Singing in the Rain
Summer is my favorite time of the year. The longer days, the bright sun and heat, and of course, being in the Midwest, STORMS! Switchback has had its share of storms so far this season. Happily enough, none of them have caused a cancellation, and in some ways they even made each event that much more exciting.
We played an outdoor wedding in Dubuque the first weekend in June. Brian, his nephew Paul Russell on the violin, our percussionist Jim Hines, and I were all set up for the ceremony. The bridesmaids were walking down the aisle when a light rain started. Like a derailed train the bridesmaids veered off aisle. The groom gestured at folks to move into the tent. Everyone at once said "No!" and people stayed seated as the light rain floated down on the reformed and moving procession. And it was a delicate rain, making a beautiful wedding, with the couple exchanging vows through a lovely mist. It unified all of us in the moment, and even the little kids sat still and watched the couple kiss. The rain beaded on our instruments as we broke into a celebratory Irish jig at the conclusion of the ceremony. Everyone was in high spirits as we headed into the tent for the reception. We just started playing when a great storm blew down the Mississippi. Guests from California, who never get to see thunder and lightning, oohed and ahhed as the wind-driven rain made its way into the tent. Quickly members of the wedding party and guests started putting up the tent walls. This required fastening a hook that held up the wall to a thin rope suspended around the tent. Somehow, in the enthusiasm of the moment, the father of the groom got caught between two sides going up at once. There he was, sandwiched between two overlapping walls. The wind was whipping so hard that no one could see him flailing and calling for help. We all thought it was just another exciting part of the storm. The Californians loved it. Apparently he was stuck for a while until someone noticed he was missing. He was rescued, none the worse for wear. Everyone got a great chuckle out of it, except the father of the groom of course, but eventually he came around. The excitement of the storm only added to the fun of the wedding, and we had some great dancing while lightning flashed and thunder rolled over the valley. We found out that night that about 15 tornadoes had passed through the area, thankfully none close to our celebration.
We were out on the plains of Kansas for the Smoky Hill River Festival which took place in Salina the second weekend in June. A few hours after our Saturday concert, a huge storm brewed up from the west as we were relaxing at STeam members Liz and Mike Harvey's house. We watched the storm roll down over the town about six miles away. For the next few hours it proceeded to lash the entire county. Delbert McClinton was only able to do two songs for his show before they had to close the grounds. The next day it continued to rain and we wondered if the festival would continue. We arrived to see the cheerful staff all at work and people streaming in with umbrellas and ponchos, ready to listen to music. So we took to the stage and like magic, once we started playing, the clouds moved on and the sun came out. It was amazingly humid, but it wasn't raining.
A week later, we drove down to the Coleman Theatre in Miami, Oklahoma. For the first time on our tour, the rain abated somewhat, leaving us with temperatures of up to 101 degrees without the humidity index. We were deeply thankful that we were able to play inside this time and had a wonderful concert in what is truly one of the most beautiful theaters in the nation. Here was a stage visited by all the greats of that era when live music was king. Bing Crosby stood exactly where we stood and crooned. The stage was so large that Brian and I had to make sure we didn't play too far from each other as we could get off sync, even with monitors. With the air conditioning on, the room was comfortable and we all headed over to Ireland on a musical journey. One member of the audience, Kelly Ahern of Tulsa, got up on stage to perform reels and hornpipes. People clapped their hands as Kelly on one side of the stage and I on the other danced the Irish jig. The acoustics were so perfect that Brian and I unplugged our guitars and walked right to the audience to play The Galway Shawl. We hope to return to the Coleman soon as it was a special night with a great audience.
Now that we live in the age of the cell phone, predicting whether or not a storm will come has become somewhat easier. We were at McCaffrey's Dolce Vita in Decorah the last Friday in June, deep into our first set outside when all at once (you guessed it) a storm came in from Minnesota. We were playing Apple of My Eye and Brian was singing "when the rain came" as a low rumble of thunder came in to help round out the song. Jim McCaffrey came up to us after the tune and told us that they looked at the radar on his cell phone and the storm would swing south and hit Decorah in about 20 minutes. So we took a break. People literally rushed the stage and moved the sound system, mics, stands and instruments to the safety of a tent. STeamers Jan Hoag, Chris Knapp, and Jen Loke moved the merchandise to a safe location and set up shop again. Older couples sat and smiled as the half time show was pretty entertaining. Four men of the Mullen clan grabbed the plywood stage and hefted it on over, all of this done so quickly that we were upand playing within 15 minutes. And sure enough, after two numbers, the rain came in. The guests were thrilled as we played our songs, for behind us, facing north to Minnesota, was a wonderful display of lightning. They got in on the act during Nancy Whiskey, pausing right on cue with us before we started into the chorus and starting up again when we did! The Chardonnay Girls picked up on the rain's participation and we all started grinning.
It being northeast Iowa, the rain didn't stop people from getting out on the grass, kicking their shoes off, and dancing away. All through the night the storm rumbled, right to the end of the concert. It treated us to a great show as we drove back to Brian's hometown of Lansing, lighting up Route 9 with huge swaths of electric arcs across the sky.
It continued to rain through the night, and then again it stopped and cleared, leaving a glorious sunny day for us to explore the backwaters of the Mississippi for the Mayfly Dance. Captain Annie of the Mississippi Explorer took us through some gorgeous sloughs and quiet inlets, bringing the boat up close to a dense, green island for us to catch a glimpse of a huge kingfisher. As we rounded a bend, we were treated to a sight of a juvenile bald eagle repeatedly diving after some fish. Turtles sat sunning themselves on half-submerged trees and viewed us with seeming indifference as the boat glided by. At one point, Captain Annie cut the engines and we drifted slowly, listening to a beautiful symphony of birds singing in the trees as the water lapped gently at the side of the boat. It was hard for us to follow such an act, but we did play our concert as we headed back toward LaCrosse. The cruise was a feast of sights and sounds including the wonderful lunch from the Dolce Vita. The day continued to be pleasant and beautiful until after our concert at the Pump House Regional Arts Center, when our friend the storm came back. We loaded the equipment into the van, bid goodnight to Jen and Rodney, and started driving back toward Lansing. Huge splatters of rain, lumps of hail, and thick dashes of lightning once again joined our happy but weary crew. The storm stayed with us for a while, and then we parted ways, the storm rolling east while we went south. The clouds and mist off the road from the heat of the day made the whole river look dark and mysterious. We were all pretty happy as it was turning out to be a glorious summer, and summer was not even a week old!