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Michael Engberg / Blog

Victor victorius

I just caught Camp Coulter out of the corner of my eye as we were passing through Victor, Idaho. The town of Victor itself is about 2000 people, and twenty-five miles west of Jackson, Wyoming, where I had a couple of gigs over the weekend. Our challenge was trying to find a place that still had open spots for an RV, and that wouldn’t cost us an arm and a leg in the process (the cheapest RV parks in and around Jackson itself were about $50 per night, and the average was closer to $80 or more). I parked the RV along a strip of public parking in Victor’s downtown business district and walked about a quarter mile back to Camp Coulter. There were a couple of vacant spaces, with electric/water/sewage hookups. I was looking for an office, or someone to talk with, and managed to chat with a woman who was renting by the month for her fifth wheel. Then a gentleman emerged from an Allegro RV. I told him what I was looking for. He showed me one of the vacant spaces, then walked over to a sign that showed a phone number to use. In all of this exchange, he said not a word, nor even uttered a sound. We tried calling the phone number, and got a voicemail option. We left a few messages, and at some point I drove the RV into the camp and into the space that “Mr. Allegro” had pointed out to me. We sat there for awhile, with our generator running, hoping to hear back on the phone from someone. After an hour or so, we decided to go ahead and put down the levelers, extend the sliders, and at least plug into the electricity for the night. The next morning, I met Rick, who was the manager for the camp. He told me that they normally charge on a monthly basis, but I was able to negotiate staying the weekend for $100 and a couple of the new CD’s. That left me a 25 mile commute in our shuttle car to gigs in Jackson on Friday and Sunday. Friday night was the Rock River Lodge; and assisted living/retirement community. It was another in a long string of hour-long shows where I have come to feel this is just another form of House Concert. And it’s become a very comfortable experience, playing a lot of songs that folks can sing along to, throwing in one or two of my own tunes, and a story, here and there. The other gig in Jackson was at the Q Roadhouse, on Moose-Wilson Road, on the Sunday. I was a little apprehensive on first arriving and setting up, as the house sound system was playing Madonna, Prince, KC and the Sunshine Band, and various other 70’s and 80’s funk and disco. I don’t have a problem with that music as such, but I was hoping the staff and diners were in no way expecting anything like that from me. It was a four-hour gig, and it went just fine. I was told at the end of the evening that I should definitely give a shout next time I expect to pass through, as they would definitely like to use me again. Over the last five months or so, we have been building something of a circuit, as nearly every place that I have played has asked me to call about coming back to play. We hope to add more places, as we look to do this big loop through the West again over the next year or so.

Taking the Highgate

“I’m almost 83 years old,” Helen told me (for the third time), “and all through my life, music was such an important part. But I had to give it up.” “Why did you have to give it up?” I asked. “I have some brain damage. Memory problems,” she told me. I thought about that over the next hour, as I played for the Highgate Living Center, in Bozeman. For as I played, there was song after song that I saw Helen singing along to, eyes afire, a grin across her face. She looked beautiful and profoundly happy. I had four shows lined up in Bozeman, and each one was a delight. There are house concerts and there are house concerts. I look upon my playing at nursing homes and retirement communities as just another form of house concert. As I have described before, I tend to lean a little more towards popular songs that my audience is likely to recognize and remember: swing hits from the 30’s, 40’s and 50’s; Hank Williams tunes and other Country and Western gems; folk music; classical guitar; a celtic tune, here and there. And I often manage to sneak in one or two of my own songs, as well. In between, I tell stories. I tell them about how I have come to live my new life as a gypsy musician. I talk about my guitars. I tell the story of how my steel-string guitar was stolen, then recovered, and how I came to name it George. And an hour goes by like a very pleasant visit among friends. I have learned that I need to allow another 20 minutes or more after the performance. Sometimes there are demands for an encore (and I am happy to oblige). Often, folks want to come up, shake my hand, tell me how much they enjoyed the show, and ask when can I come back. At the end of the show at Highgate, Helen approached me, a tear in her eye and a smile on her face. “I knew the words to so many of those songs!” she told me. I nodded and smiled back at her. “I could hear you helping me out with those songs,” I said. One of the precepts in Buddhism is something called “Right Livelihood” You are asked to find good work; work that does as little harm to the earth as possible, and, ideally, leaves things a little better than how you found them. At each of these performances, I can see the smiling faces and the glow in the eyes. I can see people come alive as they remember an old song. I can hear the laughter from a good joke or a humorous song. Yes, I believe I have found Right Livelihood.

