Saturday, August 13, 2016
The Gear Daddies at the Mower County Fair
The knee that I ruined on a Chicago curb was suddenly sore. It was a nasty, gouty pain encircling an unstable hollow place. Indeed, at first, I thought that it was another gout attack but couldn’t remember anything unusual I had eaten in the preceding few days. Climbing stairs was agony and bending my leg in the car hurt. In the end, I ascribed the soreness to two things – the general, unpredictable physical suffering of old age and a change in the weather.
When I was a little boy, I remember that the weather seemed to be different every day. In the summer, one afternoon might be parched with deserts of asphalt and gravel glinting maliciously like broken glass and, then, the next morning would feel like football weather, even early November, with icy rain falling and, then, a moderate day sweet as an apple would follow and, in turn, be succeeded by a stormy night full of clouds folded in menacing packages around bursts of lightning. In the winter, it snowed every day except that every day was also clear and cloudless so that every calorie of heat leaked away from the earth into outer space. The weather doesn’t take this form any more – instead, we have systems that seize hold of the terrain, lock themselves in place, and fortify their positions. This entrenched weather doesn’t readily yield to anything different. If it is uncomfortably hot and steamy, you can bet that the tropical weather will last for a week or ten days. If it’s cold, the chill will linger until the trees start to change in mid-July. And when it rains, the clouds cling close to the earth so the downpour can last for days.
The ten days before the Gear Daddy’s big concert at the Mower County Fair were sultry – the humidity was high enough on several afternoons to trigger heat index warnings. But, then, midweek, the monsoons came. First the rain was tears leaking from the dark clouds, hot, syrupy stuff. It poured for a white hour or so, and, then, drizzled all night long. The next day, Thursday, it was still moist outside and very warm and the trees trickled water into the gutters and there was dense fog at the end of the streets. Then, the sun came out for a short while and kicked the water back into the low-hanging clouds and it began to rain once more, spotty bursts of rain falling unpredictably and, then, again, a night musical with drizzle in the trees and downspouts. All day Friday, rain fell – now becoming colder and harder, pelting rain with an edge. How could there be a concert in this stuff?
By 5:00 pm, the rain had stopped but the streets were still wet and the sidewalks littered with deadfall and leaves splashed off the trees by the earlier downpours. I walked the 12 blocks from my house to fair. Some of the intersections where the storm sewers had overflowed were still flooded. The ferris wheel and the brightly lit rides at the county fair’s small carnival glared against low, dark grey clouds scudding by overhead.
To reach the grandstand, you had to walk through the beer garden where each entrant was issued one 16 ounce free beer or one bottle of water. Some of the audience members were wearing windbreakers. A few sets of light-weight aluminum bleachers were set up on the demolition derby track in between the grandstand and the stage, another aluminum scaffold erected about 120 feet from the grandstand bleachers. Earthmoving graders had attacked the track an hour earlier, scraping the surface puddles and top six-inches of mud into oozing mucky windrows around the edges of the field. Beneath the mud, the earth was a scuffed grey-brown, slippery-looking surface, moist but not wet and without pools of water. The big puddles had been displaced into a shallow muddy lake at the base of the grandstand and extending its length. Other shallow ponds, big as swimming pools stood at intervals in the field. Behind the scaffold stage, cars and pickups were parked and the small trailers where the carneys and food stand people lived during the week. Many of the cars and pickups were mired in the mud and, from time to time, a front-end loader would dig around the vehicles or a tow-truck with blinking lights would come to haul someone out of the swamp. (The Gear Daddies seem to attract rain in Austin – I remember a show called "Down by Iowa" at the fair grounds almost 20 years ago that deteriorated into a Woodstock-style mud festival.)
Six Mile Grove opened for the Gear Daddies. Six Mile Grove, said to come from the small town of Lyle on the Iowa border, is a perfectly competent, well-rehearsed country-western band. I paid attention to their first couple of songs and they were briskly executed country rock, a notch more amplified than what you might hear on Garrison Keillor’s Prairie Home Companion show. The songs had a little bit of an Oklahoma twang – after all, Lyle is as far south as you can get as long as you stay in Minnesota – and I admired them. Unfortunately, the plight of a warm-up band is a sad one. No one really wants to hear them play and, as Six Mile Grove’s set lengthened, of course, the audience wanted them to finish, vacate the stage, and cede the place to the Gear Daddies. As a result, a warm-up band has a claim to your attention for the first 20 minutes of their gig – after that, everything is pretty much superfluous and the hard-drinking crowd at this show vacated their seats en masse to buy beer in the adjacent beer garden. Six Mile Grove played with increasing desperation, amping up the music and virtuosity, but it didn’t matter – no one wanted what they were selling; they ended up with a kind of droning space-rock with Hank Williams inflections, a mix between Lyle Lovett and Captain Beefheart.
