Even a creaking, half block long F-250 with a missing left-rear center cap seems hushed at 6 am these days. It’s the kind of dark in the morning, misty windshield that won’t dry out sort of thing we all face this time of the year.
And I don’t suppose that last Tuesday was feeling any different than any other day of the week as I turned the truck into Stu’s driveway. I left the motor running, the lights on, and Stu lurched comfortably out of the house and into the seat, slinging his hardshell cooler into the back. Hi ho, another day of walking numbness.
But Stu had one of those moments that he sometimes has. And he held it in his hand. A sparkly jewel case with a CD.
“Heh. Stick this in the player, lad,” was his only preamble. But I noted that the usual sleepy, hungover at 6 am on a Tuesday looking Stu had an intent, a glowering sort of intent about him.
It’s worth noting that the CD player in the F-250 isn’t the sort of thing that Ford would ever try to sell you at the dealership. I built a little box years ago, stuck it on the transmission hump and velcroed a Walkman to it. A cunning little box, made of cherry and having a nice finish, with little spaces for your CD’s and a long space for whathaveyou that is covered with smoked Plexiglas. The Walkman sports many connecting cords which wind there way around the front of the cab and occasionally underfoot.
Getting a CD to play in the damn thing is little short of witchcraft. Insert CD, insert connecting cassette, turn on radio, turn on Walkman, adjust audio levels in each. Stu watched all of this impassively, but I noticed his left hand was beginning to twitch just a bit.
I had the volume up to a modest level. Like I said, it was a hushed sort of morning, and after all, we hadn’t even left his neighborhood yet. I’m not the one to go motoring through your domestic bliss with visible waves of bass trailing behind me.
It appeared to be a live concert, some disembodied voice trolling the masses for an intro to the band. And he got to the part where they say, “…..proud to bring back to this venue, Ladies and Gentlemen, Robert Rmblkdks and the indistinguishable Band!”
I turned to Stu, and just about the time I started to say “Wha? What’s the band? Wha’d he say?” there was this sound. A cutting and keening sound.
(It’s worth a minute to take the occasional readers of this more than occasional bleat down memory lane. Back in April of 2000 I took a vacation. Nevermind that it was the last time I’ve taken a vacation since. Vacations being a rare thing in Outfoxedville. But Ally and I went to New Orleans for Jazzfest that particular April. Stayed in the Quarter, ate Cajun food till we grew gills. And listened to music. I was perilously close to mainlining that particular blend of sound that I heard down there, it got into your feet and your eye sockets like nothing else I’ve ever heard. It was backroom stuff, with an organ and steel guitar, best played by wizened black men who sucked up smoke from dangerous looking black cigars and looked at the crowd with a sort of lopsided grin, a sort of “you know you want some of this don’t you now?” certainty. Toss in a bowl of steaming gumbo and I was hooked, but good.
About 10 seconds into that first song, I heard the sound. It was pure Orleans Parish, it was a wail, it was funk. And then they took off with it.
I looked over at Stu, a grinning visage in dashboard green. He was already tapping the foot, nodding the head, and he looked at me with a raised eyebrow as if to say, “So what are you waiting for?”
I didn’t. I reached over with one pudgy digit and mashed that volume button for all I was worth.
Anyone traveling on that miserable stretch of Boulevard on a dewy Tuesday morning knew us for what we were. Shameless middle aged bards with a penchant for swamp music. Because I rolled down the window whacked the side of the truck with one arm while the other thumped the steering wheel and occasionally steered. We kept it up past the traffic lights, past the oncoming of the long Bridge Tunnel, kept it up as the songs changed and the crowd screamed and the music blew every conscious thought out of your brain.
Maybe the best part was that the concert seemed curiously timed to our 50 minute commute. It ended just as we pulled into our little City by the Bay.
And I slumped in the seat and whispered “God. God that just kicked ass. Who? What the hell was that?”
Stu was still smiling, still tapping his foot. “I thought you might get a charge outta that. Heard it last night and had to have it. Not so awful bad, eh?”
Not so awful bad, indeed. In a life full of daily disappointment, not so awful bad can be a tonic of the very best sort.
Robert Randolph and the Family Band. Live. Go buy it this very instant.
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