Maleficent and the Merry Widow

The day before Pony’s birthday (in other words, July 8th), we pulled into the Merry Widow campground and Healthmine, in Basin, Montana. Basin is pretty much equidistant between Butte and Helena, just off I-15, and small enough where you could miss it if you blinked at the wrong time. A big selling feature of the Merry Widow campground is the Healthmine. As I understand it, the mine was originally a source of gold and silver, but those days were played out before the early twentieth century. Since then, the mine is touted for having curative powers, and as such has become a destination for folks who suffer all manner of maladies. People come to find relief from arthritis, migraines, and many other complaints. There is a substantial contingent of evangelical Christians who come to this heathmine, which suggests an element of faith healing. In this respect, I was somewhat reminded of Lourdes, France, which Pony and I visited a few years back (although, I must say that the Merry Widow Healthmine has not accumulated any of the souvenir shops or other commercial trappings we saw in such abundance at Lourdes). The campsite has a large, barn-like building that holds the restrooms, shower rooms, and a large Rec Hall. And as it turned out, there is a potluck dinner held in that Rec Hall every Wednesday evening. I told the couple who run the camp about my profession, and offered to play a bit for the potluck dinner. They gladly accepted my offer. But Wednesday was also Pony’s birthday, so we drove to Helena, where we enjoyed a fine brunch at a place called Steve’s Diner, followed by a visit to Helena’s one and only cinema complex (or so we’re told), where we watched the movie, Maleficent (starring Angelina Jolie). There were only a handful of folk enjoying the movie with us, and it was a welcome treat. It’s been months since we’d gone to a movie theater, making the visit that much more enjoyable. With a quick stop for some groceries, we made our way back to camp. We got back with about half an hour before the scheduled potluck dinner, giving me just enough time to set up my sound system, tune the guitars, and be ready to play. Pony was suffering from a bit of a migraine, so she elected to have a quiet evening in the RV while I played for a good 90 minutes or more through the dinner. Mostly, I played some classical guitar and other finger-pickin’ repertoire. Towards the end, there was a Korean woman who asked if I could accompany her in a rendition of “How Great Thou Art”. It turned out that the key of G fitted her just fine, and I managed to put something fairly nice behind her singing. After that, I was asked if I could do something “danceable”, so I played and sang “All of Me”. Then, for some real novelty, I did my rendition of “The Witch Doctor” (the old Alvin and the Chipmunks song), and wound up the set with “Take Me Home, Country Roads”. That one got everyone singing along. It turned out that the Healthmine is owned by a kind, Korean gentleman who lives in Seattle and brings a contingent of folk from the West Coast on a regular basis to partake of the mine’s curative powers. He was here for the Wednesday potluck, and he ended up buying half a dozen of my CD’s (almost all of which he gave away to his fellow travelers). Today, when Pony went to pay for our stay here at the camp, the managers had discounted $50 from our bill, in appreciation of the music.

Big Bang in Theory and Practice

I had a handful of gigs lined up in Missoula over July 4th weekend (including three on July 4th itself). Playing for nursing homes and retirement communities has become a growing part of my itinerary, and I have to say that I have come to enjoy this part of my performing a great deal. I can go back to the very first time I ever played in Colorado, when an agent (based in Pennsylvania, strangely enough) booked a block of some twenty-five nursing homes and retirement centers to be played in ten days. I was playing two, and sometimes three shows in a day. And there was this powerful feeling when you played a song that someone remembered from way back when, and you made that connection. During the last few years of my mother’s life, spent in a nursing home in my home town, I would make a point of coming out as often as I could to play for her and the other residents during their dinner hour. The staff always let me know how grateful they were for the entertainment, as it made the dinner hour more pleasant for all concerned. People were willing to sit and enjoy their meal, and everything was just a bit more convivial. Over the last year or so, I have had all manner of reactions to my performances in nursing homes. I have seen eyes light up with an old inner fire. I have seen some adult children visiting break into tears, as some song brings back a shared moment. I have seen folks get up and dance, almost like something out of a tent revival meeting. I admit that this does me a great deal of good, as well. Missoula was chock full of such experiences. Meanwhile, we camped at the Lolo Hot Springs, about 35 miles northwest of Missoula. As is the case with much of Montana, the campsite had its share of lovely scenery. But it was the July 4th weekend, and there were plenty of campers tooling about in their ATV’s, leaving cans and other bits of trash strewn hither and yon, and fireworks of all description that started days before the holiday and continued for at least a couple of days thereafter. On July 4th itself, the fireworks started in the middle of the afternoon and continued until well after 2am. One’s perspective on fireworks changes a bit when you have a dog that has grown terrified of the noise. Ours was not the only dog in the camp that suffered so. Stereotypes and caricatures have their origin in some seed of truth. When people speak disparagingly of rednecks who use the woods with reckless disregard for anyone else, there are plenty who feed that image. I saw a fair number over the July 4th weekend. I realize the image does not fit in all cases. But, sadly, it fits often enough.

