Blackfinger was already on the stage when I hit the Bamboo Room at 9:30 p.m., playing some sort of Spanish-classical-guitar-by-way-of-Texas number. The trio served as soundtrack to a roiling boil of déjà vu. This was to be local Legend (of Rodeo, if not otherwise) John Ralston‘s final show before moving to Johnson City, Tenn., and the crowd included vaguely familiar face after vaguely familiar face. Everyone had shown up for the last hurrah. Trying to get a pint at the bar proved a Herculean task, but Guinness secured, I weaved through the crowd, saying hi to many, some of whose names I couldn’t recall, and finally wound up near the exit to the outdoor patio, where Ralston himself leaned against the door frame and watched the band. We gave each other the handshake-pulled-into-half-hug greeting common to men who haven’t seen each other in a while. Ralston had cut his hair and shaved off his beard. He looked young and happy.
“Thanks for writing that thing,” he said. “Nicest thing anybody’s written about me.”
I doubted that. Ralston has been a darling of the local press since back in the Legends of Rodeo days, in the late 90s and early 2000s. But in any case, the thing in question was the reason I hadn’t written a preview to the show or anything else regarding Invisible Music, Ralston’s new band, or the man himself leaving for parts north: conflict of interest. This party wasn’t just meant to send off Ralston in style, but also to welcome the arrival of Invisible Music’s debut album. And on the back of that album are the following words:
The sound of Invisible Music is hard to express in the written word. But to paraphrase the third track on this record, “Let Me Be,” I am a writer, so I’ll do my best to write it down for you. There’s a wisecracking line attributed — probably apocryphally — to Elvis Costello, that goes “writing about music is like dancing about architecture.” Invisible Music provides as fine an example of that statement’s veracity as any band could. The first time I saw the group, at a benefit show for the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, it blew away every act on a bill that included some amazing talent. Although I had never heard any of the group’s songs before, each one seemed somehow familiar.
Two years on, and many shows later, the group has finally released its debut album. Live, Invisible Music is a churning force of nature, like the hurricanes that plague the battered coastlines of the land the band calls home. This is to be expected, I suppose, from an eight-person outfit that includes bass (Dan Bonebrake), guitar (Nathan Jezek), percussion/bells (Tiffany Jezek), keyboards (Greg Lovell), lap-steel/guitar (Andy McAusland), lead vocals/guitar (John Ralston), violin (Susan Snow) and drums (Jeff Snow), a lineup that may change slightly from one song to the next as various members switch from one instrument to another, lap-steel to guitar to keyboards to tambourine, with almost everyone in the band contributing vocals. The whirlwind describes more than the music itself; it describes the constant flow of the musical output of each member in a band that requires true musicianship from its entire cast.
Here, with its first recorded work, Invisible Music sounds, not quite sparse — for what is sparse about an onstage army? — but given to letting the songs speak for themselves. It’s easy to get lost in the layers of sound. And the warmth of this record was predetermined from the band’s initial decision to occupy an old Florida home, with violin recorded in a hallway, drums in the kitchen, guitars and keyboards comfortable in the confines of the wood-paneled living room. Recorded over two long weekends, the music you hear on this record is literally the sound of a band at home with itself.
– Dan Sweeney
So, given that I wrote the liner notes for the album – the first time I’ve ever attempted that peculiar form of copywriting – writing anything that promoted the show seemed unethical from a journalistic standpoint. But there’s a reason I consented to do this for Invisible Music when I’d never done it before. It was the first band that had ever a) asked me to do it and b) that I was comfortable doing it for. After all, I’m not about to write a positive spiel on a band if I don’t really believe it. But having done so, I felt it wrong to actually cover the gig. Despite our public image, I don’t believe any profession save possibly medicine is so self-flagellating over ethics as journalism. And I’m no different than the rest. So, it was only after Ralston and the rest of the crew took the stage, only after they had produced yet another devastatingly fine live performance that I felt able to comment.
The group opened, as it often does, with the first track from the album, “Sycamore.” I sat down cross-legged at the front of the stage off to the left side – no room at any of the Bamboo Room’s tables – and took in the sad sight of a band this good performing for the last time in only God knows how long, and at its own debut album release party at that. The tightness, remarkable in an eight-person band, was there as always, but the sound didn’t overwhelm as it had in the past. The band sounded tired – or if not tired, sad. Lines like “Love, it can turn on you” take on a new significance as Ralston prepares to leave South Florida.
But the band’s drummer, Jeff Snow, dismissed out of hand that this show represented a real ending to things. “We’ve known each other 14 years now,” he said between Invisible Music’s set and the closing act, Legends of Rodeo, in which Snow also plays with Ralston. “He’ll be back. We all know it.”
As for Ralston, while he regrets leaving so much behind, he’s also determined to put as good a face on Johnson City as he can. “Apparently East Tennessee State, which is there in Johnson City, even has majors in banjo and mandolin. Like, the whole countryside should be just filled with great musicians.”
John Ralston among a thousand Tennessee mountain boys, coming down to the big city of Johnson City (pop: 63,000) with banjos strapped to their backs and jugs of corn whiskey in their hands. Ah, what the hell. I’ll miss him, and miss his music even more, but that image is too great for it not to happen.
Invisible Music turned out a fun and apropos cover of the Animals’ “We Gotta Get Out of This Place,” which included a rather odd teaser of the Doors’ “The End,” before closing out the set with the one-two punch of “When the Lights” and “Driving Down Roads,” a perfect end to a bittersweet performance, with its narrative of someone out alone on the road, trying to get home.
Photos by Salty Eggs staff photographer:
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