Friday, February 10, 2012
Mayo Street Arts, Portland, Maine
Max is a dear friend of mine. A mutual friend who teaches where Max was doing his student teaching introduced us last winter. He’s been part of the gang ever since. I can’t separate my feelings about how great Max is as a person from how great his music is. Last summer, Max, Sophie, Chris, Brady, and I hiked Mt. Katahdin. Brady had done the whole AT and was no stranger to the mountain. For the rest of us, it was our first trip up. Brady had just had wrist surgery, so only went as far as the beginning of the Hunt Spur with us (at least that’s what we’re telling his mother). The rest of us continued on to the top and made it there quite late in the day. My refrain of the day was, “this is NO JOKE!” Mt. Katahdin is a serious climb. The way up was okay, but on the way down, my feet were D-O-N-E. Everyone else was okay, but I was not. I seriously meant it when I told them to leave me and I’d make it down eventually. I was a wreck. Chris made me give him my pack to carry, Sophie gave encouragement, and Max led the way—patiently, calmly winding us down the mountain. All told, I think it was a 15-hour ordeal. I bought my hiking buddies lunch at Big G’s in Winslow the next day to say thanks. We’ll got to Baxter State Park again this summer to camp, but I will not be hiking that mountain again under any circumstances.
Max is one of the kindest, most thoughtful guys you’ll meet. He has a poet’s heart. He is calm and quiet and unassuming. When it somehow came up that he played music, I had no idea that he would be so amazing. Max is humble, and I frankly don’t think he understands how talented he is. He sent us an email last fall with a link to listen to his first EP online (conveniently titled EP#1). I listened for about thirty seconds with my mouth gaping open. I had NO IDEA that our friend Max would sound this polished or that his songwriting would be so layered and interesting. I was floored. I had to really push Max to play for us the next time we gathered and a guitar was present. He is quite shy about his talent. I had only heard Max play those few songs live before I saw him at his EP#1 release show with David Berkeley at One Longfellow Square last October. I went to the green room to chat with him before the show and reminded him that he needed to remind people to buy his EP. It’s the sort of thing he’d leave out. My friends and I took up the first few rows; his family and friends had traveled from near and far, and there was a lot of love in that room. And Max blew us away. I was so proud. Excited for his talented, touched by his songs, and just glad to call him friend. When David Berkeley and I chatted at the end of the evening, he told me that Max plays circles around him on the guitar and that he’d love to come back and do it again every year. Let’s hope so.
Max was featured a few times in the local press in the weeks leading up to his Birches Lo release show at Mayo Street Arts. Sam Pfeifle from The Phoenix wrote a great review of Max’s second EP, Birches Lo. Pfeifle wrote, “the list of local guys with guitars who can grab your attention without any other window-dressing is a pretty short one. Max Garcia Conover is making a strong pitch for joining that select group.” About his songwriting, Pfeifle said, “these aren’t rambling folk crooners, but songs that ripple with energy and earnestness. They’re poetic and portrait-like, with lots of words that twist about . . .” and “he’s more likely to address trees and structures and landscapes than unrequited lovers.” I wholeheartedly agree with Pfeifle’s assessment.
Annie Seikonia reviewed Max’s EP #1 in the January-March 2012 edition of The Baysider. She hit the mark when she wrote that it’s a “warm, homespun project that gives you the feeling of meeting a new friend whom you’ve known forever.” She also said Max’s “compelling narrative lyrics are delivered in a voice rich as wild honey.” I especially loved hearing that, because Max has said many times that he only really learned to play guitar about six years ago (which I doubt you’ll believe when you hear his insane finger-picking), and that he has always struggled with learning how to sing. In an interview with USM’s Free Press, Max said, “I was really tremendously bad at singing for a good chunk of my life.” I can assure you he’s finally found his voice.
Aimsel Ponti interviewed Max in the Portland Press Herald about his life and the inspiration for Birches Lo. It was no surprise to me when Max replied that “most of the songs are at least partially about the desire to and importance of connecting to the natural world.” I think the most fitting place to hear Max’s music to fully appreciate it would be outside with him playing live around a campfire in the woods. If that’s not possible, I’d suggest downloading his music and taking it along on a hike in the woods on your iPod. It’ll do. I think Max would prefer you listen to the sounds of nature, but you get the idea. I also suspect that Max is blushing at this point. Or maybe even a couple of paragraphs ago.
I got to Mayo Street Arts two Friday nights ago (wow, I am so behind on writing about shows!) with enough time for Max to teach me how to use the Cube app for his phone so people could use their credit card to buy his EPs. I’d volunteered to run the merch table so Max could focus on playing that night. He decided to donate all of the proceeds from Birches Lo to The Chewonki Foundation, an organization that is “fostering an appreciation for the natural world and for working in community with others.” Max’s Bowdoin College pre-orientation trip was based at Chewonki. (I went fly fishing for four days in the pouring rain on my pre-orientation trip and our van broke down when we were supposed to leave for our first day of orientation—fun times).
I almost always position myself very near the front at concerts, but Mayo Street Arts is so cozy that my spot in the back felt somehow close to the stage. Every seat in the house was taken. People sat on long benches along every wall. People stood in the back with me. It was a sold out crowd for sure. Sammie Francis, one of Max’s college classmates, opened the show. She and Max Taylor sounded beautiful together. Sammie played piano while Max was on acoustic guitar and then upright bass. Their harmonies were lovely. Sammie’s voice is rich and she knows how to fill a room with it. Her second song that night, “On Cue,” came to her after not being able to write songs for a long time. It’s quite a sad song; I remember the lyric “so I sang to all the sad things/and I wished for all the glad things/but I only found walls that were black.” Sammie captured palpable emotion in that song. I was able to listen to it again at Sammie’s bandcamp site.
