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Tacoma Narrows Bridge gets us across a bit of Puget Sound on our way to Gig Harbor.

I don’t believe any musical ability came to me when I was formed. My vocal pitch is flat, I only mastered Twinkle Twinkle Little Star on the French Horn in the 5th grade, I played guitar for years and years, but barely advanced beyond what I was taught as a child. I finally traded my guitar – a beautiful instrument, lovingly made in Canada – to a collector friend. The one musical thing I *am* good at, is listening to music!

The way to get more music into my life is to make friends with musicians. Luckily for me there is a lot of overlap.

In August I was excited to make the trip up north once again to gather with other expert listeners at Roy and Lucy’s house in Gig Harbor. I left later in the day because I was waiting for Tara to arrive from Corvallis. Tara had to work that morning, then make the 2 1/2 hour drive to my house. Then I drove us the 2 1/2 remaining hours. While I waited, I made my jalapeno poppers. For the first time, I remembered to wear gloves!! You CAN teach an old dog new tricks. Now my skin wouldn’t burn for the next three days.

To make poppers, carefully clean all the seeds and pulp from inside the jalapeno before stuffing it with creamed cheese and baking it.

To keep the poppers warm, I plugged the crock pot in and heated it up. When Tara arrived, I pulled the poppers out of the oven and packed them into the ceramic pot, and brought the whole pot with us. This worked great!

People relax in the yard while the stage is prepared for the next performance.

A view through the trees to protect the identities of the innocent! ūüėČ

Walking into the house I saw Lucy right away, and she greeted me with a generous smile and hug and convinced me that she really was as happy to see us both as she said she was. Roy came in from outside right at that moment and did the same thing. “You’ve come to the party so often that now you’re a regular!” he said to me, and I beamed with pleasure. I am so honored to be invited, but even more honored when they show me that the invite is not merely out of politeness, but because they want me to come. Roy even included a link to my blog review of last year’s party in his Facebook event invite this year.

Lucy and Roy McAlister call the gathering McAlapalooza! It’s an annual music party and barbecue. Roy McAlister is a luthier, and through this work and also by teaching and mentoring, Roy knows many musicians. He has invited them to his annual gatherings. The couple also invites their neighbors and friends – and if you are a neighbor or friend and want to take the stage, you’ll find total support. Roy has in mind the bigger names he wants to highlight at the end of the evening, but prior to that we in the audience are treated with an honest-to-goodness music festival, all in the McAlister back yard.

I found this short video by Joseph McAlister that highlights his shop that I always want to show in my blog posts, but can never capture it just right. Turn up your volume and listen to how Roy talks about his art. He explains that each guitar is crafted with the musician and their purpose in mind. Meaning, he creates a guitar specifically for what the musician wants to do with it. I’ve actually witnessed musician reactions to handling a McAlister guitar for the first time, and can tell you that in this video, Roy is not exaggerating about the response he gets.

Roy also finds joy in using gorgeous materials, like you see here.

My friends Andre and Diana were there again. Andre and I have known each other for years. He had just sprung a surprise on me the day before: our mutual friend, Marcus Eaton, would be there too! That is why Tara made such an effort to come. I haven’t seen Andre for a long time, not since he invited me to see the Milk Carton Kids and The Barr Brothers in November. Tara and I haven’t seen Marcus since December. It’s hard to pin those boys down when they both live so far away and lead full lives. We did some catching up and it felt good.

We arrived the same time as Jerry and Terry Holder, a duo and couple with great music but even greater personalities. These two are funny and fun, and always reach out to Tara and me when we show up, asking for the latest news and offering to let us crash at their house if we don’t want to make the long drive home.

Annual favourite Rick Ruskin, who has been playing for audiences since the 1960s and the talent to prove it. Look him up on YouTube.

Tara and I arrived late and missed the earliest performers, but got there in time for Rick Ruskin, a crowd-pleaser. We were then treated to artists we did not know: Butch Boles followed by Steve Hurley and Mary Kay Henley.

Butch Boles talks with us before a song.

Roy McAlister helps Butch set up.

