It might have started as a 20-seat Rustrow for a single-day Bridge School Benefit show back in the mid-nineties, but by the end of the millenium it has expanded into a marathon of four days of Neil-related nirvana -- both musically, and communally. Rusties gathering from all over the world to experience music by Neil and his friends and by other musically talented Rusties. And not only for the music, but for the joy of each other's company. In the flesh. To bring life to those email faces and handles.
This is the story of one Rustie's pilgrimage.
But then a series of potential tasks associated with the trip came up. One involved possible completion of the sales of the Somewhere On A Desert Highway poster at the Bridge show. Another involved a possible limited cybercast (involving text-only "on-the-scene" reports) from the show. And a third involved the possibility of arrangements for a special guest at one of the Rustie events. With all these things pending and concert ticket sales coming soon, and with RE*AC*TRESS's encouragement, I decided to go for it.
But then a couple of setbacks. First the Bridge School wouldn't look into allowing the Somewhere On A Desert Highway poster to be sold alongside the other posters at the shows, even though it was an officially sanctioned Bridge School project. Various excuses were given, none too satisfactory. Basically they amounted to other people having exclusive rights to do that kind of charity for the school. :-(
The second setback was that the limited cybercast was nixed, again due to "exclusive rights". :-( I pressed the case that there are lots of folks out there without the means to follow the "official" deep-pockets donor's cybercast, but nobody wanted to pursue it. So those of you who rely on HyperRust to follow the show were out of luck...
But the final task that had helped me to justify the trip bore fruit. An invitation to Billy Talbot to drop by one of the events associated with the IRF, and possibly bring his guitar and play a song or two, was accepted by Billy. Now things were looking up again.
Billy passed the word that he'd like to do a whole set. Though this was great news, there was a bit of apprehension about how it would affect the Rustie open-mic night that was already being planned. A fair number of Rusties had been looking forward to performing in the tiny venue that was such a part of Neil-history. With trepidation, it was decided to accept Billy's request.
Next thing we knew Billy was asking what we'd think about it being an ELECTRIC set, with a band. Of course that sounded great, but then a new fear arose: what if the word got out, and his involvement was misinterpretted as a possible Neil & The Horse stealth gig? Of course WE all know that's ridiculous (since Neil's totally wrapped up with visits by the Bridge show performers at that time), but you know how rumors are...
We let Billy know of our fears and we all crossed our fingers that such a bogus rumor wouldn't spread. Wishful thinking. More on this later...
So this year I booked a cheap room near the San Francisco airport and left for the west coast a day earlier. After kissing an envious RE*AC*TRESS good-bye on Wednesday afternoon, I took an uneventful flight across the country. Actually caught up on a few long over-due updates to HyperRust. The drizzly remains of a several-day storm were petering out as I arrived in San Francisco.
I immediately crashed in the room near the airport and slept as late as
my reluctant body would let me. This put me onto West Coast
time pretty smoothly. I knew I'd be able to handle a late night at the
OPL without problems.
Pilgrimage Day One (daytime)
A further attempt to optimize things had me book a room in Half Moon Bay
for Thursday, so I wouldn't have to cross the mountains again late at
night after the OPL festivities. So I checked out of the airport
room and headed over there. On the way, I dropped by the
once again, and passed on to them the latest procedes check from the sales
of the Somewhere On A Desert Highway
poster. It was nice to finally meet Joyce, after having missed her
on my previous visits. Since a big Halloween festival was being set up,
I didn't hang around and get in the way.
I ended up arriving early (before "check-in time") in Half Moon Bay, so I headed on over to the OPL. I figured I'd get some lunch there while waiting to see if Luke (who was coordinating the open-mic night) had gotten there yet. We were going to make sure that Billy's set-up for his band's performance wasn't going to be any problem, and that they indeed were going to let us use his PA equipment for the open-mic.
On the way to the OPL along Highway 1 the ocean view revealed some fantastic surf. Looked to be about ten feet, to my untrained eye. The recent storm had really stirred things up. Surfers were parked all along the way, and many were scoping out the surfers who were already riding those big breakers.
