On an Indian Summer Saturday afternoon, I sat in an old house
in Athens, Georgia, while people around me scrambled to cook
a late breakfast of strawberry pancakes, bacon, and grits. I
sipped on a cup of coffee as one man looked up from his paper
and asked about Peruvian communist guerillas. Without missing
a beat, I began to talk about the Maoist Shining Path. It was
a shocking juxtaposition: this scruffy, unwashed young man who
looked to be sporting an atrocious hangover holding an intelligent
conversation about international terrorism. It completely tore
apart my expectations, and I had to rethink my notions.
Some 6 hours later, I found myself walking into the Classic
Center - a large venue that reminds me of a Symphony Hall -
to see Willie Nelson perform. Honestly, I can't think of the
last time I went to a seated concert. And, although a number
of people around me seemed young and/or casual, it seemed like
a fairly mature and sedate crowd. As the concert began, I was
faced with the phenomenon I had feared: a completely choreographed
greatest hits showcase perfunctorily performed to a passive,
Willie rushed through a good 10 songs until he reached a low
spot, which segued into an old Gospel tune. At the moment, a
shiver began to run up and down spine, tingling in a manner
I've only felt seeing bands like Godspeed You Black Emperor!
or Low. And I had to admit that despite all the display and
trimming, and beyond the choreography and routine which distance
the performer from his audience, Willie Nelson had transcended
his own performance - breaking through the curtain in order
to evoke a real emotional reaction. For the rest of the over
two hour concert, I focused on these moments - and acknowledged
that this reality was nothing like I had expected it to be.
Afterwards, I wandered with my friends to the Caledonia Lounge
to watch Cafeteria, an Athens band with a strong country framework
underlying some very solid songwriting. It seemed a perfect
followup to Willie Nelson. And despite the clearly intoxicated
state of several band members, Cafeteria came out with an energetic,
rip-roaring set, delivering biting, sarcastic songs of failed
relationships and pain.
Behind me, a well-dressed young man heard only the banjo and
the pedal steel. He looked at the scruffy, unwashed leader of
Cafeteria and whispered to his date: "Let's move away from these
And I laughed.