The River

Tuesday, March 30, 2004

Back to the roots

Northside Tavern is where the blues live in Atlanta. It’s a supportive environment, necessary to anything that would thrive. Portraits of artists past and present line the wall in back of the stage, which is immediately on your right as you enter what was once, decades ago, a convenience store and gas station. Now it’s a juke joint with a long bar on the far end, a few broken-in wooden tables and chairs, two pool tables, a juke box and a patio out the back under a giant billboard. It’s warm, utilitarian, soulful and real.

If my first visit is any indication, a blues community has quietly taken root in Atlanta. And its locus seems to be this old working-class bar. The show I saw on a recent Saturday afternoon and evening was an effort to nurture that community. It was a benefit for Frank Edwards, an Atlanta bluesman who remained active and vital up until his death at 93 two years ago. The benefit, held in conjunction with the nonprofit Music Maker Relief Foundation, was for his family. And a large contingent of the city’s blues artists came out to play for two days at the small bar, contributing their time and talents. The benefit was called “The Chicken Raid” after Edwards’ song by the same name. And the festivities included, fittingly, a barbecued chicken dinner prepared out on the patio, where solo acoustic performances were given between the sets inside, which grew increasingly hot as the cool spring night fell.

There is life here. It’s nurtured and it nurtures. People give and it gives back. And they give back some more. The bar even hosts a yearly benefit concert called Giving it Back, which raises funds for blues elders in the community.

Earlier that day, I was at Piedmont Park, where about 300 anti-war-and-occupation protestors had gathered for the March 20 global rally. After parking on a side street as close as I could to the large park in the middle of Atlanta, I merely had to follow the police helicopter to find the gathering spot. There were about 20 more police on the ground, decked out in padded black riot uniforms, sans the face-shielding helmets. Pretty ridiculous for such a mellow gathering.

Two teenagers, a boy and a girl, offered their perspective and their feelings about the Iraq war, a couple of black women did some cool rhyming poetry, Rachel Corrie’s cousin spoke about Rachel's incredibly cruel murder at the hands of Israeli soldiers. She also gave out small posters of Rachel looking beautiful and intelligent. Some others talked as well. Some good things were said. It was a nice afternoon in the park.

I’ve gotta get out more. There’s life out there, everywhere, there’s so much we’re so often blind to, until we look. There’s plenty of room, plenty of people, lots of opportunity. This is not yet a locked down land.

Taj Mahal said as much when I saw him in concert recently. He had just introduced local talent India Arie, who had impressed him with her desire when she was starting out. He said there is something happening, there are people giving of themselves, giving their heart and soul, keeping it warm, keeping it real. It’s an under-the-radar type of thing. I heard it as well when Leigh’s sister was talking about someone in her city, Jacksonville, doing good things in education. I see it in Leigh staying home even though she holds a PhD, doing so much for our two children.

I know it's in the Music Maker Relief Foundation and its stated mission: “a nonprofit organization dedicated to helping the true pioneers and forgotten heroes of Southern musical traditions gain recognition and meet their day to day needs. Today, many such musicians are living in extreme poverty and need food, shelter, medical care, and other assistance. Music Maker's aid and service programs improve the quality of recipients' lives. Our work affirms to these artists that we value the gifts of music and inspiration they have delivered to the world.”

And in The Happy Tutor’s proposed meetup of concerned citizens in July in Chicago, a sort of bloggerstock with a purpose.

It’s grass roots, all of it, no question about it. The roots are where it’s at.

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