Saturday, April 26, 2008

Thanks, Blackwater

Good music in the Valley? Not a chance, I thought.

I stand corrected. Not only did I witness three hours of outstanding original music last night, I did so in a great Stockton dive that surpassed most bars I frequented in my hipper Chicago and Northampton lives.

The place was the Blackwater, a cafe/bar in a desolated residential block that, once upon a time, may have been a bustling little downtown. The bar itself is full of rope lights, trashed, decades-old kitchen equipment and scratched-up old chairs in no particular arrangement. It was fairly empty on this Friday night. I think we were the only ones there that weren't regulars or with the bands.

This post isn't really about the Blackwater, believe it or not. But before I move on, let me say this to the place and its people: Thank you for last night. Thank you thank you thank you. I had given up hope that people like you live here, and you've proven me wrong.

Here's how it happened that I was at this random locale last night. Last week I got a press release from a PR guy for Shelley Short, a 28-year-old songwriter from Portland. Normally these press releases go unnoticed, but I did a double-take on this one. A Portland musician, coming here? A Portland musician whose bio dribbles with names like M. Ward and the Decemberists? Coming here?

I quickly racked by brain for a way to justify covering the show for the paper. As luck would have it, the timing couldn't've been better. The Blackwater show was this Friday, and next Friday Shelley is playing right down the road in Modesto. Since my paper prints on Fridays, that means I could cover the Stockton show and print a miraculously-relevant article the following week. Kismet!

I was atwitter. I mean, I do interviews every day - (pause: I hate the formality that the word "interview" implies; I stopped planning my questions in advance ages ago, once I figured out that it makes for a much more organic story and a much more pleasant time when you just TALK to people instead of extracting bits of information from them) - I got over the nerves thing a ways back. But this was different, because in the secret corners of my mind, being a music reviewer is high on my list of dream jobs.

The nerves were for naught. Shelley was very chill; we talked over my beer and her tuna sandwich in a corner booth of the cafe while another band was setting up. Turns out she grew up in Portland but lived in Chicago for a few years, so we had plenty to talk about.

What I found most fascinating about her story was the ease with which she's stumbled into her musician life. I guess I've always had this hideously wrong idea that musicians are born, not made. They're a different sort of person, I thought - like hobos, or fashion models - and only a very specific, very lucky type of person can break into their world.

(Sidenote: This reminds me of something my dad once told me. I was probably 17 or 18, and talking about whether I should work in theatre, or, I don't know, insurance, when I grow up. I was surprised to hear him vote for theatre. "They're a different type of people," he said. Ain't that the truth.)

Now Shelley is incredibly talented. But she didn't pick up a guitar until the age of 21, and seven years later she's released three CDs, is signed to Hush Records and is touring the west coast. She hasn't been planning this all her life. One day she picked up the guitar, and that led to some songs, and that led to some friends, and that's the way this shit gets done.

The interview was fun. We chatted about her music, her plans, and her influences, and after we were done I watched four bands play their hearts out for a dozen fellow performers in this great, gritty little cafe in Stockton. And I'm not shitting you - these folks were good.

But the best thing I took away from the night was this thought: Just do it, Sarah. You don't have to be a rock star or a bestseller. But you're going to live a happier life doing those things you love, whether or not you succeed in any conventional meaning of the word. It's a lightbulb moment I've had a bunch of times, but every time I get a little closer to believing it.

Then again, maybe I went into last night searching for that message - and, like the magic of horoscopes, saw what I wanted to see. I say that because two nights ago - after FIVE YEARS of talking about it - I purchased this online.


Eden From Sweden said...

I'm glad Portland was able to grace Stockton with a visit. And - what is the tone of this post - is it, dare I say, optimistic? Don't turn on me, Pollyanna, I'm not sure I could hold the weight of the world on my shoulders alone. :)

Jen said...

Hi Sarah! Nice to meet you! I saw your comment on my blog, clicked over and couldn't help but notice that you live quite near my where my dad lives - a town with the lovely, evocative name of Salida. I'm very familiar with the Central Valley, since my dad defected there some 10 years ago from San Luis Obispo, where I was born and raised. Why am I telling you this? I dunno, but it's always nice to meet bloggers from California, is what I mean to say. Feels a bit like home, and right now about now, in all this Seattle rain, I miss California.

I'll subscribe to your URL in Google Reader so I can get your latest updates. You seem like a cool girl. Plus, you're a working journalist! What's that like? I gave up that dream the second I graduated from Cal Poly with my BS in Journalism. That's right - my degree is a BS. Hmm.

Abigail said...

A piano?!!! Great.