Driving Hard Across the Plain

My weekend ended at Creole Gallery with Garnet Rogers performing his remarkable Night Drive. Garnet’s a strong musician, and Night Drive’s a masterpiece.

Joan and I heard Garnet when he was in town last year; that was a powerful evening built on what I took to be a version of his standard performance set. Tonight’s show, before a substantially smaller audience, was quite different; perhaps more relaxed, differently introspective, with fewer tales. Garnet’s a droll story-teller, a strong and exceptional singer, a very good writer–and an formidible guitarist. He played six or eight guitars over the course of the concert; each instrument change had musical justification, rewarded different technical skills, and improved the song.

His most familiar song, Small Victory, tells about rescuing a horse whose racing career had ended well past her prime years. A new life is one victory for this pony; another victory follows as she gives birth to a foal. Garnet’s always been playful with this song’s rhythm, aware of the beat but not tightly bound to it. It’s particularly fascinating that his voice plays the beat differently from his fingers. A technically sweet performance, both vocally and on guitar, which ornaments and enhances the song’s message.

Night Drive is something else entirely. Although this song also has a lyric and a story, the guitar dominates the composition. It’s an electric piece, with the rhythm and melody built on echo and harmonics as much as on Garnet’s formidable picking and fingering skills. (There’s an excerpt available on Garnet’s site.) It starts quietly, builds a highway pulse (Night Drive indeed), and grows louder, more complex, and more interesting for ten minutes or so. The vocal portion of the song ended with a quotation from brother Stan’s Northwest Passage which is not on the recorded version but certainly enhances the performance; that’s perhaps the song’s climax, but the guitar continues into the night for some time. By song’s end the room was reverberating, Garnet was exhausted, and the crowd was exhilarated.

Then home, through the still-falling snow.

Demographics: Tonight’s audience looked a lot like me–most of us appeared to be in our fifties and had probably first encountered Garnet when he was accompanying Stan in the 1970s. I’m not sure the audience makeup bodes well for singer-songwriters, but perhaps it’s a Lansing-area thing.

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