This is how my Harvest begins.
I take the shortcut through the worksite behind the garage. Someone from a band—a drummer from Charlottesville, South Carolina—has sent me a message, which I see on my way out the door. He asks me for the name of some good bars, which I give him, and tell him that if he wants to hang tomorrow, here’s the number, give a call. The last time we’d spoken he’d been packing up his car on his way outta town, revvin’ the engine for a race against a hurricane. I guess he must’ve made it out alive.
Downtown bound, I begin thinking about the fact that this is what I now do for a living: I’ve been assigned to write articles about a music festival in my hometown. I know that if I knew someone else who did something slightly similar, I’d be so very jealous of them; but when I am The Person, the role is reinterpreted, reconsidered, reexamined under much closer scrutiny. I rip apart any accomplishments achieved, toss them aside like the losing tickets at a raffle. I should feel proud, but I am not. Instead, I worry that no one wants to read what I write, I worry that I cannot, in fact, write at all, and I worry that it’s only a matter of time before this is realized by all.
I think about the drummer’s message, about the fact that someone playing at Harvest has reached out to me, me, and for a moment I almost feel honoured. But as I am so inclined to do, I suckerpunch this sentiment. Just as quickly as it has appeared I’ve left it behind.
I arrive at the grand entrance, the Blues Tent, the big-top circus in the centre of town. There’s a great indigo display shining on the brick wall of a building. HARVEST JAZZ & BLUES FESTIVAL, it says, the logo anointing the area like the Hollywood sign. I begin to feel gratitude and fortune and for a slight second I stop and stare, until I am yanked back by the mayhem of the moment.
Muddy Magnolias is onstage when I enter, and I want to watch them, but first I decide to find a seat outside where I can jot down some notes in a journal, for I’m worried that if I don’t I won’t get everything right. This is exactly what I’m trying to do when a couple sits down across from me on the other side of a picnic table. They’re a distraction but a welcome one, and I’m soon deep in discussion with Rick and Peggy. With great accents and better laughs, the couple is up all the way from New Mexico, celebrating their 30th anniversary. We share funny stories, shake hands, swap names, have the kind of conversation where I cannot necessarily remember what is said word-for-word, yet nevertheless remember it always.
At Harvest, it seems, there is no trouble finding friends.
My talk with the longtime lovebirds ends just as Muddy Magnolias does, so I do not see the band at all, only listen to their Southern sounds from afar. In some senses I am disappointed by this, but I can’t help but feel that this festival is as much about moments like these as it is about the actual music.
We go our separate ways as I head inside for Matt Andersen, the hometown hero. I stand smack-dab-centred for the set, far enough from the stage that I feel swallowed and secluded, and yet just close enough that sometimes I swear Matty’s singing straight at me. I start to scribble in my notebook (I’m worried I won’t get everything right) but this isn’t an easy task: there’s nothing to lean the journal against but the back of the guy ahead of me, and besides, I’m being bumped between bodies so much that even if I managed to put pen to paper, I doubt I’d be able to make out my own handwriting later. Frustrated, I shove the notebook into my back pocket, where it will stay for the rest of the set, and do my best to commit to memory all that I encounter.
I hear—I listen—to Matty’s voice, big and booming; I see—I watch—his fingers flying frantic over the fretboard. It’s all rhythmic and hypnotic in the same way that a belly dancer is, and indeed, for the rest of the show I almost feel that I’m in some sort of a trance. It’s over far too soon, or it feels that way at least (doesn’t it always?). I could take out my notebook now, find a seat somewhere discreet and make sure that what I’ve just seen gets saved before it vanishes and fades, but I feel little urgency to do so: certain snippets have already snuck their way in, are stuck inside my head like a catchy chorus.
Certain snippets, like him singing “I lost my way” again and again and again, a looping mantra that feels so true I think I oughta get it tattooed. For I have lost my way, too, but when Matty sings it I feel comforted, I have a companion; I lost my way but so has Matty, so has someone else, so have many; I lost my way but I can find it again.
