Last night I went to a concert by my favorite band on earth. I’m picky about music, and sometimes I know and sometimes I don’t know why a particular musician or group of musicians transports me. Part of the magic comes from skill, part from the selected music, part from passion, part from je ne sais quoi. I don’t go to many concerts. I’d attend more if I could, but I need to limit my outings to a few special occasions a year.
When I woke up yesterday morning, I didn’t even know Grand Dérangement was in the area. They’re from Baie Sainte Marie (Saint Mary’s Bay) in Nova Scotia. Four years ago, they played at a restored theater eleven miles down the road. When I opened yesterday’s paper, I discovered the band was scheduled to play at the same location that very evening.
Full stop on other plans.
I am on the theater’s mailing list and I read its schedules regularly for the exact reason that I don’t want to miss any appearance that Grand Dérangement, or a couple of other performers or groups, might make. I don’t know how the advance information slipped past me. I’m just relieved I found out before the concert took place.
Online ticket sales aren’t an option on the day of an event. At 12:30, when the box office opened, I
called from the room where I was in a meeting with sympathetic folks.
Answering machine. Left a message.
The Rialto is a small theater, only 450 seats, the result of major community effort. When I moved to this area almost
twenty-one years ago, the building was an empty, boarded-up shell not far from where I worked.
I remember K., one of my co-workers, and her husband W., who were part of a small group of people that had a huge idea and the ability to wield hammers. This group spent years bringing the space back to life. I remember the problems with the chairs, the question of how to insulate the building inexpensively in
a way that would meet code so long after its original construction, and the sanding of the floor. I remember the company picnic where W. took me and my small daughter for a ride in his open jeep in the
foothills west of town. We went to see a waterfall not far from the group picnic site. I remember the sunshine of that day, and K.’s loss not long after, when W. died suddenly, too young, of a heart attack.
I remember seeing K. a few weeks ago; I don’t see her often enough any more, because we don’t work at the same place any more.
A nice person whose name I think is Ginger called me back from the Rialto an hour later: “We’re being slammed, and the computer’s down. Yes, we’ll have a ticket here for you. It will probably be in the balcony.”
“Tuck me in anywhere you can. I love their music. I’ve got to be there.”
I’m not a groupie. I’m more of a roadie. I’ve played in a band. I’ve uncoiled and coiled the mic
cords, packed the back of the Suburban, hauled the amplifiers at 2 and 3 in the morning, been the one who could stay awake on the drive home over dark and nearly deserted roads, especially careful when I
began to have double vision, a sign of serious fatigue.
I’m not much for autographed items any more than I’m a groupie.
But from the 2003 Grand Dérangement concert at the Rialto, I have a poster signed by all the band
members. It hangs by the front door in my house. I think of it as an exception that proves a rule.
The drive down the highway last night reminded me of heading to or from winter gigs in New England: blowing snow across the windshield and slick pavement under the tires. It brought back memories of wrecks (of which I was fortunately never a part) and the sudden need for a "new," cheap, large-capacity car.
Ahead of me on this trip, the bright blue and yellow lights of a line of snowplows flashed against the
black sky, moving steadily south. The wind from the west whipped snow across the road, forming drifts in the southbound lanes and occasionally producing near white-out conditions. The speed limit’s 55 m.p.h. on this road and traffic usually runs at 60. Last night, even the hotshots in high-powered pickups were cooling their heels at 30.
After pulling my car into an on-street parking spot, I made my way through intermittent gusts of snow-packed wind to the theater and opened the wood-and-glass doors to the warmth of the outer lobby.
My friend D. reconstructed the building’s facade. That was a long time ago, too, before the inside
was ready for people. As soon as the front looked like the historic theater made new, all the visionaries suddenly began to see that all their work and faith would pay off some day.
The woman at the will-call booth handed me an envelope with my name on it. I pulled out the ticket, preparing to turn right after the entrance and head for the balcony. I read the black print on the purple-and-white ticket twice because I had a hard time trusting my eyes: MAIN D 3.
Instead of turning, I went straight ahead through the inner lobby.
MAIN D 3 is the third row on the right side (Row A doesn’t exist in that section), the middle seat in a bank of five. The theater’s about twenty seats across: five, aisle, ten, aisle, then five more. Sometimes a last-minute single lucks out.
Grand Dérangement is a band for which there is no opening act. A theater staffer—clearly a strong asset, but from another generation of the theater’s history, too
young to have been around for the times of the boarded-up building, of finishing the floor, of finding seats and installing them—welcomes the audience, invites us to attend other programs, and says, “And now, Grand Dérangement!”
And they run out on the stage and Briand Melanson thunders music with his drums and Daniel LeBlanc’s fiddle slides and shimmers, and Armand Dionne’s fingers wing their way across his keyboard, and Christiane Theriault and Erin Westby turn the whole stage into an instrument with their feet, and Charles
Robicheau transforms the texture of the old building’s air with his guitar, and Jean-Pascal Comeau on bass keeps the music grounded so the roof doesn’t fly off the building as the music swirls and churns, exuberant and mournful and
humorous by turns, Acadian spirit and community alive on the stage in front of us, now and in the past and pushing toward the future. Heard but not seen is Michel Thibault, the group’s long-time songwriter and
Yes, the CDs are wonderful. The group has been performing for ten years. The musicians known as Grand Dérangement have four CDs now, and I’ve been listening to their music since they had just one (thanks for the original introduction, Kris). You don’t have to have been at a concert or know Acadian French to appreciate the music.
>They had run out of CDs on this tour. It looks like their their distributor will continue to be my primary
source for the recorded music.
On the drive back, the conga line of six plows was moving south again, coming toward me this time as I drove north. I wonder if the drivers spent the night running north to south, south to north, preventing wrecks on the stretch of snow-swept highway.
As I drove cautiously home, the flash of blue and yellow lights on the plows moved toward and then past me. I wondered why, after more than twenty years in this community, I had recognized only one person in the entire audience. If she’d seen me, she would have recognized me, too. But she didn’t, and I wasn’t able to catch her eye. And that was it. My daughter had to work. Kris, who introduced me to this music before she moved to this area, tried to get to the concert but her truck got stuck in a snowbank in the mountains. I had the responsibility of enjoying the music for all of us.
The music of Grand Dérangement is extraordinary. The band in performance plays older numbers as if they were this moment’s discovery, and new numbers that fit the flow at the same time that they carve new channels for the energy. The group remains constantly fresh, reinventing itself within its established spirit.
The core has remained the same: Briand Melanson, Daniel LeBlanc, Michel Thibault, and for most of the time Christiane Theriault. The life of a touring band demands both stamina and flexibility in personnel. These stalwarts have been joined by other compatible souls over the years. Armand was also onstage in 2003,
and I think Jacques Comeau was there as well, although he was not with the group tonight. In 2003, Janice Comeau was there and Erin had not yet joined the group. Both she and Richard arrived in 2005.
For me, hearing the group play is like becoming a temporary part of a community that has proud links to the past and strong movement toward the future. Hearing them play is like being in touch with a high-voltage connection between source and vision.
During the concert, I felt like I was at home, even among people I didn’t know. Home, even though the musicians sang and played in part about the Acadian diaspora in 1755 and aren’t at home a whole lot themselves these days because of their
tours through Canada, the United States, and Europe.
Fortunately, the CDs capture enough that I can bring a bit of this to the building and the city that I live in, whenever I need to remember what it’s like to feel at home, even if not permanently so, thanks to a group of familiar strangers.