Another Adventure in Time Travel

The last third of June saw us in Bigfork, Montana, thanks to the hospitality of an old friend, Peggy Atchley, who let us camp in the field behind her house for about ten days or so. It was my first time back to Bigfork in 25 years, and it was truly an experience of time travel. Rufus and I went on some long wanders around the town, as I noted the changes. As one might expect, there were a good many after so many years. Some things had not changed all that much. Electric Avenue is the main street of Bigfork, and the newer, larger theater for the Bigfork Summer Playhouse had been built the year before I left. Rufus and I walked the trail that borders the Swan River, along with various other parts around and just outside of town. There are more houses to the north and west of town, but it has preserved its small town atmosphere, for all that. Pony now has some understanding for what inspired me to live here for a few years, back in the 80’s. It is still an incredibly beautiful corner of the Earth. Pony understands the attraction of living in such a place, but also observed how removed it is from….well, from just about everywhere else, as it were. The old grocery store is now called Harvest Foods , although the locals still refer to it as the IGA. A couple of doors down from the grocer is a relatively new place called the Grateful Bread Bakery. I had a chance to chat with the owners, Michael and Gabrielle. That chat, plus the fact that I had one of my guitars in the back seat of our car, resulted in my being hired to play 3 hours in the afternoon for three days in a row. I made some good money, sold some CD’s, and had a great time. There are some concert series and some other venues that make it possible to return to Bigfork sometime next summer. At the very least, I don’t look to wait nearly so long to come back for another visit.

With A Nod To Joseph Campbell

I was watching “How To Train Your Dragon” with my wife, Pony, and my mother-in-law, Margaret. I was sitting in the bean bag chair in the RV, with a puddle of fur named Murphy sprawled across my lap, and a glass of fine, red wine near at hand. Earlier this afternoon, I did a show at the Horizon House Nursing Home, in Seattle. I had a great time sharing songs and stories with the 30 or so members of my audience. I sang songs that made them laugh. I sang songs that had them clapping their hands and tapping their toes. I told them the story about seeing Andres Segovia at Carnegie Hall, back in 1981. He was 86 years old, and he played the guitar beautifully. He lived to be 93 years old, and (I have been told) played guitar nearly to the day he died. More than once (several times, in fact) I have said that I should hope to live life that well. About 7 or 8 years ago, I looked upon my life and found it good. I lived in an apartment in Arvada at the time. I was teaching guitar, teaching music classes at a community college, and playing gigs around town and in the mountains. I had a good-sized group of friends who made life very pleasant. Between work that I thoroughly enjoyed, and good friends and family, I was more than content. And I remember thinking at the time: if this is as good as life gets, I am fine with that. It’s a good life. In fact (with a nod to Frank Capra) it was a wonderful life. Then I met Pony, and life expanded. I was more than content. I was, and am very happy. I have a wonderful, loving wife. I have three cats and a dog that, in their own manner, make me feel wanted every day. And for the last year, I have had the genuine pleasure of sharing songs and stories with wonderful people all over the country. I confess that I have not actually read any of Joseph Campbell’s books. But I have watched a couple of the interviews he did with Bill Moyers. I believe I have some understanding of his idea of “following your bliss”. I think I am doing something like that. I want to make it clear that I do not mean this in any way as some form of boasting, or bragging. And I know that I have made mention of this before, but I want to once again mention the musician, Steve Goodman. It is my understanding that, because of his leukemia, Steve Goodman treated every concert as if it could be his last. I don’t want to have to wait for cancer, or some other terminal illness, to understand that way of embracing life. So it is not boasting or bragging, but simply a statement of profound gratitude. I have had the great gift and pleasure of enjoying my life. Many times, I have been able to stop and think: this is good. I do not take this for granted. Quite the opposite: I am keenly aware that I have a very fortunate life. I enjoy good health, and I am able to share the gift of music, and I have the company and love of my wife, my friends, and my furry roommates. To Life. L’Chaim.