Sammie is a first-year English teacher, and it was very sweet that a couple of her students came to the show. She gave them a shout out and there was brief talk about MacBeth. She said that she’s not writing much music these days as she’s trying to get through her first year of teaching (don’t worry, Sammie, it gets better!). Sammie switched to guitar and told us that she grew up playing piano, but that she picked up her dad’s guitar when she was fourteen and hasn’t given it back yet. She meant it. She was playing her dad’s guitar that night. She played a song that she wrote for him, too. It was very sweet.
Sammie played “Yes, Please,” her only song, she said, that she can hear played back that she doesn’t completely hate. She wrote it while living abroad in Scotland. Max (Max Garcia Conover, that is) tries to record a song every Sunday (his “Sunday Sessions”), and Sammie recorded this at his apartment studio a couple of weeks ago. I was impressed with the guitar part on the track and wrongly assumed it was Max playing. That’s a compliment, Sammie!
Sammie covered Bon Iver’s beautiful song “Re: Stacks,” and she and another Bowdoin classmate, Emily Schonberg, covered Brandi Carlile’s “What Can I Say”—easily my favorite Brandi song. I saw Brandi open for Ray LaMontagne at Berklee in Boston on December 3, 2005 with my friend Kim and it changed my life for the better. To close her set, Sammie called Max Taylor, Max Garcia Conover, Emily Schonberg, and the fabulous Sophie Nelson up to sing a cover of Laura Marling’s “Rambling Man” with her. Everyone positioned themselves in a big circle around the room and sang together, literally in the round. It was lovely. Sammie went on to gush about Max and how far he’s come musically. She said she knew him before he even really knew how to play the guitar. Amazing how far he’s come.
We took a break and then Max took the stage. His voice carried beautifully and clearly in the space and his guitar sounded great. He opened with the first song off of Birches Lo, “Barn,” and went right into “Thatch House.” He told a story about going home to western New York around Christmas and finding a deer skeleton at a particular spot that inspired the song “The Creek Woman Poet.” There’s a heavy lyric in that song that goes “show me in my heart there’s a light among the liars.” I love “Among the White Birches”—it feels like a complete song held within another song. Max shifts the tempo about a minute into the song and then back again another minute later. “The Marshes” was one of my favorites of the night—it includes the line “and when this day ends/I will leave this place unchanged.” In the big picture, I doubt Max will be leaving our world unchanged. I’m just hoping he’ll let me tag along to the Newport Folk Festival or Bonnaroo when he gets invited. I’ll carry his guitar and fetch him water to earn my keep.
Sophie and Max invited me over for dinner a couple of months ago and Max had just finished up writing “The Wide.” He played it after dinner and it instantly became my favorite of his songs. There’s a crazy finger picking, guitar-slapping thing that he does that I love. It’s a supremely textured song. He played “The Wide” for Stay Tuned on WSCA 106.1FM in Portsmouth, and you should definitely check it out. Max wrapped up his first set with “To Belong to the Willing” and “Spiral Through the Wheat.” I love, love, love “Spiral Through the Wheat” because it’s upbeat and primal and Max rocks out at the end of the song, belting out “I won’t ever be done!” He warned us before the intermission that we would be singing a Bob Dylan song together after the break and that we’d need to sing “louder than anything’s ever been sung at Mayo Street Arts.” We were ready. He also thanked us a bunch of times for coming out to see the show. Someone in the audience chuckled and he responded, “Did I say thanks too many times?” That’s Max for you.
After the intermission, Max had us fill in some of the vacated seats in the front couple of rows. Some of his elementary school students had come to see him perform with their families, and the second set was decidedly after bedtime. I absolutely loved seeing Max’s students light up when they got to talk to him before the show. I could tell it was special to both Max and his students that they were there to see him play. It was incredibly sweet.
As promised, Max made us sing. We covered Bob Dylan’s “Goin’ to Acapulco.” Dave Yee, one of Max’s college friends and bandmates, drove all the way from Virginia Beach, VA to be at the show (yes, people love Max that much) and recorded the whole night. If you need a bit of joy in your day, listen to our version of “Goin’ to Acapulco.” Singing it (okay, belting it out) all together late on a Friday night felt so SO good. You can definitely hear the fantastic Ken Templeton on that track. We cracked ourselves up and you can hear that, too.
Max played another of my favorites—“As Much a Rising Sun as a Setting One,” that has the great lyrics “I’m always running and I’m always late” and “everything she falls on, I believe.” Max Taylor accompanied on upright bass and Sammie sang harmony, and for me, it made one of my favorites that much better. Max played “For Blackwater Woods” and then closed with another favorite of mine, “In City Light.” He stepped off the stage and played from the floor. I love the lyrics of “In City Light’—including “I’ve been dancing in hallways/But I play it down when someone comes” and “I’ve been writing my days down/Been writing so much/Writing’s all I write about/And I hear we’ve been wasting our time/And I’m terrified of wasting my time/But we all got things beneath our bed frames, Babe/That find us in the day/They find us in the day sometimes.” Max intended to close with “In City Light,” but we obviously demanded an encore. After many superfluous “thank yous” from Max, he played one of the first songs he ever wrote that was recorded “on a CD we don’t talk about anymore.” Ken Templeton knew every word, so I’m planning on getting my hands on said CD. He said the song “Fairweather Revolutionaries” was for his grandfather. I’d never heard it before, and it was great song to leave us with.
Obviously, I’m a huge Max Garcia Conover fan. I think he’s best live and I’ll be sure to post when he’s playing in Maine again. Check out his music and come out to see him next time! It was a magical evening.