I proceded on, and the first thing I see when I round the curve to the OPL is a crowd milling about. My first fearful thought is "Oh shit! What kind of rumor about tonight has gotten out?" But then I noticed the surfboards in several of the cars and realized these were people drawn to the shore by the news of big waves. I definitely saw Surfer Joe there, and I think Moe The Sleaze was around somewhere.
After I ate a house-special chicken enchilada without any sign of Luke, or anyone who'd be working on Billy's gear, I decided to go check into the motel. Found a flat tire on my rental car (Shit! again) and after putting that little teenie spare on I ended up wasting a couple of hours getting the tire fixed. When I finally made it back to the OPL, Luke was there and people were rolling boxes of cables and PA equipment and stuff into the OPL and the set-up had begun.
Billy stopped by later to check on things, and confirmed that we'd be
able to use his PA. He was worried about his voice since he'd been up
really late trucking the PA stuff down from his studio the night before.
He took off to rest soon after. I headed on up to the Mountain House
to catch up with the other Rusties who were arriving on their own pilgrimages.
Pilgrimage Day One (night time)
It was really really nice to walk into the Mountain House and
see familiar faces from previous IRFs. And then to greet others as they
arrived. It's such a mellow place to kick things off. Chatting about
before the meal brings people up to date on what's been happening.
The meal itself is always great, and the atmosphere is divine. This
is truly Neil country.
After the scrumptous banquet at the Mountain House, the Rusties adjourned down the mountain and through the woods to the sea shore to mix with a bunch of rowdie locals who were hanging out because they "heard that Neil was gonna play". Though the crowd was just small enough to not squeeze any Rusties out the door, it was a tight fit and the noise was high.
Unfortunatley the high noise volume did a number on the Rustie open-mic night, keeping anyone who wasn't near the front of the room from hearing very clearly. But plenty of Rusties did get a chance to perform in one of Neil's legendary venues. If you could internally tune out the "who's that guy? when's Neil going to get here? I think I recognize that song, what's it called? did you see the surf today? let me through. watch it! don't threaten me! I'll kick your ass!" noise, you got to hear some sweet sweet Rustie music. I'll leave it to someone more directly involved in the open-mic events to fill in more details.
Just before midnight this guy in a beanie walks in with his guitar, and people started scrambling around the stage plugging in instruments and plucking strings and bumping mics and before you know it there are 6 guys crammed into that small space on the south end of the OPL, by the dart scoreboards. Drums & bass and a bunch of guitars, and a keyboard that a couple of the guitar players would take turns on from time to time. I just call them "Billy and Friends."
Billy Talbot took off the beanie to reveal his new close-cropped look (reducing his past Crazy Horse height by a few inches) but otherwise he was still the Billy we've all grown fond of, and felt sorry for when Neil busted his chops in Muddy Track. But this time he was up front, and was ready to do HIS material for us. To his left was Matt Piucci, which meant that we had half of the "Left For Dead" Crazy Horse in the House. Had the rumor jelled about Ralph possibly showing, it'd have been 3/4 of that version of Crazy Horse.
But this half of that version of Crazy Horse, along with artist Jeff Chase on bass, a really sharp drummer named Stephan Junca, a wild and constantly smiling accoustic guitarist named Tom Carnes, and another young guy named Eric Pearson (who sometimes played keys and sometimes traded Les Paul licks with Matt), was ready to play a very eclectic set of Billy's songs for us.
Billy started with his accoustic strapped on and the band ripped into the old Crazy Horse classic New Orleans. They followed that with
As he'd mentioned (up above), Billy's voice was a bit raw all night. But only a few times did it miss the mark. Once or twice I thought maybe Tom Waites had snuck in to do a few verses -- but I had no complaints. The songs ranged from frollicking rockers to mellow crooners, to rambunctious jams. Some had complex arrangements with several bridges. Billy's diversity as a song-writer was readily apparent.
A highlight was the 15 minute jam called Security Girl. Reminiscent of T-bone -- though it did have a FEW more lines -- it featured THREE wailing Les Pauls taking turns ripping up the place. But the set was only about half through at that point, and the tone changed several times as some songs featured more of the accoustic, and some featured Matt's wailing electrics.
