Yeh, that was my thought ! Spencer doing a birthday party – WOW, this is either gonna be really good or really weird. Well, upon realizing that it was a birthday celebration for Hank Williams, I knew it would be of the really good variety. Mr. Bohren being one of the very best interpreters of Hanks music and a sterling musician songwriter in his own right.
Sometimes we all need to step out of our comfort zone, not only as artists but as audience members, and while Spencer is well within my ‘comfort zone’, Hank Williams is a stretch that required extra stretching to get to, I mean it was a stretch to get to considering the subject matter. But when we go just beyond our grasp to try a little harder, dig a little deeper we – more likely than not – are rewarded tenfold with a special kind of joy.
A beautiful late summer afternoon across Western New York encouraged us to take the two-hour drive to Springville, NY. Home of Glenn ‘Pop’ Warner, the man who played such a critical role in shaping modern day football (and coached Jim Thorpe) and Dr. Ralph Waite, the man who pioneered ‘Anti-Dolor’ (no pain) anesthetic, a cocaine based preparation that swept the world. One other notable was ‘Grandpa’ Harold Olmsted, the Harvard educated landscape designer who in 1966 was named Man of the Year by the Harvard Club of Buffalo. But it is also home to the Springville Center For The Arts, which was what we had locked into our GPS device.
It’s always an adventure of sorts to go see music somewhere totally different – and the Springville Center was certainly that. A re-purposed church, it was quaint, comfy and very welcoming. Since we were coming ‘all the way from’ Rochester we were, ahh one would say, standouts. Well we weren’t locals for sure. But greeted warmly we chatted and found our seats in the front row, cameras, buttons, and curiosity well placed and within reach.
A dear lady was seated next to us that we had semi-met while waiting for the doors to open. The mutual experience of a stray troubadour playing music for the waiting crowd offered us a common ground. She definitively knew Spencer and wife, Marilyn. But she also knew Lionel Young and Dexter Payne (saxophonist/harp player from Lionel Young Band) so we had some fun conversing about them and the Bluestock experience where we saw Lionel and band play. Hmm, kinda close knit here or a migration of Spencer fans or maybe just the small world thing, but there was something going on.
On with the show . . .
Out comes Spencer in black cowboy shirt, smiling and he starts us off with ‘Lovesick Blues’ complete with plaintive yodeling and then proceeds to spin yarns both historical and of personal nature about the ‘Hillbilly Shakespeare’ aka Hank Williams. Deftly incorporating stories, songs and amuse-tunings (as the guitar was being obstreperous about staying in tune) Mr. Bohren painted a wonderful portrait of Hank as a man and as an artist.
Two songs which stood out for their sheer power and passion were ‘Lonesome Whistle’. The story line of the song goes “They took me off the Georgia Main, locked me to a ball and chain…”. The Georgia Main is the name of a train, short for Georgia Mainline and serves as the launching point for this tale of morality. Penned by Hank about a young man who had made a few unfortunate choices. Probably not unlike Hank himself. The other was a lap steel treatment of ‘I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry’ which produced many a teary eye in the crowd because of it’s sheer strength to create a painting of despair and loss that touches us all at a certain level.
My favorite story was about his late night pilgrimage to Hanks’ graveside accompanied by just his guitar (and a good nights worth of imbibing inside him) sitting and playing only to have the world light up around him and the local sheriff advising him, in an anything but kindly manner, that he was just gonna have to go back to the jail house seeing as how he was under arrest. Well the young Spencer, being just this side of drunk, made a plea about how he had loved Hank’s music and that this moment was special – to which the sheriff replied that he too loved and knew Hank, and Hank’s mom, but if Spencer really was such a big fan of Hank could he sing Jambalaya? Spencer did just that, and was good enough at it to change the sherrifs tune and be escorted back to the hotel he was staying (minus the stop over at the jailhouse) and was free to pursue his passion for Hank come morning and hopefully a tad more sober.
Spencer then led us in a sing-along of ‘Jambalaya’ complete with three verses and multiple choruses, ending his first set.
Mr. Bohren re-appeared for his second set to share with us to some of his original songs. Spencer had certailnly not run out of stories! Tales of the flooding and imminent disaster from Katrina, stories of him playing the 96th birthday party for legendary St. Louis bluesman, Henry Townsend – hmm, my 60th is coming up in 2012 (hint hint)! These combined with songs from his latest release ‘Blackwater Music’ which is currently charting well on Blues & Roots radio in all forms. This release seems very special to him as he had the opportunity to record with his son, Andre. He seemed to glow when referring to Andre’s prowess in the studio and his overall creativity that he showed while working together. One song that Spencer did stood out for me – it was a love song ‘Your Home Is In My Heart’ and it told of what it takes to keep love alive over the years, and how we can let it slip away but if we really want it we can get it back. Powerful stuff, and a testament to love’s enduring power.
Shortly after Spencer brought out his teenage niece Ms. Emma Tyme who treated us, along with Uncle Spencer, a wonderful original tune titled ‘Trigonometry‘. Ms. Emma possesses such a sweet voice and her guitar playing was a perfect adjunct to her singing. It was quite refreshing to hear some young talent without pedals, synthesizers etc.
If I might return the family affair feeling that I mentioned earlier, During the Hank Williams tribute portion of the show, Spencer spoke briefly about playing with a young lady from the area, Ms. Judy Roderick, back in the day They had covered, unbeknownst to him, a Hank Williams song called ‘Live In Love’, and Judys’ sister was here in the audience – sitting right next to me. As Spencer sang the song Ms. Emily cried tears of joy and it was apparent that almost everyone in the crowd knew her and the back story that I had just been made aware of. As I said sometimes we need to take ourselves out of the comfort zone, to be put face to face with the unknowns – there are rewards out there to still be had, windmills to do battle with, dreams to be realized or new dreams to conjure up. Ms. Emily is also related to the late Mr. Harold Olmsted, and Dexter Payne had formed a band with Judy Roderick before joining forces with Lionel Young – and here we were all here thrown together via Spencer’s show in Springville, NY.
For more photos from Spencer’s show:
for more info on these artists:
Mr. Spencer Bohren http://www.spencerbohren.com/
Mr. Hank Williams http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hank_Williams
Mr. Henry Townsend http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Henry_Townsend_(musician)
Ms. Judy Roderick http://judyroderick.com/
Until next time,
Love, Peace & Chicken Grease
photos: Courtesy of Leslie K. Joseph