Hoot was well attended, with great food, reasonable prices, and much spontaneous fun for kids and adults. It was the kind of day that makes everyone a better person.
I was officially done, and Mike Merenda asked if, after Natalie Merchant’s set, I would commandeer a “song swap” at a bonfire atop the hill overlooking the Pete Seeger stage. It would be an alternative for folks who didn’t want to go dance at the Killian Pavilion, an opportunity for the many campers who’d brought instruments to play together. I said sure, thinking, “No one will come. Everyone will go dancing.” I was wrong.
The perfect day melted into a perfect Catskill summer evening, starlit, no sounds of heavy industry audible, dew in the air. Someone had just lit a huge bonfire on the hill, as Natalie said thank you, good night. The crowd below dispersed into the deepening dark. To my surprise, a wave of people ascended the hill, and campers stepped into the firelight with guitars, mandolins, banjos, and ukuleles. The congregation swelled quickly, from twenty, to fifty or so. Maybe more. The crowd, as an organism, was initially bashful. I was wondering how to engage everyone, and out of the darkness, a woman’s voice asked, “Anyone know ‘I Love Rock N’ Roll’?”
“I do!” I said. And I played it, and everyone sang, and we were off. As the hours passed, people grew ever bolder, singing folk songs, country, rock, punk, and originals that ranged from a cappella emo laments to crusty sea chanties. As goes it with a successful song swap, a momentum asserted itself, and young and old alike settled into our temporary little firelit tribe, tapping into ancient strands of collective memory. Humankind as a species has spent much more time singing songs around fires than any other activity, and a sense of familiarity takes hold, a constant déjà vu.
Finally, around 1 A.M., I grew tired and took my leave to drive home while I still could. The circle kept singing, barely conscious of me, piling on logs, sending sparks aloft as they engaged in song after song after song. I could still hear them from the darkness of the parking lot, where I reluctantly re-engaged with modern life, i.e. my car. Just before I turned the ignition key, I could also hear, ever so faint, the laughing of the delighted gods.
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