Thursday, November 24, 2011

1986: Thank You, Peter Rowan

Twenty five years ago this month I was working in a liquor store in Capitola, California. I had just earned a fine arts degree and had no practical idea of how to make a living as an artist. One night I mentioned to my fellow retail clerk that Peter Rowan was playing in a small club down the street, and maybe we'd want to go see the show after work. He said he couldn't make it, but he dared me to write a review and submit it to the features editor at the local paper, where he freelanced as a sportswriter. 

So I did. After the show, for the first of many times, I grabbed a copy of the setlist where from it had been taped to the stage floor. Then I snuck backstage and walked cautiously into the dressing room where an exhausted Peter Rowan was relaxing with his band. Despite his obvious illness, he was gracious enough to take a few questions from a novice music journalist. The next day I typed up my story and it was accepted by the Watsonville Register-Pajaronian, where it ran on 11/7/86. That was the first time I'd ever gotten paid for my writing.

One review led to another, and then to a job as arts editor at the local weekly. A quarter century later, I will always be grateful to Peter Rowan for helping me set out on that path. Oh, and for the other liquor store clerk. For the life of me, I can't remember his name anymore. But if you're out there, pal, Happy Thanksgiving. 

Even a sore throat couldn't keep Peter Rowan from delivering three solid sets of his music Tuesday night.

Playing to a sellout crowd at O.T. Price's Music Hall for the third time this year, Rowan relied on a little help from his friends to keep things rolling past midnight.

The singer/songwriter, who helped evolve the bluegrass/rock style that helped beget the rockabilly revival of the 80s, just couldn't quite hit the high notes, rendering impossible the sublime yodeling and falsetto vocals he displayed earlier this year.

Instead, he dug into his acoustic guitar playing and delivered his songs with a grittier edge to his usually pure voice.

Whether it was his best-known tune "Panama Red" or more obscure gems like "Break My Heart Again," the crowd was behind him all the way.

Younger brother Lorin Rowan, with the Free Mexican Airforce backup band, chimed in with a few lead vocals in each set. Lorin, who heads the rock/reggae band The Edge, injected a Caribbean flavor into his brother's Appalachian/Celtic/Marin County fusion.

Lorin sang reggae standards like "Pressure Drop" and "I Shot the Sheriff" and his reggae version of  "Stand By Me" sounded like songwriter Ben E. King wrote it that way in the first place.

He also reeled off stinging guitar solos all night long.

The pickup rhythm section of Michael White on drums and Dave Perper on bass kept the crowd dancing, particularly during the reggae numbers (both are members of the Texas Chainsaw Band).

Additionally, a couple of guest vocalists saved Peter from overextending his already tired voice.

Local rastaman Tony Gadd sang Bob Marley's "Stir It Up," with Lorin adding a fiery slide solo. Fiddler Darcy D'Eaville sat in for several numbers, harmonizing with Rowan and leading the traditional "Cotton-Eyed Joe" at a breakneck pace.

Another performer might have cancelled the show, but Rowan apparently felt up to it, and no one who was there would dispute that decision. Although he relied on his bandmates to take up the slack, he was obviously in charge. When he turned his back on the crowd to lead the ever-quickeneing jam on "Land of the Navajo," which closed the show, the grin on his face said it was all worthwhile.

After the die-hards clamored for another encore, an obviously weary Peter Rowan sang one of his sweetest tunes, "Thirsty in the Rain," accompanied only by his guitar.

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