I have written frequently about my friend, John Humphries. John is a cycling guide and a spirit. John and I have ridden our bikes across the top of the world and he’s helped me find strength I never knew I had. He has also introduced me to the Norwegian adage, “There is no such thing as bad weather, just a poor choice of clothes.” Immersion has taken twenty years, and been challenged, but that philosophy has enhanced my existence in ways I expected, and others I did not.
Recently, I stumbled upon the inverse of No Bad Weather.
I may have mentioned, I enjoy listening to music. There are no fewer than fifty shows on my list of The five best concerts I’ve ever seen.
I’ve seen REM, The Black Crowes, and The Red Hot Chili Peppers in a dive bar in college. I was at Farm Aid One in 1985, and saw Stevie Ray Vaughn play his last note five years later. Shows are added to the list with regularity, many featuring a Buddy Holly retro-looking guitar player named Joel Paterson.
JP was raised in Madison and moved to Chicago to shop his chops in the big town. He lives in a one-room apartment and drives a grey Honda with over 300km on the odometer. He’s been described as THE best guitar player in the city of Chicago, a freak, and a genius. Joel has been a part of a dozen or more of my Five Best.
A few stand out.
Wayne The Train Hancock calls himself The King of Juke Joint Swing. Wayne isn’t but five and a half feet tall and doesn’t weigh in over a buck fifty, but I’m not arguing. Google images has one shot of him with a semi-lighthearted smirk, otherwise he looks like a pissed-off Ernest T. Bass. He was born in Dallas, Texas, but his home is the road. He’s famous for playing three-and-a-half hour shows without a break. I suspect it’s because that way he doesn’t have to talk to anyone.
Wayne had just finished a show in Chicago, after which his lead guitar player and pedal steel man got into a knock-down-drag-out fight. One ended up in jail, the other in the hospital. Wayne was sipping a water at the bar lamenting out loud that he’d have to cancel his show in Madison the next night. The bartender wrote Joel’s number on the back of a coaster, “Call this guy.” Wayne looked up with his bulgy left eye, “Who the hell is Joel Paterson?” As if he had an option.
It was that middle Wednesday in January when the sun doesn’t even come up. The snow was blowing sideways down Highway V in front of the clinic. I was flying solo. The space created when my last two pet appointments of the day got stuck or couldn’t get their cars started was backfilled by a down-cow and two calvings. Two hours later I staggered back to the clinic. The legs of my insulated coveralls were saturated with blood and placenta and frozen into solid tubes.
Thank God for Terri.
I had pimped this show for weeks to anyone with ears and my girlfriend at the time loved music and dancing as much as me. She met me at the door with clean, dry clothes and ordered me into the shower.
We paid the cover and wedged ourselves among every musician in the city of Madison who’d come out to see Wayne. I was bumped in the back of the leg by a guitar case. Joel asked, “Hey, Bill, do you know which one is Wayne?”
They shook hands by the foot of the stage, “You know my stuff?” Wayne asked, just a little bit uneasy. “Western Swing, right?” Joel assured him, “We’ll be fine.”
The rest is written in the annals of Madison music history. It could have snowed the doors shut and we could have re-elected Richard Nixon, and folks would tell you about the look Wayne gave the kid with the guitar as he picked on Chet Atkins, Merle Travis, and his own guitar gumbo. At one point, he walked off stage, handing the reins to Joel.
I’ve seen him blow away a room playing a bowling-ball acrylic lap steel he’d just bought at a pawn shop for ten bucks. He squatted between the tanks at Tyranena Brewing, strung it, tuned it, plugged in, and took a solo in the middle of “Honey Bee Blues.”
One night at the Crystal, Oscar The King of 42nd Street Wilson called out “Purple Haze” for The Cash Box Kings’ second encore. Joel leveled the joint. I asked him afterwards if he’d ever played Hendrix, “No, but I’ve heard it a million times growin’ up.”
Aren’t we talking about “no such thing as bad weather?” Yes, I’ll get there, but I’m prone to digression.
Joel posts ninety-second videos of him picking the greatest rifts in history on Facebook nearly every day. Now in his forties, the lines have blurred. His style is all his own. I asked how in the hell he did it, “Bill, if I’m awake, I have a guitar hanging around my neck.” He also books all his own gigs, writes, records with every ace musician in the city, and runs his own record label.
Check out his compilation of instrumental Beatle covers Let it Be Guitar, at www.joelpaterson.com. While you’re there, click on his calendar.
Out of respect for Joel and the thousands of other amazing musicians I’ve known, I’ll limit the superlatives to just one.
Joel Paterson is - without doubt - the world’s most elusive guitar player. The man plays as many as three gigs a day. Go to the calendar on his website and you’ll find it’s empty. Joel is all over You Tube but if you want to hear him live, go to Chicago and check him out on Facebook. About twenty minutes before the show, he’ll post.
Alternately, be on the lookout for him to be playing with someone who does actually share where they might be playing. That list includes, but is in no way limited to: Joel Paterson and the Modern Sounds, The Joel Paterson Trio, Devil in a Woodpile, Joel Paterson and Chris Foreman, The Cash Box Kings, The Western Elston’s, and occasionally JP McPherson, The Cactus Blossoms, JP and Oscar Wilson, and The State Line Americana Music Allstars.
