Epiphanies

Songs Without Words

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The greatest hits of a life of music

By Brian Doyle


 

Someone asks me about the greatest live music moments of my long life, and something in me leaps with joy and out pour these moments:

(a) Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band roaring as they finish a show in Oregon with “Land of Hope and Dreams” for something like—I kid you not—half an hour, with all the lights in the arena on and a crowd of 20,000 dancing and singing and seething and going absolutely, joyously, communally bonkers. I wept at the love and hope and laughter and heartlift of it. When I say that was a holy moment, I damn well mean it was a holy moment, and I am not talking about religion.

(b) David Bromberg playing Irish airs on his fiddle in the dark in a tiny pub in Massachusetts, all lights turned off and nothing but candlelight, his significant bulk slipping magically around tables and chairs, the faces rapt, the haunting music making the hairs prickle on your neck, and you could hear 10,000 years of sadness and courage and grace and rain and hunger and bravery and endurance in the music. I’ll never forget that as long as I live.

(c) Eddy Clearwater and his blues band continuing to play their set in a ragged club in Chicago, even after a part of the roof fell in! As they were playing! A howling summer thunderstorm had hit the club hard, and the rain cascaded down behind the stage, but they never paused or even missed a beat as Eddy shouted, Louder! and the bartender, to his eternal credit, gave everyone in the place a free drink.

(d) Blues guitarists George Thorogood and Jimmie Vaughn walking out into a thick hot summer night from their gigs in two separate pubs across the street from each other in Chicago and playing together for a while in the street as traffic stopped and a grinning crowd collected and everyone in both bars poured out laughing and jostling and a city bus even let its passengers out for a few moments to catch the song, and when the guitarists finished, Jimmie Vaughn shook hands with the bus driver.

(e) Van Morrison, on an open-air stage in the Gorge of the Columbia River, with 20,000 people sitting on a vast hillside, the night after Frank Sinatra died, singing one Sinatra song after another, his black fedora pulled down over his eyes, the music echoing off the basalt cliffs behind him and booming up and down the river for miles and miles and miles.

There were other moments. Many other moments. When you are right there, inside the music being made right in front of you, by people who love making music and are very good at it, sometimes something happens for which even I, word-mad, word-addled, word-besotted, cannot find words. But you know what I mean.

Brian Doyle is the editor of Portland magazine at the University of Portland, and the author most recently of the novel The Plover. He writes the weekly Epiphanies column at theamericanscholar.org.

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