The summer of 2023 was one of the exhausting labor of another move, the loss of a family member and the emotional turmoil of many homes pursued and not secured. My family and I have landed safely in a new place, albeit another temporary one, and I eagerly await the loosening of summer’s grip after this week. There is no train whistle that screams “GET OOOOOUT!” at all hours, and there is no peculiar feeling that everything is closing in. Denville’s toxicity plagued us in every way, but now it’s over. Even at this early stage, the tension in my neck appears to be releasing and the words are again beginning to flow.
In Steven Pressfield’s book, Turning Pro, he makes the point about how a professional always works, regardless of what has transpired in the life of the professional. If your marriage breaks up, you still write. If the whole world is falling down around your ears, you still write. It reminded me of the voice-over in Goodfellas when Henry Hill is describing what it means to go into business with Paulie, the mob boss. “Business bad? Fuck you, pay me. Oh, you had a fire? Fuck you, pay me. Place got hit by lightning, huh? Fuck you, pay me.”
While the need to accept the “professional” yoke may be true, I did struggle a great deal with it in Denville. I was able to complete certain things, like my last album, New Aquarius, but on the whole, making progress on most anything seemed like the most difficult task I could undertake. The place just sucked the life out of me. It’s probably premature to be describing this contrast after such a short time away – writing about it as if I’ve already emerged victorious from a crippling malaise that spanned years, but I do feel differently now.
The Almost Jazz & Art Festival at Bearsville Park, 9-3-2023
Ending the summer right, on Labor Day weekend, we were back up in Woodstock where we feel most at home. We were at the second Jazz & Art Festival at the Bearsville Theater. What they now call the Bearsville Complex has been developed quite extensively since 2019, when Olivia and I were there to shoot pictures of me for the sleeve of New Aquarius. Back then, the area outside the theater felt lonely, even abandoned. In a few short years, Lizzie Vann, the new owner, has revitalized the place. The theater is still a fine performance space, but it’s also a kind of museum too. There’s no way to leave it without having taken in a healthy dose of imagery about Bob Dylan, The Band, Janis Joplin and Bearsville Records. (Levon Helm is featured prominently in the men’s room.) The land behind the theater and Utopia Video has been transformed into a park. There are paths through the woods along which are displayed freestanding plaques representing the most iconic records associated with the Grossman organization, the Bearsville label, or the Bearsville studio.
I call the event last weekend the Almost Jazz & Art Festival because I heard more world music and blues than jazz. Oddly, the bulk of the jazz came from the Bill Evans record they played between sets. We still enjoyed ourselves, sitting in the grass just yards away from the grave of Albert Grossman (about which I never know quite how to feel, no matter how many times I visit).
One of the coolest things about Bearsville Park is that there are listening stations set up on patios scattered all around the property. Each patio has a pair of white loudspeakers creating a stereo image for the listeners in that area. There were no mains on the stage that I could see, but the live music seemed to be coming from everywhere. I always thought the scattered listening stations were a great idea (albeit one borne out of necessity during a pandemic), but to hear it work for a live event made the concert a very unique listening experience.
Way back in the shade were a couple of painters from the Woodstock School of Art attempting to capture the scene. One cat, whose name I couldn’t get for the life of me, was working on a promising watercolor. The image here was captured from a video shot by a woman I believe was Barbara O’Brien, Levon Helm’s old manager. When I saw the painting later, it was much further along. I always love a watercolor.
It’s important to remember that despite how overwhelming the history of the place can be to those of us who are inclined bask in it, Bearsville is still a small operation. Lizzie herself introduced the show, and it didn’t exactly run like clockwork. The food concessions became cash-only almost as soon as the concert started because the credit card machine broke.
You take it as it comes at Bearsville, but when I’m there or down the road in Woodstock, I always feel like I’m in the right place. That doesn’t happen often.. I never get tired of watching Sawkill Creek flow by (that’s Nicole’s picture of it up top) or the mountain looking over my shoulder. After the concert, we hung out in town for a while. We paid our respects at the graves of Levon Helm and Rick Danko as we often do. Soon the heat was telling us to head out.
As we rolled out of Woodstock, the traditional Sunday drum circle on the Village Green was still in full swing. I normally despise drum circles, but this one was like a grand metaphor for the challenges we faced in the Summer of 2023 and the suffering we endured for years in that horrible and joyless place from which we’d finally escaped. We weren’t going back there this time. As we headed down Mill Hill Road, the incessant thunder of the drum circle receded steadily behind us. And then, like so many things we dreaded and lamented for so long, it was gone.