One wet winter afternoon sometime in the early 90s, I was driving up Ashby on my way home from work, dark gray clouds hastening the early dusk. I felt tired, & likely as not had a touch of my usual SAD, exacerbated by that bad habit I used to have of nibbling on peanut m&ms at my desk after lunch. Plus I never used to get any exercise in the winter. So it makes sense, the overall crappy weariness I remember.
And then I heard this song on the radio:
I thought I had never heard anything so tender & beautiful before. My Spanish (then as well as now, sadly) barely qualifies as rudimentary, so I had no way of knowing that they were singing about a drop of dew, but the simplicity & clarity of the song really did feel just as refreshing as a dewdrop. Suddenly the gray clouds were beautiful with subtle colors. The damp weather felt lush, clean & vital. I noticed the green trees in the hills.
I rushed home (no cellphones then!), called the studio number at KPFA (of course) & the DJ (I wish I could remember who it was) told me: Silvio Rodríguez. So I had his name, & the name of the song, but for some reason wasn’t able to track it down (no web!) until Donna brought home an old cache of LPs she had been storing somewhere, & there was my song on the sixth side of Tríptico. I wish I could tell you that I fell in love with the whole thing, but the truth is I was a little put off by all those drippy 70s arrangements. Nothing else could touch “La Gota de Rocío”, with its spare beauty & the clear-as-a-bell voice of Anabel Lopez. I put it on a mixtape (no CD burners!) & almost forgot about the rest of the album.
So. Here we are in 2010 & about a month ago Donna finds out that Silvio is coming to the US for the first time in 30 years. 30 years! Ticket prices be damned, this is the chance of a lifetime! So I ran down to the Paramount box office & scored us a pair in the second-cheapest balcony section. (I am all about avoiding nasty service charges as often as possible. Whether it’s an expensive show or not.)
What can I say? There was so much love in the room, it was mayhem of the best kind. People were beside themselves, hollering & waving Cuban flags, singing along, giving deafening ovations at every opportunity. Even before Silvio came out, when 3 of his bandmembers were playing the opening instrumental, I felt like I might cry, but pretty soon we were simply weeping.
I didn’t know what to expect from Silvio; people get older & their voices sometimes lose a little, or a lot, in the process. Or they get tired of singing their hits decade after decade & they start to sound like they’re covering themselves. (It can be worth it anyway in some cases: the one time we got to see James Brown, we were disappointed that it was more like James Brown doing James Brown, but it was still James Brown!) No: Silvio’s voice is still one of the most tender, warm & authentic voices I have ever had the pleasure to hear. I can’t help using the word “tender” over & over to describe his music, because that is what you feel from him: love, tenderness, idealism, hope.
Like the proverbial hand in a glove, this wonderful voice is perfectly matched with the kind of songs he writes: elemental, primary, what people mean when they say “classic”: so many of his songs sound as if they have always existed. As if each song lived whole somewhere inside music, waiting for the right moment to be born. (Gillian Welch, too, has a line on that particular kind of magic.)
The fine, fine band (tres, guitar, acoustic bass, flute & clarinet, understated drums & percussion) & sensitive arrangements fulfilled the promise of those beautiful songs that I knew were hidden under the syrupy overproduction of Tríptico: I felt like I could hear everything clearly because they played even old songs in a way that made sense to my contemporary ears.
Yet still there was that timeless quality. My Spanish didn’t allow me to understand the lyrics in any literal sense, so I can only tell you that he sang of earth & sky, of butterflies, heart, death, rain, of memory, of dreams & of angels, Martin Luther King & Violeta Parra. Stars, moon, time… a drop of dew.
We never wanted him to leave. I lost count of the encores. Even after they lowered the curtain, most of the house kept chanting & cheering & clapping, until finally we floated on little clouds of joy out to the sidewalk, where we all stood around smiling at each other, not quite ready to go home.