The Schmurf

Last Fall, when we spent some time in New Jersey, we met a couple who had converted a school bus into an RV of sorts. They had three cats that they had trained to walk on a leash, so I took some time to chat with them about how they had managed such a thing. They said the trick was to put the harness on the cat and let them just sort of live with it for awhile, then they added the leash to the mix. So a week ago, we invested in a harness for Murphy, our fluffy, grey-and-white escape artist. For the last week, Murphy has been getting used to wearing the harness. A couple of days ago, Pony introduced him to the leash. Today, this afternoon, Murphy spent a pleasant afternoon with us in the clean, clear, outdoor air, on the end of his own blue, nylon leash. It’s been a good day. Tomorrow, we pack up and head north to Seattle. Today was a day of packing up and attending to a few details, here and there. I had the pure luxury of swimming some 42 laps in the Jantzen Beach swimming pool. I may have mentioned this before, but swimming is flat out one of my favorite forms of exercise. I have turned it into a form of meditation. Or sometimes I think about lyrics while swimming laps. Rufus and I had three good, long walks around various parts of Hayden Island, and, again, I mulled over some possibilities for lyrics while we perambulated. Walks with Rufus have turned into one of my best opportunities for writing new songs, and I have told audiences that I am grateful Rufus is satisfied with the occasional dog biscuit as a reward for serving as my muse. As the sun was setting I played guitar while Pony cooked up some chicken for dinner. It made for a fine end to the day. Pony and Margaret enjoyed some Long Island Ice Tea, which left me a bottle of Jacob’s Creek Merlot to sample for dinner. Dinner turned to dessert (Ben and Jerry’s Ice Cream for each of us), while I continued to enjoy the merlot. Before I knew it, the bottle was drained, and Rufus and I took our late night walk while I have to admit that I staggered a bit. For what it’s worth, one of the advantages of the RV lifestyle is that I am often within walking distance of our home. For what it’s worth, I rarely kill a bottle of Merlot on my own. But summer is nigh upon us. The full moon is but a few days away. Tomorrow we leave Portland (a town that has been very kind and welcoming to us), and head to Seattle, and from there to various other parts of the West and the Rockies. We are watching the first season of the HBO series, “The Big C”. We started the first episode over dinner. The central theme is about grabbing life. I realize that anyone reading this can attribute my present philosophical meanderings to a bottle of merlot, but, in watching this series, I am struck with the thought that there is a sort of gift in knowing your mortality in a very visceral way. A friend of mine told me about watching the musician, Steve Goodman in concert. Steve Goodman was first diagnosed with Leukemia when he was an adolescent. My buddy, Ernie, told me that to see a Steve Goodman concert was a marvelous thing, because he lived with cancer for the majority of his life, and, as a consequence, he treated every concert as though it could be his last. Wouldn’t it be better if we could appreciate the precious quality of each moment without something like the specter of cancer hanging over us? Today is a day where I have enjoyed the knife-edge of Now from one moment to the next. It was a gloriously fine day.

Yukon Call Me Al

“I hate you,” said the guy, with a wink and a smile, as he slapped a twenty dollar bill down on the small table next to me on the stage. I was playing the Yukon Tavern in Portland for the second time. Last week, I had been invited by Steve Rodin (who plays there two Saturdays each month) to come take a set. I ended up jamming with him at the end of the night, as well. It was then that Michelle (the bartender) offered me an evening to myself, which is what brought me back to the Yukon last night. Most folks caught on that my CD seller was doubling as a tip jar, but one or two just tossed money onto the table that occupied the stage with me. I felt no need to argue the point (especially with the twenty sitting there). And then there was Jack. To use an old phrase, Jack was a few sheets to the wind. Hell, Jack was damned near roaring drunk, to be fair. Somewhat at the request of some of the other patrons, I had played James Taylor’s “Fire and Rain”. “That’s okay, as far as it goes,” said Jack, “but I think you’re chicken. You need to play something with some balls to it.” So I played “Move It On Over” (an old Hank Williams tune, revived by George Thorogood some years back). “Not too bad for a chicken shit,” says Jack, and struts about the room making chicken noises and giggling at his own wit. Then he got my wife up to dance with him. Pony shot me a look that said ‘you will pay for this, somehow’. I got another such look when Jack’s hands slid down over her butt. He complimented her on her nice butt. I don’t think I’m going to live this down for awhile. There was a bar in southeast Iowa I played some years ago, where the bartender complimented me, saying she had never seen any musician handle drunks as well as I do (I figure it’s the result of my years as a summer camp counselor, back in my high school days). I cherished that somewhat unusual compliment. But now, at this moment, I was wondering if I still had that knack. Eventually, Jack just quietly wandered out of the bar. A couple of the other patrons leaned in close to Pony. “Tell your husband we’re awful sorry for all that,” they said. “There’s no excuse for that behavior, and he’s a mighty fine musician. He shouldn’t have to put up with that. Neither should you.” [Pony recounted that exchange to me at the end of the evening, as we were driving back to the RV park] I thought of my sister, the kindergarten teacher, and the occasional challenge of trying to take care of all the kids in a class when there’s one kid in particular drawing attention. Yeah. Drunks are a bit like kindergarten, all over again.

