MICHAEL PICKETT: Backyard Blues - Concert Review
By James MacLaren
Not by a long shot, actually.
When I think of concerts, I think of stages, lights, walls of equipment, throngs of people, and all the rest of it.
Nothing of the sort happened in the space under the trees between Pat O’Hare’s and Joel Silver’s cozy homes in southern Cocoa Beach.
It was more like if maybe Michael Pickett came to play in your living room.
No, wait a minute, that’s not right either. I know. It was as if Michael Pickett came to play in Pat O’Hare’s back yard.
Yeah, that’s it.
To die for.
It was that good.
Joel Silver is hooked into the no-shit blues culture like few other people. He hangs with these guys. He’s buddies with them. So when one of them swings through Florida, playing gigs, living on the road, living the blues, Joel finds a way to take care of them and also maybe put on a little show under the sea grapes, palm trees, and scrub oaks that lovingly fill the common back yard area between his and Pat’s houses.
So instead of going through all the ruckus of attending a “proper” concert, you just sort of show up, present your ticket to Michael’s very cool wife, and then hang out.
But who the fuck is Michael Pickett?
Well, as it turns out, he’s a white guy who grew up in Toronto, for god’s sake, who just happens to play some of the best roots blues going.
I should have already known that, except that when it comes to music, I’m pretty much the village idiot.
My ignorance of music is both wide-ranging and profound.
So please forgive me, Michael, for not knowing who the fuck you were before Joel was so kind as to invite me to your little backyard sing sing.
I like the blues, but there are whole worlds within it that I am utterly innocent of.
Back to who the fuck is Michael Pickett?
Like it was done a long long time ago by guys who were neither white, nor from Toronto.
Couple of guitars. A few harmonicas. A voice like you wouldn’t believe. And maybe some shoe leather against the wood beneath it.
That’s all you get.
As it turns out, that’s WAY more than plenty enough to get the job done.
The weather forecast had been uniformly poor in the days leading up to this thing, so of course, when it was time to go, late-February got into a contrary mood, and the sun came out, the wind died off, and it actually became sufficiently warm back there in the back yard, that the scattering of arrivals all moved their chairs into the shade beneath the overhanging leaves, in order to keep things cool.
Gotta like that.
I was one of the first-comers, and for a little while there, it was just me, Joel, Michael, and his wife, who’s name I didn’t get, and for that I apologize.
On the little concrete slab on Pat’s side, where the kids throw balls into a funky basketball hoop-thing-on-a-stand, a bit of a tent had been set up.
One of those square deals on legs like you see at surf contests.
Probably the O’Hare’s, but I really don’t know.
Underneath, there sits Michael, putting his minimalist equipment together.
Three speakers, none of which were larger than a microwave oven, a chair, two guitar cases, two acoustic guitars on stands, some kind of small soft thing that looked like it held maybe harmonicas and slides, a mike stand setup with a mike aimed at where his fingers would be working the strings, and another he could sing or play the harmonica into, and a control box with knobs to get the sound just the way he wanted it. Toss in some wires to connect things.
I’ve seen home stereo systems that had WAY more gear than what was on the slab back there this afternoon.
Michael is immersed in what he’s doing, and I spy Joel, scuttling around putting things together, so I offer to help and he puts me to work gathering chairs and putting some of them on the slab eight or ten feet away from Michael’s chair, and others farther back in the shade where it’s not so hot.
At one point Joel suddenly realizes that Michael is sitting over a concrete slab, and that’s not gonna make for a very good sound when he works his foot on it. So he starts dithering around, looking for something, anything, while I make doofus suggestions to put a cooler or something up there that he can pound to smithereens. Joel incredulously nixes this stupidity, and finally finds a piece of thick plywood, maybe three feet by four, and has me walk it over, to where I give it to Michael, who tells me to just “Put it right there,” which I do.
Are we getting the idea here yet that this is much more like friends over to visit than it is a concert featuring a world-class bluesman?