Matt's leads shined all night. They exuded soul.
When they finished their last song, Billy and the boys seemed surprised that we insisted on an encore. But they gamely strapped the guitars back on and played much of an incomplete ("that was supposed to be the bridge -- we don't know the bridge...") new song called Stained to complete the evening. As they were finishing, the OPL's owner had pushed his way to the front of the stage and was telling them to wrap it up since the folks who worked there had to go home.
Billy was really happy that we liked their first ever public performance,
and thanked all the folks who had come from so far away (there were a lot
of French, English, German, etc, accents in the house for some
reason :-) He did seem genuinely moved at the reception that
he and his friends received, and I was happy to have been there
to experience his music first hand.
Pilgrimage Day Two
Friday is the day the International RustFest shines.
Many more people (who couldn't get off Thursday) arrive and
renew old acquaitences. Hanging out under the Redwoods in Neil
Country with all your Rustie friends does something for the soul.
Even the chilly nights can't dampen the spirit of it. And to
take it to the next level, there's the Rustie Jam.
Getting there from Half Moon Bay was another treat... After checking out of the motel, I took the scenic route down to Saratoga. First the beautiful shore cliff views of Highway 1 down to the eastbound road through La Honda and up to Skyline Blvd. A quick lunch at Alice's (the new version of the restaraunt depicted in the flashback in the Harvest Moon video). And then on down the Skyline to Big Basin, and on into Saratoga. Did I mention this was Neil Country?
IRF 99's jam sets the record for IRF music quality, no question. There wasn't a "clunker" in the batch (not that ANY Rustie playing at an IRF would ever perform a clunker). A few technical problems here and there, but hey -- we're freezing our butts off in the woods; it's amazing that it worked at all!
The Jam started a bit later than hoped (those damn musicians just love their sound checks... :-) But by the time the sun went down, wailing Neil tunes (and one Joni Mitchel one -- brilliantly selected by Kato) filled the Cathedral Grove and the surrounding mountainsides almost non-stop to the midnight hour. Various combinations of players representing several continents shook all the Rust off the Redwoods all night long.
I'm not even going to THINK about being comprehensive or meticulous here, since all I did was stand around and groove all night, but here are a few Rustie Jam highlights that spring to mind:
We were all OUT OF CONTROL, wish you coulda been out of control
Pilgrimage Day Three: Bridge XIII, Day 1
Unlike last year, getting to Shoreline for a Bridge concert
merely before the gates opened was not enough for a "smooth entrance".
There were many many folks already waiting in lines to get in (presumably
lawn-sitters hoping to stake out a good spot). But once the gates opened
things moved pretty quickly and another sunny Bridge day had begun.
Got the T-shirt thing out of the way before most folks were even in the gate. Headed up to the regular Rustie meeting area and was disappointed to see that a beer tent was now almost TOUCHING the totem pole, and a picnic table was within a few feet of it. Were they trying to keep the Rusties from gathering around it for group shots? Nahhh, just more crass commercialism. (And all day, every trek near the totem would bring cries of "get your cold beer here!" from the sellers inside that beer tent... )-:
The Bridge School tent was expanded to include a "Bridge Concert Museum". They ran video of various historic performances on a big screen TV inside it all day and night. They had lots of cool pics and all the signed "pellons" (or whatever you call them) hanging on the walls. The PCs in the tent were actually on-line and being used to demo the webcast. Later in the evening some of the volunteers were busy playing solitaire on them... :-)
Rusties started showing up, and the picnic tables near the totem and the Bridge Tent started sprouting familiar faces. Many from the IRF, others who'd not been around since last year's show. It was cool to connect up again with the other pilgrims.
Soon Neil was sitting around every table. Lots of him. Oh, wait, it's Halloween, eh? The associate-Rustie "Young Neil's Dad" had brought a bunch of life-size prints of Neil's kisser, each mounted on a stick, with eye holes, and passed them out to any Rustie who asked. All the non-Rusties who passed by were stunned...
