sing to me instead

It began with a furious harmonica and a strumming guitar –

I’d been having a rubbish day, a rubbish week, hell, the whole damn year has been awful. Up and down, good and bad, sure. Recurring problems and anxieties alongside whole new ones, but I was determined to not let that bother me. I was here for music, I was here for William Elliot Whitmore.

We sat up back, on an elevated platform, almost eye to eye with the performers, though the dance floor split us apart. The music was indifferent, and so were we, so were the crowd. We talked and drank and waited, conversation meandering to listless tunes.

It began with a furious harmonica and a strumming guitar. A man stood on stage, his stance aggressive, his stare challenging, and his fingers and his lips demanded attention. Demanded that you sit up and shut up. Silence fell over the crowd. The instrumental assault stopped and the quiet was total, absolute. I sat completely still, hands on my knees, back straight – I felt like a child, shocked in the presence of a teacher.

Then he sang.

I don’t often go to live music shows – it’s always too noisy, too bothersome, too messy. But shows like this are what I have always craved – intimacy. Though a distance spanned between us, though a hundred or more strangers stood in the way, there was an instant connection, a rapport. This is what music should be, what it’s designed to do.

His voice blared out into the dark, unsupported. It didn’t need to be. It’s a goddamn weapon and it kicked me in the throat, it punched me in the chest, and I felt the dumbest smile spread across my face. It was pure, unadulterated joy – I couldn’t help it. Everything about that song, about this man, was utterly fearless, totally confident. He walked into a room full of bored people, people who mostly weren’t there to see him, who didn’t care, and he shocked them into silence, he sang, and sang, and sang, and I wondered what the hell had been going on up till now and if I’d only ever heard people talking.

It’s difficult for me to express just how powerful that opening was, just how much it affected me. I couldn’t look away. I felt powerless, but empowered. Like I couldn’t move, but was moving, as though he had taken me, shoved me into a song and gave me meaning. Talk about being blown away, talk about being stunned.

His voice wasn’t just powerful, didn’t just have the rough burr of whisky blues. He moved as comfortably from raw, powerful notes to low, sweet tones. But I was struck by his accent – the round Australian vowels still prevailing through the music. It only made it better, only made it more compelling. From rollicking, foot-stamping songs to beautiful, emotional pieces. I sat there thinking, dear god, this is why people go to live shows, this is what it’s about – the whole time, I thought he was singing to me, thought he was singing about me, and every little thing crowding my mind up till then melted away.

It ended, as all good things do, and I felt exhausted. Drained. Like he’d reached into my chest and taken the whole ugly red mess and transformed it into something wonderful, something mesmerising. I stumbled off my perch and went to buy two of his CDs, one for myself, one for Jordan. I made my way to the bar – I needed a drink after that – and he came out moments later. I saw him talking to his friends, and I went over to him.

This is not a thing that I do. I hate people. I’m incredibly shy. But there was just no way I couldn’t go up to him, couldn’t express to him something of what had just transpired. I tapped him on the shoulder and I shook his hand – my god, I was trembling – and said, “Look, I just have to say that was amazing. You’re fantastic and I just bought your CD. Is there anything more, can I buy more online?”

And he said thank you, and was very nice, but a woman charged up and interrupted, clutching her own copy of his CD in hand. She made her thank yous as well, only in a great rush, and sped off to the bathroom. I resented every second she took away, but I turned back to him and I said, “I really mean this, you’re incredible, and please. Please don’t ever stop what you’re doing. You have to keep going.”

I have a few musician-friends, I have a few writer-friends, I know all too well how much of a struggle it can be and while I’m not aware of how well he’s doing right now – his name is Lincoln by the way – I was compelled to tell him to continue. The idea that he would stop, when so many other less deserving people out there are succeeding, was tragic. Ultimately, I’m glad I said it, glad I was able to share that moment. And the main event had yet to even begin.

I made it back to my seat just in time. William Elliot Whitmore was up on stage. He tinkered with his banjo for a moment, then eschewed the device and just sang. The power of the human voice is unrivaled – it’s the reason why the azan, the Muslim call to prayer, is naught but a voice calling out – it doesn’t need an instrument to go with it, though I certainly don’t mind when that’s the case. Again, there was silence, again we sat or stood enraptured, the whole lot of us.

His was a different voice, the kind of voice rough as barren earth and salted ground, the kind of voice you can only imagine coming from a throat ripped to shreds by rough-edged words climbing their way out of his gut, out of the fire, only to be lit again in the gloom, to be illumined by collective emotion. He sang of the law and old devils and drunkards and blue birds and sparrows and crows, his song taking wing, his wounds taking flight, and I wanted to say hell, don’t forget the finches and the nightingales and the parakeets, but all I could manage between songs was 

“He seems to have a thing for birds.”

and he sang of death and woe and hurt, and each new line revealed a new ache, a new bruise I wasn’t aware of, highlighting the old, emphasizing the new until by the end I felt heavy as broken rocks, a canvas Picasso would be proud of, mottled colours bleeding into one another, and I wanted to tell him to stop and I wanted to tell him to keep going because there was joy there too, joy in passionate storytelling, joy in feet-stamping, thigh-slapping bluegrass music. 

I don’t often have “experiences”, or “moments”, you know, the kind I create for characters in stories, the kind I read about or hear about. No striking revelations here, at least, not the kind I’d like. This was something else. And I couldn’t just say “this was an awesome show”, I had to say it in a different way. It was every bit as overwrought and every bit as absurd as this characterisation of it, this unnecessary poetry, but two men got up on stage last night and they made me bleed with words and that’s a damn important thing.

I wish I could sing to them instead, but this is all I have to offer, and as for anything I shared with them after their shows, well, it doesn’t matter. Not quite like this, not as much.

I don’t want them to talk to me, after all.

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