The Welcome So Far

Steve Rodin has been living in Portland for some twenty years or more. He does a regular gig twice a month at the Yukon Tavern (it is in no small part due to his generous nature that I came to know the folks there and have my own night at the Yukon coming up this weekend). Eric Two Rivers hosts a couple of open stages (at least?) in the Portland/Vancouver area. He has some seriously long cred as a musician and is a fantastic and host and all around gentleman (his wife, Vienna, is a frequent visitor to various open stages, supplying some fine vocals and occasional flute). His partner, Asher, plays guitar, saxophone, mandolin, and probably a few other instruments that I simply haven’t been made aware of as yet. He is a native Oregonian who tells me he has never lived more than a 100 miles from where he was born and raised. Bob Flendtke just turned 83 years old recently, and is a fixture at several of the venues in the Vancouver/Portland area. He plays the autoharp and sings traditional folk and bluegrass tunes. Tom Scharfe did a fair bit of hosting open stages around town over the years, and still makes the rounds, playing some solid guitar behind a strong and excellent voice. Wayne Hoffman is another singer/songwriter who now also directs a local folk festival in the Fall. He has a large email list where he frequently posts who is playing where around town. These are just some of the musicians I have had the great pleasure to meet here in Portland (and Vancouver) over the last couple of weeks (and I don’t want to forget my old buddy, Cody Weathers, who gave me many valuable tips about places to look up in the area). What I am trying to reveal here is just how welcoming and downright friendly the musicians are around here. What I have noticed is how much these guys are willing to go to each other’s gigs, back up each other on tunes (a lot of serious jamming goes on around here), listen to each other when someone brings in a new tune. And (as I think I alluded to in an earlier blog), while this can in some circumstances turn into a somewhat insular and closed scene, the musicians here seem to go out of their way to make new folks in town feel just as welcome. I was at a place called Maher’s Pub last night (an open stage hosted by Peter Duff, another fine musician, with a solid, soaring voice and an aggressive/energetic way with a guitar). They had a featured set with an Australian singer/songwriter/guitarist, named Amanda Kay (from Queensland). And really, the folks treated her like a long-lost member of the family. But then again, I have felt as if I, too, received that sort of welcome. I have about three or four more gigs in Portland before we make our way north to Seattle. Pony and I have agreed that we look forward to coming back here (and pretty soon, at that, we hope).

Hail and Farewell Shaker and Vine

My first official gig in Portland was last Friday, at a wine bar called Shaker and Vine. It was a bit disconcerting to learn (the morning of the gig) that, due to some sort of issue with the Fire Marshall, the place was going to close down after the weekend. Still, you make the best of it. The real pleasure of the gig was opening for an old friend, Cody Weathers. Cody is a singer/songwriter who used to bump around Denver (some almost twenty years ago, now). He and I crossed paths many times in the early 90’s, especially as he used to come out to several of the Open Stages that I hosted at that time. I remembered Cody’s energy and unique style from those days and looked forward to catching up with him. I have to say it was even more of a pleasure than I had anticipated. Cody’s songwriting has grown and developed in a beautiful, organic way. He has a very charismatic stage presence, and his songs are energetic, with a lot of contrast in rhythm, tempo , chord changes and lovely lyrics. He has acquired a band: bass, drums and lead guitar that complement his sound in an excellent way. Part of what really made the evening was the chance to just sit and listen to Cody. And he has proved to be a very generous and valuable friend, in that he has given me many good tips on places to play, venues to check out, people to meet, and such. Last night (Tuesday night), I took his suggestion to go to Malibu’s in Vancouver, WA (just across the river and the border from Portland), and meet Eric TwoRivers, who hosts an open stage there on a weekly basis. Eric turned out to be a big guy with an equally big heart (and laugh), and a long, colorful history in the Music Biz (turns out he used to be part of the house band for Dick Clark’s Bandstand, and one of the other musicians told me that he was once a member of the Strawberry Alarm Clock, although I didn’t have a chance to run that one by Eric). There is a real camaraderie at the Tuesday Open Stage at Malibu’s. But while that can sometimes turn into an insular sort of scene, I have to say that the musicians there were an incredibly welcoming bunch. After my set, I was told of a couple of other places to play around the area, including an invitation by musician, Steve Rodin, to join him this Saturday at the Yukon Tavern. I have to say that Oregon, in general, has made me feel very welcome. And while I mourn my very brief connection with Shaker and Vine, I look forward to exploring a lot more of Portland over the next couple of weeks.

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