Rhiannon Giddens Conquers the Universe

I came in with expectations. My wife introduced me to Rhiannon Giddens’s rootsy band, the Carolina Chocolate Drops, several years ago, and their first record, called Genuine Negro Jig, had quickly become a staple of family car trips, music that both kids and grown ups could agree on. I had heard she had wowed New York City at an all-star benefit last year, heard she was making records with T-Bone Burnett, covering everyone from Odetta to Patsy Cline to Geeshie Wiley. And frankly, something about the vibe in the crowd at Town Hall last Thursday night made me suspect that this might not be an ordinary night. “There’s Joel Coen,” my wife whispered to me. “There’s Paul Krugman.”

I mention the celebrities only to say that you forgot all about them one number in (“Spanish Mary,” off the New Basement Tapes), because on this night Giddens put herself forward as the only person that mattered in the room, or possibly the world. Her version of Patsy Cline’s “She’s Got You” wasn’t quite as spooky as the original, but it had a soulfulness that I suddenly realized the song had always had, but I never quite heard expressed so clearly. She took on Geeshie Wiley’s “Last Kind Words Blues,” a song of such power you almost can’t imagine anyone else covering it, and harnessed that power, spread it out, amplified, and clarified it, till every word rang in your head at once, yet the essential mystery of the song remained. Giddens’s range is astonishing: Elizabeth Cotten’s “Shake Sugaree” loose and informal and playful, Nina Simone’s “Tomorrow is my Turn” slow and operatic, numerous other numbers entwining folk music and soul and blues into one. She introduced each song as a fan, with humility and boundless respect for the greats; when she sang, all that humility was swept away, and she expressed her respect for the greats  in the best way possible, by riding right alongside them.

And just when you were wondering if there was anything Giddens didn’t cover, if there was any other place she could take her music, she sang THIS (video from an earlier concert at the same venue):

I mean, sometimes there are just no words.

First Day of Spring

Don’t look for the start of spring in the calendar. You can’t predict ahead of time when it’ll come, yet you always know it on the day, when something makes you rush outside without bundling up first, and once you’re out, you start inventing reasons to stay out longer, not reasons to come back in.

This year the start of spring came on a Sunday, about a week after the official date. The snow had mostly melted a couple weeks earlier, and the temperature was rising steadily through the early afternoon. My sons and I decided we needed to give the local ball field a try. It can’t be that muddy, can it? We took our baseball things — bat, gloves, and balls — and headed over.

It wasn’t muddy at all, and more than warm enough to play. We tossed a ball around to warm up, then took our regular spots — me pitching, one boy batting, the other catching. Despite the winter layoff, they remembered what to do, where to stand, how to swing. Within a few minutes they were as comfortable with their new metal bat as they had been with a wiffle bat by the end of last summer. They swung and missed often, but got their share of hits too, a few balls going past the infield, boys running happily around the bases when they made contact. It must have looked fun, because pretty soon other kids started wandering over to play. A friend from the school bus, two chatty third graders we didn’t know but who soon seemed like old friends, one quiet boy who knew to take over catching when my sons wanted to go out in the field, still another who was too shy to ask but looked like he really wanted to play.

A batting order was formed. After a couple cycles through it, my younger son announced he wanted to pitch. I was skeptical — but OK, sure, give it a shot. We agreed on how far he should stand from the plate, and he started firing balls in. I stood over to the side and watched. He was no worse at getting the ball over the plate than I had been, and the batting rotation went on — swings, misses, balls hit up the middle, balls hit straight up in the air. Everyone knew to run when they hit the ball. Boys who weren’t up to bat stood out in the field, chased balls, tried to throw to each other, to tag the runner — without much grace, for now. Out here, in the developmental leagues of Montclair, NJ, it’s very much a hitter’s world.

No longer needed in the game, I could look around, taking in the whole park — the field, the pond to my right, the playground to my left. We have been regulars since we moved to town, almost seven years ago now, when the first boy was just a year old and the second was just a plan. How many times have we celebrated the first day of spring here? Around this time two years ago, my older son was in kindergarten, and we came out on a sunny day to find that all his friends from school were at the park too. The kids ran off to play, the parents stood and chatted, everyone happy to see each other, and suddenly my embarrassing suburban fantasy, of a real community and life lived at a sustainable pace, crystallized into something real and true. And then last year, we came here on a similar day, expecting more of the same, only the kids got bored at the playground after half an hour, and went off to join another set of kids playing baseball on the field. They’d never played before, didn’t know what to do, couldn’t hit the ball, and left in frustration, which led directly to a summer’s baseball education through backyard wiffle ball games. And now here we were a year later, starting up a game of our own, pulling in other kids. Oh what Proust could have done with a playground and a ball field.

In the actual day, time passed in a more humdrum manner. First one kid got called home by his parents, then another, and finally it was just the three of us on the field again. I went back to pitching. More time went by, and we all started to drag a bit. I would miss the plate more often than not, and when I did get the ball over, the boys didn’t put level swings on it, and hardly connected any more. Time to go.

We walked over toward the car. I carried the bat, the boys carried gloves and balls. We bumped fists, patted shoulders and backs, complimented each other, and meant it: Good game. And as we walked, I went back even further in time, to pre-parent days, evening endings to long afternoon frisbee games when I was still a student, walking off the field with friends, sweaty and exhausted, arms and legs sore, barely able to see in the approaching darkness. Good game. My sons and I walked off the ball field together, side by side, and it felt like the first day, not just of spring, but of something else too.