No big blog for you today, but I have a little bit of a present for you.
Some time ago, I started keeping a Spotify playlist of tunes that I cover and also added in a few of my own. It helps me to both keep fresh on the songs (keeps the lyrics cemented in my brain) and also gives me ideas for sets.
As I was listening to it, I also realised it also makes a pretty damn good mixtape – provided you don’t mid a little musical whiplash every once in a while.
Anyway, please go ahead and take a listen. I really enjoy these tunes and I hope you will as well!
I’ve been a little silent for the past few weeks. I mean I’ve been playing some great virtual gigs and recording (and re-recording) A LOT, but have not been doing a lot of writing. I think that’s about to change, but I do want to share something I wrote during a trip down to NJ a few weeks ago. It’s less about music, and more of a mental journal entry.
Still, I wonder how many of you have been through a similar experience over the past few months, making your first journey of any distance during these Covid times. I’d love to hear any thoughts and experiences you’d care to share in the comments section below.
I set off at 10 AM. The very simple route – from the Mass Pike, to I-84, to the Merritt, to the Tappan Zee, to 9w – is one I’ve known by heart for many, many years. I’ve done the trip from Newton to Harrington Park many dozens of times, and as a day trip (down and back the same day, about eight hours driving time) several times. Familiar stops, familiar times to fuel the car, to fuel the self.
But today it feels very different.
Already halfway through Connecticut, I realize this is the first time I’ve been out of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts since March 14. This is such a strange feeling – both the awareness of having been confined in one place for so long, and also the amount of anxiety and trepidation that comes along with travel. Especially since travel – in many cases very long-distance travel – has been a regular everyday thing for so much of my life. But now all of this – the travel, the movement, the sense of how big the world is – feels so very foreign.
It’s the Sunday morning of Labor Day weekend, and while there certainly are other cars on the road, this drive is nothing like the way it usually is. Traffic is flowing freely, and in some places there are hardly any other cars on the road. I listen to podcasts during the drive – news and comedy from the BBC. It’s interesting as always to see how people in the rest of the world are handling what’s going on. All of the BBC panel shows are virtual, and even the News Quiz was a taped Zoom call. I’ve also been listening to music (a lot of new mixes of the current set of songs I’m working on), but then after about two hours of driving, it’s just time for silence.
The trip from Newton to Harrington Park is not terrifically long in the scheme of things – only 3 1/2 hours without traffic. As I start to pull into town, I see familiar sights: the coffee shop that was once a convenience store, the flower shop that was a record store, the hobby shop that was once the center of my universe and is now selling furniture.
My parents’ house, not unlike so many other houses here, sits on a piece of land that 60 years ago was a farm. Homes in this neighborhood are spread apart on quarter-acre lots; everyone has their own isolated kingdom. This particular one even has its own moat in the back, in the form of a brook flowing through a small wood. The backyard protected by this moat should make a perfect setting for our socially-distanced COVID get-together. My mom and dad are right there as I pull up, and all of us stifle the impulse for what we really want to do, which is to embrace each other.
It’s a lovely late summer day. Not too hot, not too humid – just humid enough for the mosquitoes to come out. The dozen or so bites I’m about to collect will have me doing a bit of a mental evaluation to try to determine whether the West Nile virus is less of a threat than COVID. I’m OK taking the risk on that one for now.
My parents look somewhat older than they did when I last saw them back in January, more than the chronological 7 1/2 months would have suggested. Dad‘s hair is growing more white than I would expect. Granted, by the same measure I have lost more hair than my normal trajectory would suggest, and my beard is now fully salt and pepper.
We sit at snack tables in the backyard about 10 feet away from each other, eating takeout from a local restaurant. (It’s the first time that I’ve really eaten much in the way of meat in months. We keep vegetarian at the house, so this is a bit of a treat.) We spend the next three hours talking about what’s going on with the family, how my job is doing, how they’re doing. They ask me how my music is going, which is a great delight to me. I think I’ve made very clear to them in recent months how important this part of my life has become in addition to my “real job”.
