On Jonathan Byrd at the Chocolate Church
Jonathan Byrd’s a seventh generation North Carolinian who plays a flat-picking guitar and sings. What does he sing? Most of his show at the Chocolate Church in Bath on Saturday night was made up of original compositions, though he threw in several by friends of his from the plains, from Canada–wherever he’d picked the songs up in his travels. And travel he does, in a little rental car, packing his guitar and as many CDs as he thinks he’ll sell–though last summer, he did gigs in Europe (not in that car), including one festival in England at which some of my English friends discovered him. He’s underground, but as he put it Saturday night, when encouraging the audience to find him online (and buy his work, as he’d sold out of CDs on this trip), he’s everywhere.
I discovered him through my friend Brenda Sparks Prescott. She’d found him in venues around Boston, had him do a house concert at her place. Then she sent me one of his CDs, This is the New That, which he had signed and on which he had written Play it loud! I played it loud, and I played another of his CDs Brenda had sent me–Cackalack–all the way down the highway to Bath, to get in the mood. When I met my way-cool sister, I told her I hoped he’d play two songs from Cackalack, “Scuppernong” and “I Was an Oak Tree.” I got my wish on one of the two, as he opened the Chocolate Church show with the latter. (My sister, who didn’t know of him–you will, Brenda told her–seemed to like it.) On my other side, a couple was singing along; the man actually requested a song later in the program. The acoustics were fantastic, even though we were in the front row, but that might have been the space, or the single mic. Jonathan Byrd played on a bare stage, with only a stool to hold his water bottle and his scarf (someone must have made that for him, said my sister, the inveterate knitter).
He puts on a good show. I knew many of the songs he played, from my CDs. “Chicken Wire” was a fun one, especially when he did the rooster impression; the á capella “Poor Johnny” had everyone singing. My sister was affected by “Father’s Day” from Cackalack, an autobiographical song about the singer’s relationship with the father he didn’t understand until after his death. I was pleased to hear an acoustic version of “Amelia, My Dream,” one of my favorite songs from the fully-accompanied This is the New That; and the story behind the song, about a dangerous former girlfriend who burned down his house, was a distinctly odd counterpoint to the beautiful lyrics:
Amelia, my dream
The eyes of a doe
Watch for our children wherever you go
They’re the color of leaves
The color of snow
Amelia, my dream, I still love you so
With the intermission, the show was about 2 1/2 hours long. Jonathan Byrd made himself available to fans between sets, and again afterwards. He estimated at one point that the theater held about 50 people; I couldn’t tell from the front row. What I could tell from there was that all of us in the front row were there for him–we were singing–but hadn’t known about the seating per se. I was directly in front of the mic; my view, as I later told him, was of his knees and up. A person more familiar with the venue would probably would have chosen seats a couple of rows back. Next time I’ll know–the woman at the box office implied that they’d have Jonathan Byrd back again, and she’d make sure I chose better seats then.
Much of the between-songs patter was about his family: his wife (his “.38 Baby”) and son Rowan, who loves trains and songs about trains. Thus the encore was “The City of New Orleans.” My sister had said at intermission that she hoped he wouldn’t play another song that made her cry–but “The City of New Orleans” has always made me cry. Don’t ask me why. I can’t help it. And I choked up singing the refrain the other night, too.
I cannot tell you how much I enjoyed the blog posts Jonathan Byrd put out last summer, especially those from Denmark and England. This man is a writer: evocative, atmospheric. Why he isn’t more well-known than he is is well beyond me