Merle and the Band
by Lloyd Kahn
fter 2 days in San Francisco and MacWorld (mid-January, 98), I head north on Friday morning around 9:30. Gotta get some country air! I have a ticket for a Merle Haggard concert at Konocti Harbor, a Clear Lake resort (3 hrs. northeast of SF). I had somehow never seen Merle and 6 months ago read a review in SF Weekly abou a concert he gave in SF, saying his voice was great and the band was hot.
Its cold and foggy, and the skies are grey. Theres mist over Nicasio lake, and the rain-soaked hills are a vibrant green. It looks like a Chinese landscape painting. A dozen turkey buzzards are circling over a knoll, hang gliding in the updraft..
City stress melts away as I get closer to Petaluma. Im feeling better already! Theres a great blues program on the radio as the road winds through the soft hills of Marin. Theres my favorite oak tree, majestic along a creek bed. I stop at the cheese factory for a 50¢ glass of fresh buttermilk. Past the new olive tree ranch, which is a bold (and expensive) new venture, thousands of olive trees, groves marching up and down the hills, the owners intent to press pure, high-quality olive oil right there on the ranch. Buena suerte, Señora!
Past the two dairies on either side of the road, a contrast in farming techniques. Guernsey herd on the left, laying around in green fields/ Aryshires on the right in muck. Further on, theres a disgusting dairy sad, muddy cows, dirty and disorganized. Theres a big difference in how California dairies are managed. For example, the big Guernsey dairy northwest of Occidental, where a beautiful herd of sleek, light brown cows grazes in green un-eroded hills. A scene of pastoral stewardship.
North of Healdsburg, on the winding Route 175 from Hopland to Lakeport, Respect comes on, Arethas (and Wexlers) masterpiece. Then a little later Merle and Truck Driver Blues:
. . . the soul of a gypsy, and the heart of a vagabond.
s I get down into the Clear Lake basin, there are orchards lots of pear and apple trees. I see funky houses, real people in real pickup trucks. There are very few Sports Utility Vehicles. No trust fund babies in disguise à la Marin County. Hey, its great to be back in America!
- A 3-foot high doily in a window, spelling out Christ is Here!
- A trailer park called The Good Pastures Adult Park
- The high school in Lakeport is called, I swear, Natural High School
ver on the right a couple of blocks off the road I see a weird looking air building. Its the Konocti Vista Casino, run by (some of) the present-day Pomos, and is it strange! Its maybe 100 x 200 feet, black and white, with bulbous walls, and a big electrical plant to keep it inflated. On the marquee out front is a hokey Indian headdress emblem.
In the neighborhood around it are some amazingly trashy houses. There are big ruts in the road, of the bone-jarring persuasion. A level of poverty that takes your breath away.
Right inside the door of the casino is a pock-marked faced cop. The walls are black. There are hundreds and hundreds of slot machines, a small section for blackjack. Cops everywhere. Smoking permitted. (Encouraged!) Garish carpet. A bad smell. Fat dare I say ugly people with flat eyes pulling slot machine handles. Amazingly bad vibes. Lemme outta here!
onocti Harbor is a large resort near Kelseyville, on Clear Lake, where they have a surprising venue. B. B. King, Ray Charles, Aaron Neville, Travis Tritt, Moody Blues, Clint Black, etc. It rains that night. I get there about 20 minutes before the concert and walk around looking at the crowd. People of all ages, all shapes, a lot of age 40s50s. Real cowboys as well as older well-off cowboys, lookin sharp. Dudes!
The main floor of the auditorium has a couple of hundred tables, where people have paid like $55 for dinner and the show. I sit in the balcony, great view. Looking at the empty stage, with just the instruments amps, mikes it looks so basic no BS. No 90-foot towers spurting flame or huge screens or fireworks a la Stones or other mega-rock groups concerts. Simple. The musics the thing.
Merle gets a standing ovation. He starts his first song and his rich baritone voice fills the place. I dont want to sober up tonight . . . People are in heaven.
A lot of his music is blues-influenced, or just flat-out blues. There are some great early recordings of his, like Hank Williams Moanin the Blues where he yodels, and great versions of Blues Stay Away from Me, and Lovesick Blues.
But these days hes better than any of his records. And the band is hot. A lead guitarist who plays (at times) like Stevie Ray Vaughn, an impeccable young drummer, a Cajun fiddle virtuoso who also plays a mean squeeze box, a one-man sax/trumpet section, AND a stunning 70s-year old slide guitar player whose every note and nuance are elegant. Man!
Merle is a rare artist, better at 60 than ever. And what I didnt know is that he plays lead guitar. He would trade riffs and solos with the band guitar player, who was a total master. Typically Merle would play the first guitar solo of a song and then the other guy (wish I knew his name) would come in with his take on the song, always beautiful.
he next day I get breakfast at a cafe and sit next to a couple who have obviously been up early. The guy wears Levis and rubber boots, hes been milking cows. I really admire dairy people. Theyre up at 4 A.M. 7 days a week, 365 days a year. The cows dont take Chistmas or the 4th of July off. Its awesome, really, how hard dairy farmers work.
At 11, I go to the Lake County Museum in Lakeport. This is a dandy little museum! Curator Donna Howard has assembled a varied and authentic collection of Pomo baskets and artifacts. There is a sample kayak built out of tules, and a grass-thatched shelter. There is an old oak case with curved glass cover, about 8 feet long, full of many-colored different sized arrowheads, black, green, tan, red, orange, a stunning display.
There are things from early white settlers like a case full of old rifles. Theres also a 40s-style telephone switchboard with cables and plugs, and a chair. The desk and structural part are oak. A group of 1012 year old girls comes in and sees it. They flip out! Here are digital kids seeing the way it used to be. They immediately understand: connections used to be made by hand! They giggle and stand around it, taking turns sitting in the chair.
Theres an alcove with maybe 50 samples of local plants. They are scotch-taped to sheets of newsprint paper, and look great. A country museum didnt wait for the big grant, but just went out and got the plants and available materials and put together an informative display. There are descriptions of each plant and its Pomo uses. There is a great selection of books on early California life. To tell you the truth I enjoyed this little museum more than The Museum of Natural History in New York. Its local. low key, tuned in. It gives you a good feel for Clear Lake before the Europeans, as well as life of early whiteman pioneers.
n the way south that day there are huge white and gray clouds. The sky gets blue and the sun comes out and bathes the country in high-shadow winter light. Middleton is a nice little town. Old houses, quiet streets.
The Napa valley is gorgeous in the after-rain sunshine, as I come down from the hills. It is about 2 miles wide at this point, and the vineyards look healthy and handsome, with wild mustard growing in between rows of grape vines.
A Clover milk sign: Clo White and the Seven Quarts. The one I loved from years ago was Tip Clo Thru the Two Lips.
In through the back streets of Petaluma nice! Rod Akins sings on the radio,
Its a whole lot better than it used to be,
And it used to be the best.
Then a song from Procul Harums 70s masterpiece, A Salty Dog.
Creeks everywhere are full and rushing. Down Thirteen Curves heading into Bolinas, activity node of the San Andreas fault, power point. Along the lagoon and the view northwest across the tide flats from just beyond Ed Letters place, the ridge in the background, water reflecting in the salt marshes. Its good to see the world, but its good to get home!
P. S.: B. B. King has just put out a masterpiece of an album. Duets with Eric Calpton, Tracy Chapman, Van Morrison, Joe Cocker, Rolling Stones. Another artist in later years whos better than ever.