It seemed like no time before we realized that Pegi would be out shortly. We scrambled to our seats and I was happy to realize that I was going to have the closest view I'd had in my 5 shows. Right behind the wheel-chair "seats" in the front of 201. It was great until moments before Pegi came out. That's when one of those scooter-chairs pulled in right in front of me, and the guy in it was sitting on a seat almost high as my own (despite his being on the lower "platform" for the disabled folks). It never fails. I don't think I'll EVER get a nice clear concert view...
Well, despite my visual impediment, Neil's opener set was a treat for me. Yeah, same old songs, but they sounded GREAT. I know that Neil just wants to make the Bridge attendees "comfortable" with his opening songs, and I'm sure that he did (for everyone but the Rusties looking for something new or edgy). He looked pretty good, too, for such an old fart. :-) Didn't look to me like he'd pigged out on the Euro-cuisine while doing the recent CS_Y promo tour over there...
I decided to take Lucinda's set as a food break (I know that'll horrify some of you) since I didn't want to miss Smashing Pumpkins or Green Day. Big mistake: not much later when Jim Beller walked up to Hippy Girl and Rewriting the Rules and me (stuffing our faces) and told us Neil HAD come out -- with Emmylou, too -- we thought it was one of those Rustie scams. But he had the proof on his digital camera viewfinder. Oh shit. Well, I won't miss Lucinda OR Emmylou's sets at the Sunday show!
Corrigan and Iha did a really nice, mellow set, taking turns singing lead. They also brought out Jimmy Chamberlin so in fact this was a Smashing Pumpkins performance. Billy said that they would have had their new bass player, too, but that she was in Rome playing in a chess tournament. (I don't know if that was supposed to be a funny or not...)
Green Day rocked the house. Watching little Billy Joe up there tearing up the stage is a trip, and their songs had everybody in spasms. Power pop roolz! I hope they get a new album out there sometime soon.
Brian Wilson's set was as nice and as weird as usual. His voice sounded good, and his big band did a good job of covering the areas where he's weak. But his banter was a bit off -- almost as if somebody was telling him through an ear-piece what to say. But I enjoyed his set a lot -- especially his Surfin' USA, with backing by Neil and Eddie Vedder and Sheryl Crow. After the song, Neil did a "we're not worthy!" bow to Brian. Also memorable was a rousing Good Vibrations.
For some reason they scheduled Tom Waits on Saturday instead of on Halloween Sunday. I'm not sure why -- I'm sure he did a good job of scaring the hell out of the Bridge kids! :-) Though I find him interesting, I'm not a big fan, so I took a break to get some coffee to warm me up. (The coffee line has got to be the slowest line in Shoreline...)
Pearl Jam was great, and Eddie told some of his stories. Described how Neil had taken him aside at the Ranch the day before and revealed to him that he was his Dad. Ed said he'd then asked "Dad" if he could live at the Ranch, and that Neil had said "NO." The set was cool, and included Last Kiss among other favorites, and at least one new song.
Neil's set was another standard one -- he played all his songs off Looking Forward (except the door-bell one :-) and a few of the arrangements from the solo tour (LMYR on the pump organ, Southern Pacific on guitjo, etc). No new songs this time (I realized that he'd spoiled us at Bridge 11 and 12 with the new ones -- maybe he'll do something new Sunday). His voice was in FINE form and he exuded an air of inner peace. Grades: voice=A-plus, playing=A, surprises=D-minus.
I took a break during Sheryl Crow's set and ran into our old buddy David Warringon (photographer who took the Somewhere On A Desert Highway poster photo). I did get back to watch the later part of Sheryl's set. Very nice. One talented performer. I'm sure that all the Crow fans were pleased.
Suddenly I realized it was already past midnight! Jeeez, I'd never been at a shed show where they let it go on so late (all those damn curfews are a piece of crap). By the time the 'Oo took the stage it was past 12:30. But it was WELL worth staying up for.
They did several favorites (Blue Eyes, Won't Be Fooled, Can't Explain, etc) and off-beat stuff like Boris the Spider and Maryann With The Shakey Hands. Roger even slipped in a bit of a Johnny Cash medley. They seemed to be having a blast, and Pete was as irreverent as ever. NOBODY sat down during their set. They finished with The Kids Are Alright, which I'm sure will end up on a future Bridge School compilation CD.