I hope so.
An older couple finally arrives.
Our first proper customers.
I sit next to them in the shade, while Joel continues to scuttle, and Michael continues to get organized up on the slab.
Sean O’Hare has been by a time or two, but I’m watching his dad’s house for signs of life.
Finally, Pat emerges onto his screen porch, and I go over to pester him.
He’s babysitting a small yapdog, and comes on outside and we sit on the weathered wooden picnic table under the scrub oak.
At one point, Michael comes over and indulges in a bit of chitchat.
He’s a medium built guy. No hair. Nondescript. Nothing to give anything away. Easy to talk with. We need to teach him how to surf.
People are arriving by now, and Michael departs to tend to other concerns.
The heat gets to be a bit much, Sean departs, and me and Pat decide to go sit on aluminum chairs in the dirt right behind his porch, taking advantage of the shade.
In front of us, Michael is set up perhaps fifteen or twenty feet away, off to our left, looking partly away from us toward the ragged semicircle of chairs and people, on the slab and under the trees.
Michael spends a goodly amount of time tuning his guitars, and that alone is worth the price of admission. Riffs and runs of music drift like puffs of smoke in the still air, as he works the wooden acoustic, and then the National Steel.
Eventually, most everybody who’s going to arrive has arrived, and it’s time for things to begin.
I count all the heads, Michael’s included, and come up just shy of thirty people.
Where the fuck WERE all of the rest of you guys?
Not that I actually missed your company, understand.
It was VERY intimate and homey back there, just the few of us.
And then Michael almost imperceptibly shifts gears from tuning to playing.
And at this point I’m afraid I’m not going to be much good at describing things.
The sound. The fucking sound.
This guy knows exactly what the hell he’s doing, and it all flows smooth and easy, like very old Scotch or something.
The guitar work is celestial.
The voice resonant, heartfelt, evocative.
The harmonica squeals and croons by turns.
Foot working against that silly piece of plywood, and it all blends and swirls into a thing apart. A thing itself, self contained.
In front of him, I watch the faces, rapt.
A sprinkling of little kids were brought along by moms and dads, and even they became swept up in it, still and attentive. A neighbor had come through the gate in the wooden fence with a colorful macaw, and it too seems caught up in the spell, and makes not a sound the whole time. Pat’s little yapdog never emits the first yap.
The Blues unfolds before us.
All of the motifs. All of the heartache. All of the joy. All of the love. All of the loss.
Me and Pat sit transfixed as song after song goes by, each one with a completely different feel, yet all part of an overarching whole. Like different-colored threads in a miraculously beautiful carpet or something.
I don’t know the name to a single song. It’s all stuff I’ve never heard before, and with each new piece comes a new revelation.
Women weave in and out of things, high, low, near and far. A chillingly well-sung piece about murder committed with a razor, planned and executed without mercy or any expectation of forgiveness. A very sad Woody Guthrie piece about migrant workers, written in the 40’s. Songs of travel, coming home, running away, looking for….something. Trains. Hitchhikers. Cars. Airplanes. The face of America laid out, mile after endless mile, measured by footsteps, measured by lives, measured by fate and circumstance. Love, sweet and bitter. Loss and longing. Tears shed. Lives broken. Lives made whole.
Guitar and harmonica serve as background, punctuate, and dominate, in a swirl of exchanges.
The National Steel, in particular, seems possessed.
At one point it just begins to drive, and continues to drive as a song of inevitable death hurtles headlong to its own demise.
Ahh…I can’t explain the least bit of any of it.
It was very, very good.
It was just very good. Very goddamned good stuff.
Soon enough, the sun closed with the horizon, the chill breeze returned, and then it was over.
And there was nothing more to be said or done.
I expressed my stupefaction to Pat, thanked Joel, and took my leave on foot.
Next time this guy comes around, you might want to make sure you get to see him, ok?