How Willy Tea Taylor Reminds Us of the Importance of Our Musical Community

Vortex Music Magazine

Sometimes the thing you least want to do can lead to the most rewarding experience. Pat Kearns of Blue Skies For Black Hearts reluctantly headed to the Alberta Street Pub only to find himself reflecting on the importance of friendship and supporting his musical community.

Willy Tea Taylor and his full red beard as thick as a blackberry brambleWilly Tea Taylor and his full red beard as thick as a blackberry brambleWhen I agreed to it, it didn't seem like a big deal. I was already supposed to meet Willy Tea Taylor when he came through Portland on tour because we have mutual friends. So when I was asked to review his show, I said, "No problem."

But Tuesday, March 8, 2016, was no ordinary day here in Portland, Ore.

I spent part of that afternoon visiting my good friend Ryan Northrop in the Providence hospital ICU. He has been fighting for his life in a battle against the flu and pneumonia. He was unconscious, in an induced coma, and his breathing was assisted by machines. Ryan is the drummer for Sons of Huns, a power trio for which I produced their debut album and some singles—including their latest. He is my friend. He is part of my musical family. (And you can help support him with his medical bills.) Needless to say, this is not how you ever want to see someone you love.

Ryan Northrop in action—click to see more Sons of Huns photos by Kyle CarnesRyan Northrop in action—click to see more Sons of Huns photos by Kyle CarnesAfter visiting Ryan, my wife, Susan, and I weren't terribly excited about doing anything that evening. But I had given my word to both go down and see Willy... as well as review the show. I was really beginning to regret agreeing to that by now.

As we were putting our coats on, I checked my phone and found out that Dead Moon's Andrew Loomis had passed away. While not a complete surprise—Loomis wasn't exactly the pillar of healthy living (and had been battling lymphoma)—it still hurt. Living in a town where so much of the old community—the buildings and establishments that those of us gathered in as well as the people—is being burnt down, moving away, succumbing to "development" or, in Loomis' case, passing on into the next life, you worry what you love could be slipping away, never to come back. Loomis was a mainstay of our music community. He was a fixture in the bars. And he was possibly local live music's biggest fan and supporter.

True words from Andrew LoomisTrue words from Andrew LoomisI have several friends, at least a half dozen right off the top of my head including Susan, that all had similar Andrew Loomis fandom experiences. Loomis came to their show, cheered the band on, told them he specifically came to see them, and left them all feeling golden. Even if you don't count his own drumming contributions (Dead Moon ain't Dead Moon without him), Loomis most definitely made this town a better place to be.

Still not in the mood, we now couldn't imagine moping around at home either. So we headed to the show anxious to get that first beer, to toast Loomis and to do what he loved to do most if he wasn't playing the show himself: settle in and watch some live music in a small Portland club. Tonight, it was Willy Tea Taylor at the Alberta Street Pub—not a place that I would imagine Loomis ever coming, but why not? We're here.

Willy is a folk musician of the most traditional kind. He looks like he just walked out of a San Joaquin Valley fruit orchard: heavyset, overalls with a bright yellow Secret Aardvark tee, farmer's brim hat, and a full red beard as thick as a blackberry bramble. He played a four-string 1927 Martin tenor guitar and his white-haired, rockabilly-looking pal, Ray, accompanied him on cajon. Willy's voice is sweet and far less gruff than his exterior. You get the sense that he's always smiling beneath all that hair.

Willy brought a good crowd, most of whom responded enthusiastically to his stories and songs about turning 40 and being in his "Knuckleball Prime" (also the title of his latest record). I thought Willy's songs were acutely put together. No chord is wasted. He makes interesting turns of melody and phrasing, occasionally reminding me of Hiss Golden Messenger's weirder moments, all the while remaining firmly footed in Woody Guthrie's land of folk music.

A few times during the set, Willy struck just that right note. I even shed a couple of tears in reaction to lines in his songs. He got me with his "big old pile of dreams" in "Traded Your Guitar." And then he got me even deeper with the line, "I want to let the music back in," which he sings in "Lazy Third Eye," a song by The Cavalcade. (Watch a video of the four wordsmen, featuring Willy Tea Taylor, below.) The lines set off my own feelings stemming from seeing Ryan in the hospital and Loomis' passing, but Willy was the one who brought me there. I'm sure glad we went.

After watching Willy, I checked my phone once again only to find out George Martin had passed away. That man lived it. He was 90. He will always be my hero. And his passing hurt too. But it also reminded me to be happy with where I was and what I was doing. I had just seen Willy Tea Taylor live! And Willy made us all feel a little bit more alive by playing and singing to us. He was a big ray of sunshine on an otherwise gloomy Portland Tuesday.

That night was also a hard reminder of just how important music is in our lives. Please take time to appreciate your musical community. If you support it, it will give back to you more than you'll ever know.

Pat Kearns is a singer, songwriter and poet primarily known for his long-running band, Blue Skies For Black Hearts, as well as production and engineering at his studio, PermaPress Recording.

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