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Sway Like No One is Watching

It’s been over a year since I have experienced music live, more than three since I had a ticket to a performance in another city. I thought I knew how much I missed it; I thought I knew how much I associated live music with love. 

This week, a good friend took me to see one of her favorite musicians, Takenobu. They were playing at a club I had sworn I’d been to before, but after going, I don’t think I had. People were respectful of the masking rule, free masks were available at the door, and everyone had to show proof of vaccination. I felt comfortable in the space, as small as it was; we made quick friends with the woman on my right, a recent college graduate and new resident of the city. When the unassuming couple took the two steps up to the stage, silence swept the underground room. 

I had never heard of the musicians, at least, not knowingly. I didn’t know anything about them other than my friend was super excited to see them. I just missed the experience. 

It only took the first song to have me hooked. We were maybe ten feet away from the musicians, just the 3rd table from the tiny stage. Their movements flowed like water, bows sliding over cello and violin strings. It was beautiful, and appeared effortless. The music simply lifted from the fingers that played it. This was not music you listened to; this was music you breathed. I felt it with every inhalation, as I filled my lungs with the sound and let it go, let it surround me. The voices that rose were the perfect complement to the classic instruments. 

By the third song, I was actively swaying in my seat. I noted that my friend was as well; everyone else in my line of sight sat statue-still. I didn’t understand that, never had. Could they not feel it? Feel the way the music moved around them, electrifying the cells in their bodies, coaxing the movement from their limbs? I had an image of a ballet performance in my head, the dancers reaching forward as if their fingers were desperate to feel the music run through them, even as they were pulled backward by some other invisible force. I wished it was an open floor plan; I wished for the confidence and the grace to be able to get up and dance the way the music was insisting. I wished I’d worn a long skirt that would continue to flow with the movements of my hips after they changed direction. 

I absently noted the passage of time only because the clock was in my direct site. The brass hands made their slow sweep over black as the view out of the high windows went bright as the streetlights came on. The violin and cello continued to make their easy transitions, moving from smooth notes drawn out with the bow, to playful with quick plucks of the strings. I noticed a familiar hand pattern; yes, the cellist was finger picking the cello. I felt the excitement bloom in my chest and turned my head to tell Hawthorne. Oh, right.

As happens when I get really into something, I had lost track of where and when I was, swept away in the music. That surrender is how I had danced for our entire wedding with my shoes on the whole time; it was what made road trips fly by as fast as the highway outside. It had been a long time since I felt it. It was what happened when music and joy and love and wonder converged. 

The music swelled with meaning, not just from Takenobu. Bright memories of both my first and last loves washed over me in time-hazed pastels. Half-running from the train to get to the little club where we had ten-dollar tickets to see someone we had barely heard of, waiting to snuggle up and sway together in the sweaty crowd. Having a mountain of a man put me and my skinny boyfriend in front of him, protected from the pit forming behind us. Hawthorne dragging me closer to the stage so they could watch the hands of the musicians. Sitting on the grass and watching their eyes sparkle in the dusk. 

I pressed a fist to my heart to hold it, that joy, that sweet ache of beautiful memory. This is what live music is about, I thought. This has been missing from my world. 

The last time I’d heard it was at the jam at the Wild Fern where we had gathered to celebrate Hawthorne’s life, just over a year ago. I felt that sweet ache falter towards something more painful; applause rose around me and brought me back to the moment. 

We drank our craft beers and savored the rich mouthfuls of tres leches cake we split. I watched the young person in the corner write page after page in the notebook balanced on their knee, occasionally reference a book with a pink cover and long title that I couldn’t make out. I remember those days, where any moment I sat was a moment to study. I made notes on my phone, regretting the absence of my own notebook. I didn’t want to be rude, but I knew I needed the words that moved through me to be captured and not carried away on the music. 

Suddenly I heard bars I’d recognize anywhere rise to dance on the air. The instruments were different, but suddenly I was on a mountaintop in Vermont in midsummer, bonfire lit, chairs pulled up to the light, Hawthorne and friends picking up the key and melody. The melancholy rendition of Shady Grove transported me so that the woodsmoke obscured the young student, the café tables and fake candles. I could see the faces of friends, of my love, as if they were there to reach out and touch them. My heart squeezed. I pulled up a favorite picture of Hawthorne on my phone and set it on the table; for a moment, just for a beat, they were with me at the show. 

Takenobu finished their main set, then told the story of why they don’t actually leave the stage at Club Passim, and then immediately began their encore. We paid the bills that were handed out, heads bent toward bright phones and paid by QR code. I thought of when my first boyfriend and I went, the black X’s on our hands and cash carefully folded into his pocket. I looked around at our masked companions, and hoped he was still going to shows. 

The show ended at what, at thirty-six, was the perfectly reasonable time. Twenty years ago, my boyfriend and I would be wondering if another act was coming on. Instead, my friend and I joined the tiny merch line, where she got a T-shirt and the chance to tell them how much she loved them. I asked if he had actually been finger picking, and he said that he had. I felt a smugness that I know Hawthorne knew well, and was glad they had taught me what that style looked like. 

I had a blast at the show; we talked about how perfect it was on the way out of the city. The only thing that could have made it better, I told my friend, was a cup of Turkish coffee to go with the sweetness of the tres leches cake. She agreed. Neither of us could understand how the rest of the crowd was so still; I could already feel the motion of the night in my sides, those muscles rudely awakened. I smiled at the slight pain, willing to take that as my due. Whatever the price was from dancing in my seat, it didn’t matter. The music is back.