The room was too well lit, mostly by fluorescents, and there was one cooler of beer off to the side of the plastic tables and chairs that had been set up. Despite being tucked in the back of a stately London concert venue, fittingly called The Queen Elizabeth Hall, this whole setup read dingy. It was an after-party, so to speak, and there were maybe 10 people in the room, including myself. I presumed, leaning on context-clues, that the rest of the 10 had intended to be there this evening, but I had certainly just slithered in. It was part good luck, part ignorance, and a healthy muscle memory of learning to stay until the night ends.
Implausibly, out of the 10 fluorescently lit guests that were perched around the room, there was an astonishing percentage of cultural icons, a genuine Mt. Rushmore of legends, heroes, and figureheads, sipping lukewarm beers, and making, presumably very imaginative, small talk.
Through the piercing ambiance you could make out, if you could actually believe what you were seeing: Robert Wyatt, Brian Eno, David Byrne, and Lonnie Holley.
I had arrived at the hall two hours ago, I wasn't even 100% sure what I was attending. It was a rare night off and Domino (my label) had offered me a ticket to a concert. I had planned on leaving right afterwards, I didn't know anyone. But as I began to exit, an excitable man descended on me with unimaginable positivity. This man was the promoter of the hall and had recognized me. I had closed out the Big Inner tour with a nice gig in this venue a couple years earlier. Without hesitation, or warning, he dragged me over to another man, who, I had by this time, learned to be the curator of this event – the inimitable, very famous, and equally intimidating, Mr. David Byrne. Caught off guard, I might have been a bit blabbery and Mr. Byrne was, unsurprisingly, not taken with me as a conversational partner. I wouldn't say he “dismissed” me, I wouldn't want to make him sound rude, but it was along those lines.
Without missing a beat, the promoter walked me over to what appeared to be a standard fare audience member. However, in accordance with the night’s growing energy, this man turned out to be fucking Robert Wyatt. Caught a little less off guard this time, I was more appropriately engaging but, if I had to guess, I also think Mr. Wyatt’s general disposition is a touch warmer than Mr. Byrne’s (perhaps in direct correlation to each’s broader fame, a hunch). We stumbled through some small talk, and maybe out of guilt, or pity, but let's pretend out of kindness or even interest, Mr. Wyatt was the one that had invited me to this outlandish gathering of the wizards couched as an after-party.
So it was that I crash landed in this drab conference room, on the hip of Robert Wyatt, with a few other commoners and a cabal of 60-year-old geniuses. This was turning, quickly, into an atypical evening. I could tell that Mr. Wyatt was running out of hospitality, the invite should have been enough, nattering along with me was not how he had envisaged his night – and that was fair. So I cut myself off and tried to graciously, and with much gratitude, unmoor myself from Robert.
Floating, it was a prerequisite of my job that I had to try a conversation with Mr. Eno. Brian was kind but I was quickly set back adrift.
At this point I could see a kind of awkwardness approaching. I was the only one in the room disconnected from the evening's events, I hadn’t really come with anyone, and I had barely even been invited. On cue, a loud, Southern voice boomed away my gloom with a very unexpected, but thoroughly welcome line of questioning:
“Aren’t you Matthew E. White?”
“Yes, I am, what is your name?”
“My name is Matt Arnett, I work with Lonnie Holley”.
And there it was, not only a fellow commoner, but a fellow North American, a fellow Southerner, and a man whose conversational gifts are both qualitative, and quantitative. Not only was the party looking up, but I had, in a single moment, unknowingly made the connection that would lead to one of the most exciting artistic partnerships I could ever imagine.
Matt introduced me to Lonnie and he was gracious and kind as he always has been with me. Matt and Lonnie work as a pair. Ostensibly they are manager and artist but one gets the sense quickly a traditional industry description like “manager/artist” doesn't quite fit such a non-traditional pairing. Lonnie has known Matt since he was born, Matt’s father Bill Arnett (worth a Google) is an Alan Lomax of Southern Black visual artists and is significantly influential in Lonnie’s illustrious career in that field.
Our conversations didn't seem earth-shaking in that strange unlikely gathering – we jawed about labels, touring, stuff like that – but we laid the groundwork for us to see each other again when we are all back in the same corner of the world.
There are single, solitary, moments that matter. Sitting around a rickety plastic table talking about home, the South, Lonnie and I’s families in Alabama, and connecting a couple dots was the exact moment our record was born, there is no doubt about that.
For the next few years, Matt, sometimes my wife Merry, Lonnie, and I would have lunch whenever Lonnie and Matt would pass through Richmond, which, as it turned out, was frequently. One time Lonnie drew Merry a picture on a napkin that's now in our kitchen. Another time he showed me a set of used car advertisements from the newspaper that he loved and had laminated. Most of the time we just chatted.
Eventually, on the back of a couple dozen lunches together, Matt called me and asked if I would put together a band for a show Lonnie had been asked to give in Richmond at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. I asked Big Cat (Pinson, Cameron, Alan. See previous essays for Big Cat context) to do it and added Brian Jones from the aforementioned sessions for some extra verve.
We rehearsed at Spacebomb the day before the gig. It’s important to understand what rehearsal is for Lonnie, or for that matter a show, or recording session, or anything else. He never plays or sings the same thing twice. Calling his music “songs” is not really correct but there isn't another name for what he does because there isn't really another person who does what he does. He improvises melodies, rhythms, form, lyrics as well as lyrical narrative over the course of an hour long show with a live band, following his lead, churning underneath. So, a “rehearsal” is more like a get-to-know-you session. A pure practice in vibe synchronization. So, we rehearsed, and it was pretty good.
(Incidentally that rehearsal was recorded at Spacebomb but I have never listened to it)
I heard a great story about Sun Ra once...
Sun Ra and his band walk onto stage to play a show. Everyone in the band has notebooks upon notebooks of music, but Sun Ra has only one piece of paper. They play for a couple hours, the band pouring over these notebooks of music and Sun Ra just staring at his one sheet of paper. At the end of night, after everyone has left, the sound engineer goes to see what could possibly be on this paper. There was one line, and it read: “I am not from this earth”.
Matt Arnett told me a similarly great story about Lonnie once...
Lonnie and the band were playing a show and it was particularly special, everyone seemed incredibly locked in, and the audience was rapt. After the show Matt walked up to Lonnie and said, “Lonnie, that was incredible, how was that for you?” and Lonnie said, “I don't know, I wasn't there.”
The show at the VMFA was along those lines. At least for me. Lonnie played trance music, and I was entranced. Everything worked that night. We’ve played again since then and that wasn't so completely the case, but that night was electric. This industry commercializes transcendent experiences but paradoxically it does not create them very well. I think that's because most often the considerations given to the tangible results of commercialization run perpendicular to the considerations needed to create the very intangible results of transcendence.
I keep the set list from that night on my desk because it is a reminder that there can be moments in music that are personally, and sometimes communally, profoundly transcendent. I believe that Lonnie is an artist that is a facilitator of those experiences and that night I, and everyone that was on stage, learned a little bit from him about how you access that space.
That said, there was one moment in the show when my concentration broke.
“Holy shit. Lonnie should sing over those instrumentals from Swish.”