Steve Hurley croons.

Jerry Holder and Terry Holder are more annual favourites that win me over every time.

Terry plays her new McAlister ukulele.

Behind the audience, a bunch of guitars rest together and swap stories about what they’re good at and where their owner took them last.

Andre was brave enough to leave his own McAlister guitar with me for a few minutes. It’ll probably be the only time in my life I touch one of those.

Then Andre needed his guitar back so that he could play for us.

Andre’s lead guitar backs up Diana’s great voice.

Tara and I were thrilled to get a chance to catch up with our favourite musician, Marcus Eaton. Apparently there was a memo about wearing black.

Marcus finally took the stage after dark.

Eaton is so good that the members of the Alec Shaw Band, warming up in the shop in the back, actually poked their heads out to listen.

Marcus Eaton played stuff we know and love, and was kind enough to drop some new songs on us (Mark I’m so sorry I didn’t get a playlist for you!!). The ones we’ve heard, we sang along with. The ones we hadn’t heard froze us in place, like usual. Marcus is my favourite musician for a reason. I know of no one who plays with such innovation and precision while seeming not to put any effort at all into it. If you are one of the few people who has not heard me rave about this guy, please please please hit that link or YouTube, and listen to a couple of songs so you know what I’m talking about. (and check out those photos – yes, that’s him on the Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon & Crosby, and that’s him playing beside Tim Reynolds) His guitar playing is beyond brilliant and his lyrics are connected and genuine. I can’t wait to the hear the new album when it’s ready. Marcus has been playing a lot in Italy, and the influences keep showing up in his music. It’s been a good year for Marcus, and also for his brother, A.J. Eaton. The documentary David Crosby: Remember My Name (2019) is produced by Cameron Crowe, directed by A.J. Eaton, and scored by Marcus Eaton and Bill Laurance. It did very well at Sundance and has done well since it’s release.

Typically at McAlapalooza we see individual artists or duos, singer-songwriter folks. Roy invited an actual band this year! The Alec Shaw Band with Zan Fiskum. Good call. They were GREAT!¬† Alex Shaw has a great voice and together the band has a polished, confident sound that matched the mood of the night and all the music we had previously heard. I got a kick out of seeing a trombone on stage – there’s a new one for the McAlister back yard.

Zan Fiskum on the left, with the Alec Shaw Band. Sorry for the blurry photos. I didn’t have a tripod and neither my camera nor my iPhone could really deal with the dark.

More Zan Fiskum and Alec Shaw Band. Love that trombone!

Tara and I went all the way back to Rainier that night. T had work the next day and wanted a head start and a good night’s sleep before heading back to Corvallis.

Jerry and Terry Holder are annual favourites because they are so much fun on stage, they’re lovely people, and we love their music.

I went to my third backyard music and barbecue yesterday at Roy and Lucy McAlister’s home. Remember how enchanted I was the first time? It’s like that every time. Roy McAlister is a luthier, and consequently knows a lot of musicians. He and Lucy host a gathering every summer at their home, where they invite neighbors, celebrities, local stars, old friends and brand new friends to take the stage and perform for all of us lucky people who are invited. The music is always exceptional. The people who show up – every single soul – are always exceptional.

Damp but optimistic audience.

We’ve had an unusually hot and dry summer here along the coast of the Pacific Northwest. Day after day of temperatures in the 90s have finally dried out the earth to dust and much of the greenery has yellowed. So in between two solid weeks of clear blue skies and 90-degree temps, there was one day – a single day – of rain in the forecast. Any other day we would be cheering for the much-needed rain, but instead we remarked about the bad timing. And then… we appreciated the rain a little bit anyway, because we live here and have made peace with rain.

It intermittently poured, then broke up and splashed sun on us – teasing us and getting our hopes up – then started pouring again, for hours. We fretted about the electronic equipment under plastic sheets, hoping nothing would get ruined, hoping there would be a way to have an outside concert eventually. And yes, around 6pm the clouds began to break apart in earnest. By 7pm it had cleared up for good and people moved permanently out of the house. We sat on wet lawn chairs and got ready to be delighted.

