Several nights ago, the Brooklyn-based, old-timey band Spirit Family Reunion played a gig on McClary Hill in Epsom, New Hampshire. My friend Dave keeps a farm on McClary Hill (pigs, sheep, brown cows, chickens) and the concert was held there. Just exactly how Spirit Family Reunion, by some accounts the hippest band in NYC these days, came to play Epsom, New Hampshire; or better, how they came to play on McClary Hill in the environs of Dave’s farm animals, is a curious turn of events. But I’m going to skip over all that.
Dave has a big red building behind his house, and that’s where we gathered. The band arrived at six, the concert started at seven-thirty. In the meantime, people trickled in, mostly neighbors and friends but a handful of strangers, too. We shuffled around and greeted each other, and the band set up a table to market their music. The banjo player mingled with her banjo on her back, and I noticed that she and the rest of the band kept returning to Dave’s freezer. One would hold the lid and they all looked in. There was pig meat in there. All the various cuts.
But now, finally, it’s time. It’s 7:30. There are forty of us. Adults, teenagers, kids. Four rows of chairs in a half-circle on the second floor. The band ready and up front. Guitar, banjo, fiddle and bass. Washboard. Drum.
And all of us exceedingly close to each other. Shoulder-to-shoulder. My daughter sits in my wife’s lap. My neighbor, Peter, stands behind his wife, hands on her shoulders. Sarah Chapman, who sits in the front row with her daughter, Siddi, could easily lean forward and squeeze the fiddler’s knee.
Dave walks up to say something, possibly an introduction to the band, but, changing his mind, he hurries away. We look at the band, the band looks at each other, they fidget, half-whisper, the guitarist announces something I miss…and they’re off, launched, playing at a pace.
And we are all so close and they play so fast and they throw back their heads and they sing so high and they lean off their hips and their music is so…we’ re not sure what it is. It’s not music one hears. It’s so…old. That’s it. Old is what it sounds like…
Leave your troubles, troubles at the gate
Don’t let history lie to you and tell you it’s too late
The other side is sweeter with the freedom from the way
You better leave your trouble at the gate
… they sing, the guitar player first, the banjo player second, the fiddle player third, which is to say: high, higher, highest.
The band sings and plays and we keep coming back to the fiddle player, a slight man with epic sideburns and powerful voice. When he sings it’s like a coyote, head thrown back and to the heavens. When he fiddles, it’s like an emergency, pray will we get there on time.
Well, maybe this music sounds old, but it’s not old. It’s the newest thing ever. Listen to it. Listen to us—minutes into it and already we’re hooting, banging our chairs. Are we cognizant of the fact that something palpable is mounting here? That Dave’s room is gradually metamorphosing?
Yet in spite of their instinctual headlong rush, the band does occasionally slow and go quiet. And it’s like a tiny night bird visits from the pasture, flitful, happy but uncertain. It’s the banjo, the woman’s long finger’s making night bird sounds. A rise and a tumbling. Leaning forward, we sense something, are sure we felt something.
But already it’s gone.
Hallelujah hallelujah I am following the sound!
… the band shouts in tandem, a capella, the washboard guy (he doesn’t sing) anticipating the coming need for speed….
And although we don’t realize it, each of us is smiling. We’ve been smiling for nearly an hour, now. Subtle smiles. The kind that accumulate such that one remember their origins twenty years later.
But in the end ours are big smiles, the unabashed kind. The guitarist offers a communal farewell, and the band lines up six in a row. The drummer, a tall man I had seen earlier in the middle of the road and looking at the stars, stands in the middle. It is he who gets to sing the lead in the last song, one about cowboys in Nevada—this in spite of the fact that (some of us already know this) he is no skilled singer.
But it doesn’t matter. In fact, it makes it better. And judging from the din we make when it’s over, I’d say the drummer’s song is everyone’s favorite.
Standing now to show our appreciation, we sense something lifting us. The best word to describe this is spirit. We are filled with the spirit. We can’t get enough of it. We have been so close. We have been like family. The band’s principle singers have had their songs, we the audience have had ours, and here at the end the drummer had his. There has been song for everyone. Looking around, we feel the need to tell everyone. That’s why we’re making so much noise. That’s the best way. Hooting, hollering, banging our boots. Hands above our heads and clapping. It is so loud my daughter holds her ears. Someone I don’t know is waving his hat.