As late as it was, I figured they'd forgo the finale-jam, but everybody did come out and join Neil for I Shall Be Released. Eddie sang most of the alternate verses, Emmylou joined Neil at his mic. Everyone else milled around from mic to mic. A very mellow closer. 1:30am! Was that a record for a Bridge show?
Got back to the hotel sometime after 2:00am and unfortunatley had to
get up early the next day...
Pilgrimage Day Four: Bridge XIII, Day 2
After packing up and checking out of the Saratoga Oaks Lodge (not
exactly cheap, but a very nice room, and convenient to the campground) I
decided to forgo a stop for lunch and head on over to Shoreline. Though I
only arrived a few minutes earlier than Saturday, the back parking lot wasn't
even open yet! After circling back to the front lot, I found myself
parking right across the street from the amphitheater's gates.
(I guess the earlybirds all go to the Saturday show.) Stood in
the "waiting for the gates to open" line with all those lawn folks
for a half hour and did some people watching. Very mellow. And
very warm in the non-shade.
Watched all the folks having to throw away their cans & glass bottles as they took their coolers in. I got through the gates quickly. Noticed that most of the T-shirts had already sold out Saturday! SOMEBODY screwed up on a chance for some bigger profits... Wandered up to the usual Rustie gathering areas (by the Bridge tent) and found myself to be the first there. Soon, along came Lookout Mama, who wasn't feeling very good about getting the word that Neil would be playing last on Sunday -- she had to catch an early plane! (Don't you hate it when that happens???)
I went down and checked the view from my seat -- it was the first time that'd I'd ever gotten lucky enough to score a 100 level seat (since I have this thing about not dealing with scalpers) at the Bridge. My seat was WAAYYY over to the right (against the aisle) but close enough to make up for the oblique view. After Saturday's view-impediment, I was getting really excited about today's view...
Back up to the Rustie gathering and the usual chitchat. The minor downer about being the last day of a great 4-day pilgrimage was offset by the anticipation of the upcoming show. Plans were made to meet for the traditional Rustie group photo shot after the Who's set. Too bad some of the folks who could only make it to Saturday's show got left out, but it was nice that we could make the arrangement at all, considering how Shoreline was now packing beer tents and picnic tables around the pole.
Back to my seat for the opening of the show and this time Pegi was only about 20 feet away. After a while Neil came out and told her to stop hogging the stage and let him play :-) which she did, and he did. The opener looked like yesterday's but he traded Daddy Went Walkin' for yesterday's Heart of Gold. Then he introduced his old friend Emmylou Harris, who did a very pretty set. The highlight for me was her doing, as she put it, "a song that I didn't write" (Townes Van Zandt did): The Ballad of Pancho and Lefty. However I did miss Willie and/or Merle taking a turn at a verse...
Then the first high of the afternoon: The Who blew the place away. Pretty much the same set as Saturday, but they told a few different jokes, and Roger did his whole Johnny Cash medley this time (sounding eerily like Johnny). Regardless, it was all done spectacularly, and despite the earliness of their set nobody sat down through it (except during the Cash medley).
When they first came out Roger commented on having trouble waking up, so Pete whacked him on the back of the head ("NOW I'm awake..."). Later when Pete made his speech about coming back to Bridge and this time having asked Roger & John to come, Roger said "We'll go ANYWHERE you want us too!" or something like that. Their bows at the end of their set were VERY moving, especially when Pete gave Roger a bear hug.
Today I skipped the Pumpkins to go back and do the Rustie group pic, and mix some more. That's the zenith of Rust, those mixers on the Shoreline green... Afterward I did catch Lucinda's set today, and enjoyed it a lot -- especially the Lucinda/Emmylou/Neil collaborations.
Brian Wilson's set was fun and strange. Especially when viewed from up close. I now realize why he was staring straight ahead so much on Saturday -- he uses a teleprompter. (Whoever controls the speed of what's displayed on it needs to practice more, since quite often Brian reads stuff from it too soon...) A couple of times Brian turned his gaze toward my area and through binoculars his wide eyes and grim-looking mouth were VERY scary! But the songs were great and he sang just fine and we all had a lot of fun. Especially Neil, who laid down the Vibrations foundation on the pump organ. And played that middle organ solo in the song. That was a real trip. Then when everyone came out to help with Surfin' USA : Neil (with his guitar), Sheryl on a mic with the female backup singer, Emmylou and Pegi on a mic in the back, and most striking to me: Eddie and Roger sharing a mic. I'd love to get a photo of that (I hope Babineau got it, he was everywhere).