As Six Mile Grove played, the sky put on an exemplary show to compete with them. The heavy cloud cover burst apart, dissolving into vaguely stallion-shaped clouds that raced overhead, only a few hundred feet off the ground. The clouds reared and plunged, moving at improbable speed from north to south – it was as if we were witnessing a celestial army in defeat, retreating in disarray from a battlefield. Then, the western sky, previously a dull grey, ripped itself open to reveal a vast and far country, suffused with lurid red light – the clouds looked like striated heart tissue, bright scarlet and stretched across the western horizon. These streamers were furrowed by clefts full of sky of the most delicate cerulean, the tint that you might glimpse and never be able to properly describe in the glaze of an exquisite Japanese vase. The sun ignited the puddles and made them reflect the wan defeated cloud cavalry trailing by overhead and the metal roofs of the livestock barns were ablaze with light. The panes of glass in the tractors and earthmovers parked around the infield were glorified and the sudden change in the weather, the onset of blue skies, made the audience, already hard-drinking, exhilarated, so that they drank all the more.
It would be picturesque to say that the Gear Daddies made the music of my youth. But this is inaccurate. The Gear Daddies formed and flourished in the 80's – their run of good luck was, more or less, exhausted, I think, around the time of the Fall of the Berlin Wall. When I was in college, I defined myself by listening to Tom Verlaine’s Television, Richard Wagner, Lou Reed, Patti Smith, the Rolling Stones and Beatles, Exene Cervenka and Lone Justice and, of course, Bruce Springsteen. (Now that I am an old man, I mostly tune my radio to talk shows and, occasionally, listen to a little bit of Warren Zevon.) The Gear Daddies were the music that accompanied the prime of my life – the confused period of my first marriage and the infancy of my children, many court hearings and trials and the effort to establish myself as a lawyer, too much drinking, too much rage and anger, poverty most of the time, worries about money, the loss of my avocation as a writer. The Gear Daddies produced the last music to which I have listened to carefully, attentively, as something that spoke specially to me. And so, when I heard this music played, memories flooded me, and regrets as well, and I felt like I should weep until my eyes were sore, but, of course, an old man doesn’t cry and hasn’t enough juice, left in him, even, to wet his cheeks with tears. The whole experience, of course, was densely meaningful to me, encoded with so much personal recollection, that I can’t possibly provide an objective account of the concert or it significance to me.
I should say that Marty Zellar, the lead singer began with a signature tune, "She’s happy". It’s a great song, although I always thought that the lyrics were slightly patronizing when Zeller sang them when he was 25. He’s now in his late forties, I suppose, maybe, older and I no longer hear the words as condescending. The singer has grown into his lyrics – the words now seem true and just to me, a secret, gnostic gloss on Lou Reed’s "Sweet Jane". (The lyrics to "She’s Happy" include a chorus that says: "some say that life’s useless,it’s boring and dull," a phrase that derives directly from Lou Reed’s song – I know that at the time "She’s Happy" was composed another band in Austin that influenced Mr. Zellar was performing a powerful cover version of "Sweet Jane.") Zellar followed with the obligatory Zamboni song, a novelty tune that has made him moderately famous – he made a snarky remark after performing the song to the effect that the audience could leave now, having heard, I suppose, Zellar’s most famous composition. Next, the band played a cover of Prince’s "Little Red Corvette", a tribute to the late, lamented Minneapolis musician – Marty Zellar remarked that he had read an interview with Prince in which the artist said that he had been in Austin to hear his father’s big band play at a dance at the Terp Ballroom. (The old Terp by the river side has been a ruin, an evangelical church, a ruin again, a Mexican restaurant and ballroom, and, even, a place where Mexican immigrants play indoor soccer games in the winter. In short, in the 37 years that I have lived in Austin, the Terp has been everything but a ballroom.) The comment by Prince is probably apocryphal – I would have to work out some dates to confirm it – but I hope it is true. Next, Zellar and the band played the poignant "Statue of Jesus" – also a song rooted deeply in Austin’s landscape: the tune refers to an effeminate and ghostly-looking image of Jesus standing in a niche at the big brick Catholic Church that define