Saturday morning, I took my second stab at radio commentary. Just feeling my way through the airwaves at your expense. If you’re the kind of person who’s curious about train wrecks and zeppelin explosions – insightful comments from Connie Deming and Phil Marshall aside – here’s the text. And you can listen to a longer version of the commentary than the one that appeared Saturday morning on WXXI-AM (1370) by going to WXXI.org.
The measure of a society is how it treats its most-vulnerable citizens.
For much of the last couple of decades, Connie Deming brought her guitar and voice directly to people who could not venture out to hear beautiful music. And that’s what Phil Marshall has been doing for 17 years now. That is why, in part, seeing them play together Saturday at Lovin’ Cup Bistro & Brews is such an inspired pairing.
The show should be a no-brainer anyway. Deming is one of the finest singers in Rochester, a swooping, multi-octave performer with an engaging stage presence. And a string of recent CD releases, each one more confident than the last. I follow Deming shamelessly, like a dog trailing a pork-chop wagon.
Marshall was the guitarist with one of the city’s most-treasured rock bands, The Colorblind James Experience. He’s since moved on to front his own bands. Lalaland, various forms of Phil Marshall projects, more recently The Fox Sisters and the enigmatic jazz quartet Margaret Explosion.
But mostly, the Deming and Marshall summit feels like a concept evening. Because of their sensibilities, what they’ve done for others.
Deming’s son is autistic. He’s on the severe side of autism spectrum, allowing him to communicate only through a keyboard. She raised David into adulthood, before handing him over to a group home, a place that accommodates his limited social skills and the heightened levels of stimulation that the outside world sometimes frighteningly sends his way. It was an experience that served her well for the dozen years that she spent playing group homes for senior citizens. Brightening their days with Beatles songs.
CONNIE: Thanks to my autistic son, I had to learn to listen to the voice of intuition much more completely. So when you enter a silent room filled with unknowns, all you have is that inner voice, plus your intention of making a meaningful connection, and your own cache of songs. And when you do get out of your own way, it feels most enjoyable. Where did that song come from? It wasn’t on the list of ideas you planned.
And sometimes, that’s where Deming’s own songs come from.
Music as therapy. Phil Marshall uses it as well. But his audience is one step deeper than Deming’s was. Marshall’s audience is in hospice. We are all dying, of course. But the people for whom Marshall plays are much closer to the end.
Marshall has posted little vignettes about his work on Facebook. Here’s one:
PHIL: Sometimes the room is so quiet. The husband sits at bedside and holds onto his wife’s hand. She’s resting comfortably, eyes closed and relaxed breathing. There are others in the room. Grandchildren I suspect. There is no joy, only anticipatory grief. I play the songs the husband suggests. He thanks me but nothing changes. There are tears and profound sorrow. I don’t know if I made a difference. I only know that I do what I’m asked to do. And before I say goodbye to the husband, I tell him it was a privilege to play for him and his family. And it was, as it always is.
Some of Marshall’s stories are funny. He writes, “I found myself contemplating opening my own skilled nursing facility catering to the cowboys, gangstas, punks and poets who just need a final respite. Welcome to Lost Highway Acres! Here’s your barstool, your pint, your cigarettes and morphine. I finally have a vision of where this has all been leading me.”
Where is it leading him? Where is it leading us? Some of Marshall’s songs are drawn straight from the stories he’s witnessed while playing for time rapidly drawing to a close.
PHIL: I ran into an old acquaintance the other evening who started off by asking me, “Do you still play for the little old ladies?” Well, let’s see: among others I’ve got a 40-year-old husband and father of two actively dying. I’ve got a man my age who likes The Beatles and Stones who doesn’t have much time. I’ve got an angry 17-year-old with a Stage 3 brain tumor. A woman my age whose mother, sister and son are all holding vigil at bedside.
And guess what: hard to believe but I don’t think of the elderly women on my roster as “little old ladies.” I respect them all far too much. So yeah, I found the question to be condescending, insensitive and clueless. I don’t play for little old ladies. I play for people standing on the threshold of something literally no one can really wrap their brain around.
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