Maundy Monday and The Load

In my graduate school days at Berkeley, when asked if I went to church, I often responded "Yes, at Yoshi's just down the street." Yoshi's was then a jazz spot (restaurant, too, but that was immaterial) on Claremont Avenue in Oakland, nicely situated about a 10-minute walk from my rented room, and it hosted pretty much every name jazz musician coming through town (often on their way to LA or Japan).

This being the 80s and jazz in a post-Miles pre-Wynton doldrum, great musicians -- like the majestic bop saxophonist Joe Henderson, not to mention Phil Woods, Tony Williams, Sonny Rollins, Horace Silver, Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers, Abby Lincoln, Betty Carter (ohmygod, was she great, even better for her tempestuous relationship with her hapless pianist, whom she didn't seem to think could keep time properly, requiring her to wap out the rhythm on top of the beautiful instrument), Joe Pass, and on and on-- would swing through, and on my student ID ticket for the opening nights of their gigs (usually Wednesday) I'd pay $5 to see the masters at work.

Ok, there was a pretty awful Archie Shepp show (it was either too avant-garde for me, or it was just bad), but most of the time I felt cleansed, restored, renewed -- all the catharsis one hopes for in a religious experience. Plus I got to see the gods in person, and talk to a few of them.

It didn't even have to be Yoshi's; I remember transcendent chamber music at the Presbyterian Church one block from me, the invigorating Zulu Spear South African troupe at Ashkenaz, and the ethereal Bulgarian State Women's Choir at Zellerbach Hall.

More recently, one of my premier musical experiences was Old Crow Medicine Show (OCMS) opening for Gillian Welch and David Rawlings at the now defunct 32 Bleu in Colorado Springs. I went to see Welch, but was astounded by OCMS from the moment I set foot in the door for their too-brief opening act. Punk buskers in an "old-time" string band format, I immediately thought.

Feeling the blues on this stormy Monday, uninspired by any of the myriad tasks awaiting me, I alighted on that concert again (about two years ago now), clicked around a bit, and found this beautiful performance of The Band's classic song "The Weight." The first link is to someone's recording of a live version of OCMS together with Gillian Welch and David Rawlings doing a soulful string rendition of the tune. For a moment midway through, I felt a little bit -- not the same, but a hint anyway -- of that cleansing that an erapturing live performance brings. The second link is a wonderfully obsessive exploration of the lyrics, ranging from slang references to the clap to the weight of sin and redemption.

Here's a favorite quote from Peter Viney's lyrics analysis -- he's referring to the staging of the song with the Staples Singers in the concert film The Last Waltz:

The biggest thing was the religious connotation of the song. I remember there was this huge argument between Marty (Martin Scorsese, the director) and Michael Chapman about the mood and the lighting for ‘The Weight’. Marty was insistiting that it was a very Catholic vision, it had to be. And Michael was saying ‘No, this is a very Protestant story, it’s Baptist, Marty.’ He was explaining to Marty the gospel music connotations.

I liked everything they were saying because I had never thought of any of it, though I was brought up Catholic. I thought it was quite brilliant the credit they were giving me. For me it was a combination of Catholocism and gospel music. The story told in the song is about the guilt of relationships, not being able to give what’s being asked of you. Someone is stumbling through life, going from one situation to another, with different characters. In going through these catacombs of experience. you’re trying to do what’s right, but it seems that with all the places you have to go, it’s just not possible. In the song, all this is ‘the load.'"

If you like the above, here's Old Crow's version of the old standard "Gospel Plow," an old-time string band version of a tune you will recognize from "keep your eyes on the prize, hold on"; and then this version of "Fall on My Knees", where we learn in the rousing refrain that "you'll never get to heaven when you die, little girl."

P.S.: The Last Waltz is worth watching just to see the great Mavis Staples tear into her verse on "The Weight," including "I picked up my bags, and went looking for a place to hide/When I saw old Carmen and the devil, walking side by side" -- and by the way you absolutely must hear Mavis Staple's new CD We'll Never Turn Back, especially for her original tune "My Own Eyes," in which she brings down fire and brimstone wrath on some contemporary Pharaohs, notably including those in Washington who fiddled while New Orleans drowned.


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