the north-south axis of the town. Billy Dankert performed a rousing rendition of a Gear Daddies song that he wrote: "Blues, Mary." Zellar, then, did a song that I didn’t recognize and, thereafter, "Heavy Metal Boys". Over the years, "Heavy Metal Boys", like "She’s Happy" has evolved – originally, the song was satiric, an attack on Austin’s "small-town people". Zellar now performs the tune very, very slowly as a dirge and it was wonderfully effective, and terribly sad, an elegy from which the contempt has drained away. Midway through the set, Zellar lost his way and seemed, for a moment, to be angry at his audience and the venue and these fairgrounds with snorting pigs and crowing roosters and big, mournful cows only a hundred yards away. The band tinkered with some covers, played only enough of a tune to whet the crowd’s appetite and, then, stopped so that the musicians could banter with one another and members of the crowd. It was a little unseemly and went on too long and there is always a sense with Martin Zellar that his detestation of the small town where he was raised is authentic and, even, insulting. However, the and retreated from taunting the audience with a powerful version of the hymn-like prayer "Strength" and, then, several upbeat tunes including "The Color of her Eyes" and "Just another stupid boy" – both wonderful songs. In their best music, Zellar snarls out his lyrics so that they hit you right between the eyes, then, the guitars all chime together like a bell ringing, and the filigree of the steel guitar decorates the whole thing like smoke curling off a vivid, bright fire. In concert, the Gear Daddies depend heavily on the steel and lead guitar of Randy Broughten – his contribution seems less significant in the band’s recorded work. Broughten has some rock-and-roll charisma, and, although he’s generally a modest performer, he can crank out tasteful, understated, and completely serviceable guitar solos. (A lot of the on-stage banter involved Mr. Broughten – he’s ten or twelve years older than his bandmates and met them when he was substitute teaching a high school class in which Marty Zellar and bass guitarist, Nick Ciola, were enrolled.)
After "Stupid Boy," the band left the stage. A small drone had parked itself over the stage, advancing away from where the sunset had flared and gone. Behind Buffy the Cow, the Fair’s house-high fiber glass mascot, someone had lit a bonfire and a big column of orange fire roared upward into the darkness. The audience was full of Austin’s leaders – politicians, lawyers, doctors, some accountants, college professors, and, of course, also large contingents of has-been bikers, former juvenile delinquents, and off-duty cops. (After following the Gear Daddies for several years in Austin’s squalid, if lively taverns – bands had to play from 8 to 1:00 am with only a ten minute break per hour and there was never a cover charge -- I was appalled to travel to the Twin Cities and see the band packing fashionable downtown bars at 10 dollars a head door-charge with loathsome frat boys staggering drunk and punching at one another. These places were so crowded that they relied on the cover-charge for revenue and didn’t even bother selling anyone a drink.) Everyone was at the show and the grandstand was packed and the bleachers in the field below perched on the edges of the lagoons were also crowded, women standing on them and swaying back and forth, and, as well, the entire dirt field between the grandstand and the stage was also crowded, elbow to elbow with people, long lines at the porta-potties – to use the German verb, es wimmelt (that is, the crowd writhed to the music). Lots of beer had been consumed at 4 dollars a can and most of the audience was very drunk and a lot of the women were dancing with one another and obviously sexually aroused. When the band vacated the stage after "Stupid Boy", the crowd clapped and, then, roared and, then, tried to knock down the grandstand bleachers with rhythmic stomping and so the Gear Daddies returned and played a very effective and generous encore – "My Baby does the Hanky Panky," "Drank so much I just feel stupid," a moving cover of Elvis Presley’s "I can’t help falling in love with you", and, finally, the anthem, "218" named after the highway that leads from Austin to Iowa and, also, from Austin to Minneapolis, like Highway 61, a place to be always revisited as both the road that leads to one’s home and, more importantly, perhaps, the route by which you make your escape.
I was supposed to meet members of the Gear Daddies in the beer tent, but it was too crowded and chaotic, and, after standing around for 45 minutes, I walked back home. I stopped at a food truck and bought a foot-long hot dog with onions – it was superb – and a sack of kettle corn.