A series of fabulous musicians took the stage!

This photo is from 2017, since I didn’t take any good perspective photos this year. Behind the stage you can see the glowing windows of Roy’s shop.

Steve Hawkins was gracious enough to start off the night with some beautiful songs. One song was interrupted by low-flying aircraft, and he calmly took it in stride and incorporated the demonstration into the show. Now there’s a performer for you.

Rick Ruskin is another familiar friend and performer. His ease with his guitar made the audience forget it was a show and just get caught up in the music.

Roy McAlister, left, introduces Andre Ranieri and Diana Brown. It was their first time on stage and Andre impressed us with his lead guitar while Diana wowed us with her vocals.

Andre has been a beloved friend for years.¬† We met through a mutual friend and musician, Marcus Eaton. In fact, it’s because of Andre that I received my first invite to McAlapalooza in 2015. Andre plays with Diana, and so she made the journey from the TriCities to be here tonight. I loved her of course.

Peter Jacobsen used his guitar to accompany his outstanding voice.

Christine Gill and John Resch knocked our socks off with their great songs! John played a guitar he built himself.

Christine and John get a second photo because this one was too good to leave out. They are such a loving, open, humble, and generous couple. I begged them to come and play again next time.

Pianist and singer, Grace, a McAlister family friend. This young woman’s talent will take her places. (and look how much fun she’s having)

Our hostess Lucy took the stage to introduce Save the Bees, a new act and immediate favourite once they began belting out brilliant harmonies.

This is where the guitar magic happens.

Andre plays his new guitar.

As I watched Save the Bees, Andre gestured to me from the other side of the lawn to follow him and John Resch up the hill to Roy’s shop. When I arrived he announced, “This is my new guitar.” We admired the nearly-finished instrument (missing accessories like a pick guard and strap button) that Roy has been making for him. It’s a sister to Marcus Eaton’s guitar, that stirred up so much excitement in 2015. Andre humbly handed it to John, who tuned it and played a few pieces, and then Andre finally got to hold his new baby.

Diana showed up a little later and played it too, Jerry and Terry Holder stopped in to watch the delight settling over Andre. Terry showed us her mostly-built ukulele that Roy is making. Then Andre played while Diana sang, and I was a quiet, wide-eyed witness to musicians simply reveling in the joy of making music.

Jerry backs up Terry who wrote a new song while teaching herself to play the ukulele.

I had been stuffing myself with food all evening. That’s one of the fun things about McAlapalooza: guests trickle in from 3 to 8, and everybody brings something: salads, blueberry tarts, roast potatoes, noodles, fresh vegetables, cake, and artichoke dip. The grill was fired up and then chicken and sausage appeared. Every time I walked into the house, a new dish had found a place on the table and I had to sample it. It was late, and dark, and I was tired and full of delicious food and wine. I missed the final act, James Anaya,¬†and climbed into the Jeep and set the GPS for home.

Roy McAlister talks with Marcus as the musician gets to know his new McAlister guitar.

Roy McAlister talks with Marcus Eaton as the musician gets to know his new McAlister guitar.

Yesterday evening was another one of those¬†times¬†when I am absolutely humbled and grateful for the beautiful people in my life who made it happen for me. Don’t you find that remarkable things happen as a result of collaboration? It’s always that way. Keep people you admire and respect close to you, and they will make your life better. ūüôā

Though we see each other rarely, one of my favourite friends of all is A, who lives out in Southeastern Washington state. He was invited to a backyard BBQ and potluck party in Gig Harbor, Washington where our mutual friend, Marcus Eaton would be playing. A couldn’t make it, and asked that I be invited to the party instead. And I was. (giggly happy dance inserted here)

It was at the home of a luthier, A told me. A man who makes high quality guitars played by¬†musicians including¬†Jackson Browne, Marc Cohn, Graham Nash and David Crosby. It was a unique opportunity for me to be in the presence of real artists, and only two hours’ drive from our home in Rainier, Oregon.