An impediment to hearing JP play is geography. He plays a standing gig at Joe’s Bar in Chicago every first and third Wednesday with a band called the Western Elston’s. The Elston’s are old-school country and rockabilly, the perfect vehicle for JP’s country-jazz Chet Atkins/Merle Travis mastery. The cover charge is ten dollars, but add in the cost of taking a half-day off work on Thursday morning and it gets a bit pricey. He plays every Sunday at the Legendary Green Mill jazz club in Chicago with ace organist Chris Foreman, but their second set gets started about ten minutes before my alarm goes off Monday morning.
So, when I ran across a Facebook post that Joel is playing with Mark Haynes (the world’s greatest blues drummer), Jimmy Voegli (the world’s best blues piano playing dairy farmer), and three guys I’ve never heard of, at a joint in Beloit, Wisconsin, I had to process. But not for long.
The three players in the band I know are worth the price of admission, and if JP plays a pub in Beloit three times a year, it’ll be good.
I told Sheila on Tuesday afternoon we were going to Beloit on Sunday afternoon. Sheila does not share my enthusiasm for music. My wife is a ninja opportunist. She knows how to phrase statements as questions, to which there is only one safe answer, “Would it be on the way to catch the (sadly) going-out-of-business-sale at Roughing It In Style?”
Translated, “I’ll go to Beloit to listen to music, if you’ll go shopping for area rugs and end tables.”
I know when I’ve been beat.
The show commenced at three in the afternoon. She asked me what time we needed to leave. I had not heard Joel in two years, I didn’t want to miss a note. Roughing It In Style is nearly straight west and The Grand Avenue Pub is due south.
I bravely declared a 1:00PM departure.
The day arrived.
You may recall that I had declared a paradigm shift. This summer I vowed that once the fence was built (which became, after the deck was built, and third crop hay), if there was good entertainment, I was putting down the log-splitter, leaf rake, or Sawzall, and by God we were going.
It is relevant to note: the last three weekends had been full-on monsoons. It had been three weeks since we could step off the pavement at the farm.
Sunday, October 20th, near half-past six. The sun rising through airborne ice crystals washed the eastern horizon with a golden-red glow. A towering spire shot into the cloudless sky over neighbor Doug’s chisel plowed bean field. Which was but the opening act. If this day were a Broadway show, it’d be Hamilton. The third of the leaves that had fallen did not move a centimeter. As if she showed only to treat us to a top-ten sunrise, the frost quickly retreated and the thermometer shot to the mid-fifties by the time Ray threw the newspaper to the bottom of the drive. Uncle Erv always loved the woods to our south; I took him a half-dozen pictures on high-resolution. Technology has not invented enough pixels to do this day justice, it just had to be lived.
It was the most spectacular day in the history of weather. I was hoping to switch my mower over to leaf vac mode, dig three new fence posts, and install the cat flap into the pass door in the garage. Instead I had resolved to go furniture shopping, then to a bar in Beloit with a hundred-and-eighty minutes of daylight left on the clock.
My resolve was put to the test.
We arrived at Roughing It by half-past one. We found an area rug for the sunroom for seventy-percent off on the first lap of the store. The furniture had been marked up before it was marked down. The rustic wrought iron toilet paper holders were above our pay grade.
There’s no straight shot from the furniture store to Beloit. Google maps charted a course through the rolling hills of southern Wisconsin, and I believe we dropped into Iowa for a few miles. We were not going to make the first note. What my ears were missing, my eyes were feasting. Farmers had chopped most of their corn, and much of the soybeans were off. There was a blaze-red Maple on the corner of Main Street in Clinton that would have been a rock star in Woodstock, Vermont.
The Grand Avenue Pub was two doors off the swollen Rock River. Slightly muted, the music poured into the street. My phone had pinged just as we found our parking spot. I tried to focus on Amy Hanson whose cat had vomited a Nerf dart. I tapped my toe on the concrete and listened with one ear, while a chipmunk was swing-dancing with a grey squirrel by the bike rack.
The Grand Avenue Pub had tin-stamped ceilings, friendly bartenders, and the best walleye sandwich I’ve ever eaten on a Sunday in Wisconsin. And my hunch was quickly rewarded. The leader of the band was Gary McAdams. He wore workin’ man’s boots and a trucker hat and had a voice that could sing the red off an apple. They played Frank Sinatra to Fred Eaglesmith, and owned it all. Joe, Pete, and Mark opened the second set with three instrumental jazz standards. The place felt like family. There were guys with ZZ Top beards, ponytails, and trucker wallets doing the old-guy-swing with their dates, elbow-to-elbow with the Khaki-and-plaid professors from the college as Gary ripped through Mac the Knife.
Folks’ll be talking about Sunday, October 20, for a good long time around these parts. Putting down the post-hole digger and going inside on a spectacular fall day was one of the hardest things I’ve done. The make-or-break was, “No such thing as bad weather.”
We’d built fence in the rain, cut wood in a blizzard, and ridden mountain bikes across the top of the world in a monsoon. I figured we had four hours in the bank.
I found my people. Gary introduced Silver Wings. “This is a Merle Haggard song, but we’re gonna do it different, this ain’t paint-by-numbers folks, this is art.”