The strangest part of the whole night occured as Brian's set went over. After taking their bows he said "let's rock some more" and everyone ran back out and grabbed their instruments. He said, "Let's do Good Vibrations again!" and Neil sat down at the pump with a big grin on his face. After about a dozen bars of the song, Brian said "That's enough" and got up and they all left. Neil had one of those "What the heck was THAT all about?" grins on his face as he got up and left, too. (Who says brain damage can't be fun?)
Green Day again ripped up the place. I pogoed myself silly. But I hope that Tre Cool's flinging/flying drum-sticks didn't put out any of the Bridge kid's eyes...
Pearl Jam was absolutely amazing from up close. I finally got to see Eddie do Black from close enough to watch his brow wrinkle. Very moving. Jam has to be the most solid band to have come out of the 90s...
Missed most of Sheryl again as I said final good-byes to some of the Rusties out by the totem pole. sniff...sniff
For the first time in years, Neil did the closing set at a Bridge show. Everybody figures that means he'll have some surprise guests out. To add to the ferver, several extra mics are set up on the stage. Enough for C, S, and N? If so, one of them will need to be lowered to wheel-chair level. Then somebody comes out and lowers one of the mics. Could it be??? Nope, they lower ALL of them, and move them aside.
Modemless Fred had been sitting several rows closer to the stage than I, and comes up and lets me know there's an empty seat beside his. I grab it just in time before the rest of the empty seats down there fill in. Unlike my Seattle disaster (when my "front row" seats turned into third row behind some high chairs and big wide people) this time I was really going to see Neil up close and CLEARLY. Finally I get the really good view that has been eluding me for so long...
Neil comes out and goes right into the Old King story. Says it's not a great "opener" song, but "it sure as hell isn't a good closer!" Does the longest version of the story that I've heard. Fun, even if you saw it on the solo tour.
Neil was very talkative -- much moreso than on the solo tour. Probably a result of euphoria over the success of the shows as they drew to a close. Or maybe a few beers or something. Whatever. But he did have a lot of fun with us, especially with Homegrown, where he had half of the audience chanting "HOOOOOOOME...GROOOOOOOWN" and the other half singing the regular verses along with him.
Most of the rest was the same as Saturday, except that he took a request to play Cortez The Killer. He picked up his 12-string and called for Larry to retune it to D. Before he could finish telling us that -- if he himself did the tuning -- it would take 10 minutes, Larry had finished. Took him less than 10 seconds! Lar-ry! Lar-ry! Lar-ry!
Everybody was still hoping that Neil would finish playing a few songs and then bring out somebody to do something unexpected. CSN? Bruce Springsteen? Pearl Jam? No such luck -- he finished his set and then broke out the I Shall Be Released jam again. It's very nice, but definitely an anti-climax.
As I trekked to the parking lot and then on up to a cheap room at the airport, it really set in that the pilgrimage was about over...
Which is where I am right now. Did you know that the new 737 planes try so hard to pack as many people into them that they don't even let you adjust the seat backs anymore? We're just sardines as far as the airlines are concerned these days...
And of course the second leg of my flight back just got cancelled because of "equipment problems". Yeah, right. In fact they just have two half empty planes going to South Florida (one to my area, the other to Ft.Lauderdale) and need to optimize their profits at our expense again. So they've dumped everyone from my flight onto the Ft.L one. "Equipment problem" my ass.
Yep, the pilgrimage is over.
And the Rustie Jam was trancendent.
And Billy choosing to show us Rusties the first performance of his band (for FREE, too) was something to treasure.
I'm just thinking about how great the first pilgrimage of the NEXT millennium is going to be!
(Sure beats thinking about the crap going on with this flight...)
PS: Next year, RE*AC*TRESS will definitely be there...