I got up early and made jalapeno poppers. This involves carefully cutting open fresh peppers and removing all the pulp and seeds and stuffing them with cream cheese. The task is tricky to do without tearing the peppers, which you want to close back up once they’re stuffed, so you can roast them. The bigger problem is dealing with pepper juice on your fingers. It’s 24 hours later and my skin is still burning. I always think “Next time I’ll wear gloves,” and I always forget. At least I’m consistent.

This photo doesn't do it justice, but Gig Harbor is an absolutely darling seaside Victorian town. The rain let up right before we arrived, so we were able to get out a bit, and stayed dry.

This photo doesn’t do it justice, but Gig Harbor is an absolutely darling Victorian town. The rain let up right before we arrived, so we were able to get out a bit, and stayed dry.

Down at the picturesque Harbor itself. This town is in Puget Sound, so it has full access to the Pacific Ocean, but is protected from seaside exposure.

Down at the picturesque Harbor itself. This town is in Puget Sound, so it has full access to the Pacific Ocean, but is protected from seaside exposure.

The weather was wretched and that made I-5 treacherous. The four northbound lanes are¬†usually bumper to bumper on the way to Seattle: that’s a given. So add torrential downpours causing small lakes on the Interstate, and the omnipresent summer construction zones. Yikes. We were grateful to pull onto Highway 16 and head west over the Tacoma Narrows bridge. (I received a text from my brother that the bridge was closed due to high winds after we arrived at our hosts’ home, but luckily it was opened up again by the time we all left.)

Our plans had changed due to the weather, so we arrived rather early. Tara and I decided to explore the town of Gig Harbor and calm our nerves a bit before we ventured on. From there, it was only 15 minutes to the house.

Mrs. McAlister was as gracious as could be, considering she had never met us, and ushered us both in, introduced us to the kids, pointed out drinks and food, and showed me how to work the oven so I could broil the poppers. I met other guests and was grateful that Tara and I were not the first. Marcus was already there, and introduced me to Roy McAlister the luthier, and he introduced me to his new guitar.

The guitar should get a dedicated blog post. Sadly, I am ignorant of the technical descriptions of instruments. All I can say is that Рeven to me Рthis guitar is sexy enough to make hearts pound. Roy pointed out all the pieces: the blonde front piece, the dark sides and back, the black wood border around the face. Each piece of wood gorgeous and patterned and quilted with variations in the wood. Even the ebony of the neck was striped with lighter colours. Stunning.

Marcus begins to open up his new guitar.

Marcus begins to open up his new guitar.

His fingers blur across the frets.

His fingers blur across the frets.

Marcus had just been presented with the guitar, and played with it for a couple of hours before people started showing up, because he was trying to “open it up,” and noted that he could already hear the difference after doing that. He was so pleased he practically babbled about his gift. He said that guitars peak in sound quality after 10 years or so, and he was dying to hear the future tones of this work of art.

I was honored to be invited to Roy’s workshop in the back, filled with carved and unassembled pieces, curved and shaped and waiting to be brought to life, first by the luthier and finally by the musicians.

Guitars waiting for the tender touches of repair work.

Guitars waiting for the tender touches of repair work.

Tools waiting to be called upon.

Tools waiting to be called upon.

Roy McAlister was revealed to me by the end of the evening to be¬†an exceptional human being. When describing the guitar for us, I could sense his efforts to¬†maintain a calm and humble presentation but it was easy to see how excited he was. Watching¬†carefully as the evening progressed and he hovered at the edge of the audience, soaking up the sounds of the¬†artists with his guitars, I could see the kid inside him, straining not to bounce around with glee. If he wasn’t proud of his accomplishments while watching the musicians, he deserved to be. During the party, he talked with everyone and made each person feel appreciated, even me and Tara, total strangers. Roy made jokes all night and when he got together with Marcus, the two of them were positively juvenile. It was pretty hilarious. I teased him about being the biggest kid in the house, and he took it as a compliment.

