On Sunday night, August 19, 2001, seven of the nation's premiere guitarists gathered at the Freight and Salvage Coffeehouse in Berkeley to pay tribute in song to their fallen idol. I was honored and humbled to be among that group of seven.
Admission prices, set by the venue, were relatively high for a Berkeley event: $19.50 at the door, a dollar less in advance. The financial structure for the procedes was determined well in advance: all performers' expenses would come off the top of the gross, including air and local transportation costs, food and lodging. The artists were encouraged (I think the word was actually begged) to keep their expenses to a minimum. This unusual formula was in place as an attempt to make it possible for all performers to participate, regardless of distance travelled, as equals. Any profit after these expenses would be equally divided. The Freight's cut also came off the top.
So... did we make any money? Well, results are still being calculated, but a preliminary guesstimate would suggest that we about broke even, with perhaps a tiny profit. This happy result is ENTIRELY due to the artists' efforts in being reasonable. We were there to pay our respects and celebrate the life and music of a man who meant a lot to each of us. We were specifically NOT there to make money, and, frankly, expected to actually lose money. Again, that was not the issue.
Artistically, the show was an overwhelming success. Could it have been "better"? Well... a show could always have been "better", and I won't attempt to critique such a loving event in such judgemental terms. I will say that 3 hours after it started, on a Sunday night, the place was still mostly full. People had to be kicked out when the venue had to close up for the night.
Charlie Schmidt opened the show with a chilling rendition of "Fare Forward Voyagers". I got goosebumps. Charlie played the tune on Fahey's own Recording King guitar, the same instrument that the original version was recorded on. The Recording King was contributed to the evening by special guest Fred Sheppard, the craftsman who reassembled it following its complete destruction a few years back. Charlie also offered up his own composition "Ghosts", my new favorite of his.
Mitch Greenhill brought along his longtime duet partner Mayne Smith, who switched to electric saw (or was it a sander?) for one number. These little once in a lifetime embellishments were what this show was all about. Mitch's wife also joined in on homemade percussion for their final tune. We heard some delightful tales of Fahey's strange life from Mitch, John's one-time business manager.
Rick Ruskin served up some incredible guitar solos and a few more hair-raising stories about John. I began to understand why a local disk jockey recently referred to Mitch (whose work I had not previously heard) as the "greatest unknown guitar player in America."
Next up was some guitar-slinging schmuck named Phil Kellogg
The dynamic picking, slapping, and percussive swats of Michael Gulezian woke people right up. People tend to think Michael listened to the late Michael Hedges in developing his technique, but here's a little secret: the OPPOSITE is true, and Mr. Hedges was always the first to admit that.
Henry Kaiser was an absolute delight. Henry's music is always instilled with a full dose of humor, and his take on John's "Steamboat Gwine Round De Bend" certainly proved that. Henry sent the song ALL THE WAY round the bend. Henry also amazed everyone with an improvised piece. Catch Henry with his band Yo Miles! October 14 at the Great American Music Hall.
Peter Lang finished out the evening. This was Peter's 3rd public performance since a self-imposed retirement many years ago. Dare I say it? He is BETTER THAN EVER. Find Peter's brand new album "Dharma Blues", then buy it, then play it and see if I'm wrong (hint: I'M NOT).