Grand extravagant stages have become a symbol of youthful escape, though if not careful, these stages can sometimes insert a barrier between the observer and the experience in which the observer attempts to be immersed. Light shows are entrancing and powerful at first glance, as their presence brings all unrelated conversation to an immediate end. However, as time passes, aluminum fences and florescent security jackets become a distraction in the quest for connection between artist and witness. These highly controlled situations contest the very manifesto upon which rock and roll was founded. Therefore, it must be presumed that rock and roll’s precursor, the intense and outmoded music born in the Mississippi Delta, occasionally requires a presentation format a little more…hazardous.
So for those searching for a truly assimilating evening of music, enter the Durango Blues Train, a nineteenth century steam engine filled with beer cans and blues fans. It is an immersive experience with no boundary between performance and spectating space. If at the final stop, you are dumped out of this roaming house party with no enlightenment regarding entertainment’s true potential (or without a bruise on your left arm) then you didn’t get close enough to the action. I had the privilege of performing in this event last June, and I’m just now figuring out how to talk about it.
On June 2, 2017, I carried my guitars on board, plugged in, and watched my car fill up. It was a small space that held a few dozen adults comfortably, and strands of hanging Christmas lights provided a warm glow. While we waited the sun set quietly over the mountainside. Then, a thundering steam whistle transformed this gentile scene into sweaty juke joint rumbling through the San Juan Mountain Range.
This is the first venue I’ve played that had a mind of its own. It was as much a character in my performance as I was. There were no clocks. There were no set times. I was going to play as long as the calluses on my fingers could handle it, and hope to make it to the end of the line. There were no assigned seats or ushers. My audience changed every 10 minutes. At times the car felt like a bachelorette party, and at other times, like a quiet local tavern. Both were fun. Adaptability is critical so as to not let the train (or at least its potent presence) leave me behind.
As my listeners rotated through the different train cars, I felt a connection with each of them. There was not enough room in the isle to sneak by unnoticed. Few could pass without a quick glance or awkward sideways smile as they squirmed their way to the beer car, or to take a look at the other acts. In more extreme cases, I served as a human stabilizer mid-song, to those who like to live a little closer to the edge. Fortunately, my guitar has spent enough time in my hands to handle such an adventure. I managed to continue the production of tasty runs, all the while dodging stumblers without missing a beat. Just so you don’t read this with the wrong voice, this was all exactly what I wanted. Every great show requires your fans to need help standing up every once in a while.
As the train rolled on, the sun had crept away, and the view from each window was simply blackness. I had no idea where I was. I did not know the time. Everything except those directly in front of me, my guitar, and the next phrase I have to deliver, was shrouded by a natural dark. At this point the rocking and rumbling of the train went from being a distraction to an accompaniment. It became less chaotic and more rhythmic. We seemed to have stumbled upon a mystic place. As we twisted deeper into the mountains, swing beats and accented triplets started to sound a little bit sweeter. There was nothing left in the world that could detract from the experience in front of us. We had found what we were searching for.
Just as we were reaching the point of no return, as we were to be forever entranced by the dim glow and hypnotic sounds of a train car rolling though absolute darkness, we returned to civilization. Street lights began to appear, and fast-food advertisements came into view. Then, the train slowed and the last song was played. The world stood still, physical boundaries were restored, and security personal pointed and whistled us out of the train yard. We were safe again…but hopefully not for too long.
I think that every artist has an intense vision depicting the perfect demonstration of their creation. A young actress may imagine projecting her monologue across the stage of a Broadway theatre, as she contemplates the sacrifice and dedication required to do so. Somewhere in the world there is a street artist running from a police car, imagining a heart-stopping transformation of an abandoned warehouse in LA. For myself, a travelling acoustic bluesman, the vision now includes a beer filled steam engine rambling through the impossible darkness of the San Juan Mountain Range.
As long as this train is running, traditional acoustic blues will always have a place to feel so welcomed, so modern, and so alive.