How Might We Serve? (for Tom Bain)

I’m often given a variation of the same advice from wiser, more deeply experienced folk than myself on live performance. They say, “Remember, YOU are there for THEM. Not the other way around.” If we’re reflective and honest enough for the message to hit home with enough power, we might proceed with a new awareness and perhaps a struggle of consciousness, between the self-seeker and the giver within. This is how it’s been for me, anyway. For decades. Renowned theater director Tadashi Suzuki put it this way, “There are no good or bad actors. There are only greater or lesser degrees of profundity in an actor’s reason for being on stage.” Tracking that idea all the way down the line, to me, it’s vanity v. generosity. It’s being there for my own good, or being there for the good of others. Perhaps at the very, very end, there’s the ideal of actually synthesizing the two. To be in service and be served sounds simple enough, but the actualization is a mission. How many of us are selflessness in performance, to the extent that it happens like it should all of the time? How about for one brief moment in a given performance? Often? Ever? Every once in a while, an opportunity presents itself by and for which we are alleviated from the internal opposition, and only need to put into action what’s been prepared. The difference in those occasions, to me, is in the crystal clarity of why my presence as an artist is required.

Saturday, 3/18/2017 Featherburn plays at Trooper Thorn’s Irish Pub in Reading, Pa. About an hour into our set, a group of 10-12 people arrive and fill the tables and chairs in the middle of the room. Our first time in the place, we don’t know anyone, but (team fiddle player) Claudia, observant, caring and intuitive as usual, notices them to be an oddly talkative yet receptive bunch. They’re both encouraging and appreciative, but also involved within, especially for a group of that number. At any pub, coffee shop, restaurant show one plays, it’s common to have people present but drawn within their own gathering, the music often an affectionately chosen backdrop for folk who come to talk and libate. In my experience though, typically they attend in smaller groups. I say it’s not as common, for a collection of 10-12. So, why is it different tonight? Minutes into our set break Claudia, in a low voice close to my ear, “I don’t know what you want to do with this information, but I’m gathering that the group in the center of the room are the family owners of this place, who have just lost their father/husband/owner/patriarch two days ago.”


When on the periphery of a community in grief, I don’t know if there’s much to be done proper, but to acknowledge, respect, and honor the present experience of those we’re next to. They don’t want attention called to them, but their experience is important, and the gravity of the occasion comes alive. So what can we do to help? We can do our job very well. And then something special happens, when we’re thinking of the others as the important ones. Our self-consciousness fades. The piggie-ghosts of our hopes and desires for the future, our fears and apprehensions based in our pasts, are allowed to melt away, leaving us with (looking back, what seems like such a simple gesture and appropriate state of being) reverence. Humbled by the deep joy, love, anguish and fragility of the human experience, we can be reminded to act simply to help each other through.


The middle table at Trooper Thorn’s are here for a wake, if an informal one; to laugh, embrace, weep, meet with swollen and cracked hearts; to honor, remember, celebrate and ache in the presence of one another, the shared experience of a person powerfully held in their lives. We on the outside can ask our hearts to take a knee in acknowledgement. And then act for them. So, that’s what we do. Hearts open, minds off, playing fiddles, drums and guitar, one beat at a time. Offering smiles when eyes meet. Offering the song sung as fully as possible, for there’s no use in leaving – there’s no use in backing away, or averting eyes - but there IS a use for an usher. There’s use in the arm of another, strong at present in our own footing, to hold while walking forward to aide the knees shaken by loss. It’s what I think I would want, if I were in their position. And from my perspective, which is of SECONDARY IMPORTANCE, this is a simple, clear and easy task. Being of secondary importance is often hard to art, though. None of us had met Tom Bain, but through an odd sort of timing, our place is to offer our arm, just by playing the songs we’d spent time readying until now - to help usher. It’s a gift to be lead to this place, with such clarity of purpose; and I could finish with the story here and now, except there’s just a bit more.


The members of Featherburn offer our best personal condolences, then begin to gather up our gear. The house sound system we used is our responsibility to put away, and after wrapping, boxing and bagging some cords, mics and instruments, I carry the first of two 15” speakers up a narrow set of wooden stairs tucked just out of the way between the front bar and the back, leading up toward a private dining room, dark, quiet and separate from the rest of Trooper Thorn’s. Reaching the top, the change in atmosphere pops my heart’s eardrum. With the significance of the night very much in my consciousness, I immediately have the notion that this room is where Tom Bain is right now. A presence, palpable and still, even and sitting, no use denying it. I’m not one to see dead people. I’m more likely one who passes by the quieter voices, unaware. On occasion, I have inklings of my mom (died twenty years now) or my step-father (seven) that I feel as stronger or weaker taps of their continuing presence. Not at all often. At this moment though, the feeling is strong. Not overbearing, but completely evident, and it would be a dishonor to ignore it. So I stand, and receive. Open, breathing, quiet acknowledgment of the presence. And somehow it makes sense that he’d be here hanging out. The room’s energy at the same time joined and apart with the rest of the place and its people. When I open my eyes after a long break of still and silent appreciation, they’re looking high on the back wall of the room, straight at the sign hanging top and center next to pictures and crafts and reminders of days gone by. It reads to all who arrive here and take a moment to look, as if written by Tom Bain himself, “Live, Laugh, Love”.

It’s nice to meet you, Tom. Thanks.