We talk about how my niece has just tested positive for COVID. She and several of her friends had been getting together on a regular basis as a quarantined “pod”. One of the friends, fearful of being ostracized, failed to let the others know that she was not feeling well. (And that’s how we get to a spreader event.)
And then at the end of about 3 1/2 hours, I get back in the car and begin my trek back to Massachusetts.
In other times, I would know that it was just a matter of 2 1/2 months before I would see them again at Thanksgiving, along with dozens of other family members. Clearly that is not the case this year, and I have no idea when we will all see each other. I am happy for having made the drive, though it leaves me unsettled and uncomfortable. I am sad. I am tired. I am sad and tired most days these days.
And so, in the interest of doing what I can to accelerate the clock to that moment when we can safely be together, I go back to my own “cabin in the woods” (fine, my apartment in Newton, MA) to wait this out, hopeful that tomorrow will bring good news.
Dictated to Siri from the Merritt highway on September 6, 2020. Added to, deleted from, and edited significantly to be readable by other humans on September 27, 2020.
September 5, 2018 was a pretty momentous day for me. I spent most of that Wednesday pretty completely freaked out. Anxious beyond all belief – and for me that’s kind of saying something, as I spend most of my life in some degree of worry or anxiety. However, this was a deliberately sought-out source of anxiety, and one for which I had prepared over the previous two or three weeks.
You see, that Wednesday night was the first time that I was signed up to play the Open Mic Jam at Terry O’Reilly’s. I hadn’t played live on my own since I’d fronted a band back when I was in my early 20s. I’d continued to do songwriting and recording, but life had gotten in the way of performing.
In January of 2018, I wrote down a list of things I wanted to accomplish that year. “Playing my music live” was at the top of the list. And then of course the anxiety and self-consciousness that comes with exposing yourself – and all your flaws – in public, for all to see, caused me to find excuses not to move forward.
I’d known about the Open Mic Jam for years. I’d gone to see other friends play, and it was always a very big deal. It also seemed like a really supportive crowd, so I knew that’s where I wanted to start.
Come August, Jen reminded me that I had in fact set a goal for myself, and suggested that I actually get it on the calendar. So, I found the Facebook page and the link to sign up, and took the third open spot for the night of September 5.
I met both Andrew Geano and Terrance Reeves for the first time that night. Andrew listened to a little bit of my story, and then when the time came he said in his inimitable way, “OK, we have a first timer here. I want you to take your one hand, put it high in the air, then raise up your other hand, and bring them together fast to give a big Open Mic Jam welcome to Chris Steele!“
I played “Caroline” and “Old Age and Treachery” that night.
There was a lot of sweating. My hands didn’t work right. My voice felt weird. And at the end, there was a lot of applause, and a really warm feeling that reminded me why I wanted to do this, and told me that I might have found a community I wanted to do it with.
Two years on, I’ve played another 95 sets, and over 500 more songs. I’ve played in Newton, Boston, Allston, Maynard, Concord, Cape May, Indianapolis, Red Deer, and my second hometown – Edmonton. It’s become a core part of my life, and one I won’t ever walk away from again.
I have also made so many good friends along the way – Tim Ko, Joe Dunn, and of course Andrew and Terrance, who have run the shows, and then Danielle, Miriam, Audrey, Ethan, Polly, Sarah Beth, Rory, Lisa, Alex, Elliot, and all the others with whom I have shared a stage and a microphone. (And of course Jen – who is both a poet herself and a main source of encouragement.) I’ve also done my own small part to try to support our group and others during this period of COVID by establishing a virtual safe place to perform and try out new ideas – The Virtual Necessity Open Mic.
I cannot fully express how appreciative I am, and how wonderful it feels to be in community with all of you. (Of course, I do wish that our community could be more in each other’s company these days.) The past two years have allowed for a tremendous amount of growth and change. Two years from now, if the fates allow, I hope to look back (with another 100+ shows under my own belt) and celebrate with all of you all that we have accomplished.