Or another snippet—him singing Bob Dylan’s “I Shall Be Released” when I start to wonder if he’s reading off a set list taped to the stage or one taped to my soul. This is a song that first found its way into my life before I’d even started high school. It has guided me ever since. I, too, have seen the light come shinin’/From the west down to the east/Any day now, any day now/I shall be released. (Maybe—just maybe—I shall.)
But most of all, him singing about going down to the Saint John River, the Mighty Wolastoq, to take a deep breath and remember that life is but a dream. It strikes me that this is something I do not ever do. I never sit by a riverside, stop and stare, watch the water wash by. I’m never now, for instead, I’m always wondering what will come next, wondering what waits beyond that bend up ahead and whether or not I’ve got the guts to go at it. I wonder if I should sit by the SJ sometime; I wonder if I could.
Any day now I shall be released.
I linger in the hum and the buzz and the glow of the amplifiers and the stage lights, carefully recalling details like these, as the commotion of the crowd criss-crosses past, out the exits and beyond into the night. I soon join them, head out from under the tent and towards Queen Street. By the time I step foot on the sidewalk the mobs have thankfully thinned.
From somewhere up ahead I hear something. I lift my eyes and spot somebody outside of a storefront, singing and playing guitar. I cannot tell if the busker is a boy or a man: he’s got the eyes of a child but his age is betrayed by an old-timey moustache, a handlebar-in-the-making. The guy is wearing a plain white undershirt, tucked into pleated brown pants, the likes of which I’ve only ever seen worn by a grandfather; he’s got dress shoes on, too, click-clacking on the pavement to keep time, and on his head sits a white Panama cap, a red feather stuck in the black ribbon wrapped around its brim.
He sounds as old-fashioned as he looks, plucking out ragtime tunes on an antique guitar, the kind that ought to be pouring forth from a phonograph player, but there is none of the warp and crackle of very-old vinyl. The music is not distorted or vintage: it is incredibly clear.
I lean against a tree to take in the tableau. I squint a bit, just a bit, at the backdrop. He’s playing outside a storefront that I’ve been told was once a movie house; I cannot verify this but I sure believe it, for as I squint I now notice how the top of the awning does indeed look like a marquee, and I can picture the lightbulbs—big and round like the crystal ball of a psychic—sticking out from under the roof, can even imagine a plush red carpet rolled out towards the street. I start to suspect he’s some sort of time-traveller come unstuck, free from the shackles of history and age, a wandering spirit, a Ghost Of Harvest Past. It makes no difference to me, though, for wherever he has come from, he is here, he is now.
One song ends and the rest of his small audience claps their hands politely before carrying on, but I don’t move. I wouldn’t dare. The street is empty and vacant; there is no one else around. He begins another song and I stay leaning against the tree, only me, no one else, and I listen. Like an art lover in a gallery admiring a prized portrait, I simply stand and look.
Suddenly, the bells of the church from the far end of the street sound, striking midnight. I realize that I can’t say whether I’ve heard two songs or twenty. I have been standing on the sidewalk, leaning against a tree, but I’ve also been sitting on the shores of the Saint John; I’ve been watching water wash by. I have not been wondering what will come next, wondering what waits beyond that bend up ahead and whether or not I’ve got the guts to go at it. I have not worried about the notebook in my backpocket, the words I have to write and the pressure I’ve placed upon them. I have been here at Harvest and not anywhere else. I have been now.
“Well,” he says. “Time’s up.” He shrugs his shoulders, lifts the strap up off his shoulder, starts packing up. I fumble for some change, throw the coins into his case, mumble some thanks, then start heading home.
Several steps up the sidewalk, I stop. I want to to turn around, make sure he hasn’t disappeared in a puff of smoke, make sure that I haven’t hallucinated the entire thing, but I don’t let myself. I keep walking, and I don’t look back. He might still be there, or he might not be; in fact, he might never have been at all. Either way, I’ll never know. It doesn’t actually matter.
Some time later I’m at our front stoop, about to put the key in the door, when I notice the old government building, the one that stands just outside the frame of our bedroom window. Its domed roof looms mighty over all else nearby, and it’s lit up orange, glowing like a full moon, a jack-o-lantern, a salt rock lamp. I have passed by it many times before, including earlier this very night. Perhaps it has always looked just as beautiful, but if so, I have not noticed.