I was pinned down in a foxhole near Denang and Charlie was everywhere. The battle-scarred paranoia of Jacob’s Ladder jarred my consciousness like a ninety decibel klaxon, for I was neck deep in hippies and behind enemy lines. A punk is about as welcome as a venerial disease in this set, down at the Napa Valley Opera House, a folk music venue buried deep within the wine country of Northern California. The act was The Wailin’ Jennys whose biography included a renowned alto singer and a bodhran player. How could I go wrong, I thought, with honest-to-goodness Irishwomen from Winnipeg? What could possibly go wrong?
As we rolled up to the venue, my hubris began reaping a horrific harvest of sorrow as they flooded around me. They were long and gray haired, reeking of patchouli, and eyeing me – *always* eyeing me – with a combination of curiosity and contempt. I was a stranger in a strange land, walking into their home, their sanctuary. If my life were a Nintendo game simulating my lifelong struggle against the hippies, this show would be the boss level.
We were cut off from the exit, placed in a corner on the balcony of the intimate venue. On any other day, the venue might be a lovely place to see a show. However, the icy grip of fear strangling my spine Vulcan stylee left no cognitive overhead for appreciation of the Opera House’s simplistic decor. Survival was my game now as I felt surely the Jennys would issue some secret passphrase and the hippies would snap, descending upon me like a horde of locusts. Solemnly, though silent, I recited my act of contrition and prepared for their filthy jaws to open and rend me limb from limb.
The soundtrack to my terror proved singular. The Wailin’ Jennys turned out to be a folk (occassionally Irish inspired) quartet featuring a fiddle player of immeasurable creativity and three women executing with flawless precision dense, lush vocal arrangements that leaned heavily to the southern end of the female range. The typical fairer ensemble that American Idol embraces (and I eschew with nearly the same vehemence as hippies) features solos that never end, pornographic vocal agility, and complete abandon of discipline and taste. By stark contrast, the Jennys are songwriters first, singers second. While their virtuosity is apparent, the finely seasoned songcraft producing these arrangements extended beyond just beauty and became real art. Thematically, the tunes were pretty standard fare for the coffeeshop set. Songs inspired by driving, dying, peace, love, happiness, lonely nights, and heavy hearts are universal, if not particularly original sources of inspiration. The hippies were gobbling it up like the Gospel on Christmas morning, though the real draw of attention from the concern for my immediate survival was the tasteful multi-instrumental accompaniment to the absolutely riveting three-part harmony that easy filled the room.
Finding no evidence of ear monitors feeding a clicktrack, I became convinced halfway into their first a capella tune that these women must have synchronized heartbeats. Accelerating and decelerating tempos without a hint of drift, three women literally acted as a single instrument – description defying tightness. Great songs executed with superlative polish best captures the Wailin’ Jennys, serving as the solemn organists at my final demise.
After a daring escape involving impressive swashbuckling, I got a hold of their first studio record capturing on wax the finest arrangement of The Parting Glass I’ve heard. Shuffled to the signing table by the very hippies I had evaded, I approached their table cautiously, suspect of their intent. It appeared that my hair is what saved me, as the Jennys four all marveled with the real genuine Canadianess I love about Winnipeg. We clasped hands and rapped briefly, before finally emerging from the Opera House, shocked to be alive.
I’ll never be certain is somehow over the course of the set the Wailin’ Jennys passed along the secret word to let this one pass. “This one punk can pass freely,” I imagine them singing in their fraternal hippie talk. I’ll likely never know how I made it out of Napa alive. But, I got the record to prove I was there.