That time James Gordon tried to play Jackson, MI
Already a singer-songwriter, author, musical theatre performer and politician, James Gordon can add one more item to his resume: Roots Music Canada columnist. He’s graciously offered to share some entertaining stories with us from his lengthy career in the arts.
Sandy Horne and I travelled to Jackson, MI to give an afternoon concert at the “Cascades Park.”
Jackson, birthplace of the Republican Party, seemed like a fairly typical mid-American town. Typical, it turns out, except for “The Cascades.”
Before making the trek, the promoter of the event had faxed an unusual inquiry. Apparently the stage for the performance was at the base of a waterfall. Did I want the waterfall turned on or off?
I’m not often given this choice. In making my decision in this matter, I imagined that since this waterfall could be ‘turned on or off, it must be of the variety found sometimes on miniature golf courses or in front of office buildings.
My guess was that the water feature in question would be a distraction from the center of attention – ME – so I requested that the ‘cascade’ be turned off.
Arriving at the park, we discovered that the waterfall, in fact, WAS the park. A huge art deco monstrosity from the 1930’s, it tumbled down a hundred-foot hill through extensive spillways and ponds, surrounded by European-style fountains.
It was a big deal.
Built by a millionaire philanthropist and car horn mogul as a gift to his hometown, a plaque at the entrance gates proclaimed, “More than any other structure in Jackson, the Cascades is the monument of beauty and distinction that has been a source of enjoyment and fond memories to the millions of people who have visited it for over 60 years.”
Through the gates, facing the falls, was a 2000-seat amphitheater where happy patrons could sit, eat popcorn, and watch the falls, particularly at night when a spectacular light display, cued to music, enhanced the experience.
At the base of the falls, where under normal circumstances the falling waters would turn into a rushing stream, there was a stage set up for us, just at the point where the water disappears underground, to be pumped back to the top of the falls for perpetual encore performances.
Though it was still 90 minutes till show-time, groups of tourists were gathered at the gates, each looking forlorn when told that the falls were turned off for the day.
Our host for the concert was having a tough time convincing visitors that a folksinger was going to be as interesting as the Cascades.
“People come from all over the country to see this,” she said as we started to set up in the scowling glare of disappointed waterfall aficionados.
A large man in a park uniform approached. His name tag indicated that he was the “Chief Falls Operator.” His eyes narrowed from beneath his baseball cap and he drawled, “You the guy that asked for the waterfall to be turned off?”
I turned around, hoping he was blaming someone else, but I had to confess that I was the culprit.
“People come from all over the country to see this,” he said, a line that would be repeated often by anyone within earshot over the next while.
“It looks like it would be really noisy” I offered.
“Real pretty, though” he countered. “Real pretty”.
“I’ll tell you what,” he said. “It’s half an hour till showtime. It takes 15
minutes to get this thing cranked up, and 15 minutes to shut ‘er down. If you
don’t like it, I’ll shut it off for ya.”
I looked at the assemblage, who now had glimmers of hope on their increasingly sun-burned faces.
“O.K.,” I responded, to a smattering of applause.
With this good news, people started to take their seats as Sandy and I turned to watch the approaching deluge. As the fountains started to spray and a tidal wave moved closer, the first thing we noticed was that waterfalls create a fair bit of wind. Anything onstage that wasn’t attached firmly started to blow away. We had to lean into the gale to keep from being hurled towards the audience. Then we noticed the sound.
Waterfalls are loud. This one, I’ll wager, was louder than most, since it tumbled down a dozen concrete-covered levels, ending just twenty feet from us.
I shouted to Sandy, who had trouble hearing me over the noise, “What are we going to do?”
She pointed to the gathering crowd.
They were all smiling happily.
There’s a theory about waterfalls that they release extra oxygen into the air, so that anyone near gets a bit giddy with the sensation. This crowd was blissing out on us already.
Though the falls hadn’t yet reached their maximum effect, the chief looked at me expectantly.
Above the growing din, he shouted once more, “People come from all over the country to see this” before I gave a sigh, flashed him the thumbs up sign, and basked briefly in the most enthusiastic applause I would get for the rest of the day.
The chief thanked me and added, “There’s music that goes with it you know!”
I told him he was pushing his luck, and we began to make our own music, which wasn’t synchronized to the dancing fountains at all.
Having done our sound-check pre-waterfall, the sound guy turned everything up a few notches and we began.
Sandy and I couldn’t really hear each other, so I’d have to say that we’ve played better, but those sitting in the sun in front of us seemed to be enjoying themselves in spite of us.
Two songs in, we were getting accustomed to the challenging environment, when we looked out and saw that the gaze of the crowd had shifted away from the falls and into the sky.
Turns out there was even more competition. Not only was the park playing host to the annual hot-air balloon festival, but the Jackson airport was holding an airshow featuring vintage fighter planes. As balloons floated by, soon the sound of dive-bombing bi-planes could actually be heard above the roar of the falls.
I felt that we were really interrupting the entertainment by insisting on playing, but we pressed on. In between dogfights in the air people occasionally appeared to be listening to us.
After a while, the mood of the happy crowd seemed to shift. The problem was that it was really hot out, there was no shade over the amphitheatre, and no one in Jackson Michigan owned a hat.
Some held their programmes over their heads, but I could tell they weren’t going to last long.
To the relief of all, I announced an early break, and they all ran for cover.
We chatted to fans for a bit and watched the airshow. One man asked me how long my wife had been playing the bass. When I answered “my wife can’t play the bass,” he took this as a rather harsh criticism of Sandy’s abilities.
After a respite where the falls were able to assume their proper pre-eminence, we started the second half of our show to a much-reduced crowd, though the sun was now covered with dark clouds.
Two songs into the second half, we could see that these clouds were looking quite serious. They were accompanied by a wind even stronger than that produced by the falls.
Because I’m getting old and forgetful, and I’ve written too many songs, I keep a binder on a music stand with maybe 200 songs in it. Mid-way through a song that actually mentioned waterfalls, a gust of wind picked up the binder and plopped it on the concrete in front of me, bursting it open and sending a different kind of cascade flowing towards the crowd. It was a waterfall of songs, my life’s work, swirling in the air, competing quite admirably with the falls, the fountains, the balloons and the planes.
As they settled on the ground (and fortunately, not in the water), the sound and stage crew performed a kind of clumsy ballet, fetching pages and returning them to the stage. My new rule is “the show doesn’t necessarily have to go on” so I stopped to join them while Sandy fended for herself onstage. By the time most of the paper was retrieved, the audience, which was down to a brave dozen-or-so by now, was looking really nervous.
Finally admitting defeat, I thanked the assemblage, announced one more song and started gamely into it as a deafening crack of thunder and a blinding display of lightning provided a perfect climax to the program.
The die-hard few still in their seats bolted for the gates. Sandy and I, covered by a small canopy, hurried to pack away our instruments as the skies opened up. We hurled our gear into the patiently waiting Miss Sue Baru, hopped in and looked behind us as the canopy strained under the weight of the downpour. The rain came down with such speed and force that the edges of the canopy were soon engulfed in a dramatic flow that looked just like – wait for it – a waterfall!