Marcus could not stop raving about his gift. It was better than Christmas. The guitar, obviously, is gorgeous. But Marcus was just going crazy about its playability the instant he picked it up. “I’ve been fighting my guitar for three years,” he told me. “This guitar disappears when I start playing. It disappears.” You could tell by watching. There was no adjustment period as he figured it out…he just sat down and made jaws drop. In between every song he took the time to rave some more. “Sick!” he says, “I want to be more eloquent, but that’s all I’ve got.”

The rain POURED and wind raged. It had brought down a tree in the yard earlier. There was no question of being out of doors. So the lovely hosts rearranged their home and brought the show inside. That made it very intimate, and I was glad, because I was able to hear every single breath of the new guitar.

When the house was full, the artists began playing. It was a full concert with personally invited artists. I have photos only from the beginning when the light was still good. When it got dark outside, the room was dark and my little Nikon with my poor night photography skills was not able to capture anything worth posting.

Terry Holder tunes her guitar.

Terry Holder tunes her guitar.

Jerry and Terry make a great team and looked like they were having fun up there.

Jerry and Terry make a great team and looked like they were having fun up there.

Terry Holder started us off, with some fabulous back-up by her husband Jerry. I had the chance to talk to them before the show and they are both truly genuine people with quick smiles and generous hearts. Terry’s songs are as beautiful as she is, and filled with a magical, hopeful quality that I noticed is also in her personality. “Put it out into the Universe,” she said a couple of times during the night,¬†expressing¬†her belief that¬†good things happen when you are true to yourself.

Rick Ruskin has skillfully wound his way around guitars for decades.

Rick Ruskin has skillfully wound his way around guitars for decades.

Rick Ruskin was up next with his McAlister guitar. Rick’s funny stories were a great accessory to his exceptional playing. It was clear that he and his guitar had been close friends for years, and his picking was relaxed and confident. He joked about playing I Wish It Would Rain the previous year, and this year’s barbecue being rained out. He played it again, hoping to cancel out the effect, and then – just in case – held us spellbound with an instrumental Here Comes The Sun. I complimented him on his set, later in the kitchen. “I give it a B+,” Rick responded. Oh, pshaww. Maybe artists find it harder to admit to greatness when there are so many greats together. But I argue: wear the coat when it fits.

Marcus in the living room of a family who play music and love music.

Marcus in the living room of a family who play and love music.

Then Marcus played a nice long set. For those who want to know, the setlist was Sunrise Lets You Down, Black Pearl, What’s The Difference, Flying Through the Fire, Reverie, I Will Be Your Shade, Better Way, The Sting, The Barbie Song, and Who You Are. His fingers fly when he plays. He sometimes watched the frets while his hands picked it out, and sometimes looked right out at us while his fingers danced and sparked like lightning.¬†There were little gasps in the audience and quiet “wow”s around me. (I often wonder what it’s like for those¬†hearing him for the first time) Though I have been mesmerized by his playing since 2006, twice I caught myself dizzy from holding my breath to listen. No matter how good the music is, I must still breathe. It was the first time I had heard Flying Through the Fire, inspired by a WWII messenger pigeon. “It’s about life,” said Marcus. The song touched me deeply. It’s going to have to be my new anthem. Sadly, I still don’t have the music, since it’s on Marcus’ new album. The album is so recently completed it hasn’t even been released yet!

As if that wasn’t enough music-from-the-gut,¬†I was introduced to Keith Greeninger. First of all, his voice knocked me flat. In a good way. There is no better match of voice to songwriter ever. Each song has a message that is so profoundly beautiful it broke my heart. In a good way. I had to fight off the¬†tears during Hop In the Truck, in which he played a mandola (everything else was on guitar). It is about American and Mexican construction workers building a border wall together because they needed the work to feed their families, and when it is finished all the foreigners get deported. The song called out politicians building campaigns by shutting out the laborers upon whose backs our country was built. After the show I found that Keith is …wait for it… deeply genuine and caring in person. He was eager to shake my hand and thank me for listening, when I was the one trying to thank him.

Every single person was wonderful, and funny, and interesting, and open. I didn’t even have a chance to meet them all, and trust me, I feel that loss. The bigger story is that I was able to meet many of them, and today my life is a hundred times richer.

One of my many guises

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