Friday, June 8, 2018
Stone Mountain Arts Center, Brownfield, Maine
This is a really long post. Sometimes I love an artist and go overboard.
Rose Cousins is one of those tremendously talented singer-songwriters who is far less known that she should be. I was introduced to her by Mike Miclon, who is the Executive Artist Director of Johnson Hall Performing Arts Center in Gardiner, Maine, for which I serve on the Board of Directors. Mike put together a compilation CD a couple of years ago of all of the upcoming acts at Johnson Hall, and Rose was on it. Her song “Go First” stole my heart in the first 15 seconds, and so I went to her show with Carol Noonan, Duke Levine, and Kevin Barryin March of 2016. Her songs are stunningly heart-wrenching, but she raises your spirit with witty, self-deprecating banter between songs. Her live show is definitely an emotional roller coaster ride.
Colin texted me two days before the show to ask me to join him to see Rose Cousins and Mark Erelli. I’d somehow never been to Stone Mountain Arts Centerin Brownfield, because it’s a solid couple of hours away from my house and felt very far out of the way. I jumped at the invitation, knowing that this was the perfect show to be my first there, and Colin offered to drive, which was a bonus. I hate to write this next sentence, but it’s burned into my memory. Colin and I were five cars behind a fatal accident on Route 113 in Brownfield on our way to Stone Mountain. I looked for information after the show online to see if what we saw was what we thought we’d seen (it sadly was), and found out that particular stretch of road near SMAC has been home to many fatal accidents, which gave me pause. My heart is still heavy for that person and their family.
Colin and I arrived a little bit after doors opened, a bit shaken from the accident, but hopeful everyone was going to be okay. For those of you who have also not been to Stone Mountain, you pick up a number in order of your arrival, which is the number you wait to hear before you get seated for dinner and the show. Colin and I were maybe number 21, and we were seated four or five rows away from the stage. We had a delicious but very expensive dinner (our shrimp pizza alone was $33!), and you need to be prepared with cash, because SMAC doesn’t accept credit cards. I think we split dinner and each paid $51, which is quite pricey to me, but was part of an elevated show experience. Anyhow, be prepared with that information before you go, if you haven’t visited SMAC yet. I really appreciate how much effort Carol Noonan (she played with Rose at Johnson Hall and spoke so much about how important live music is to a thriving community) has put into creating a venue that artists will want to play and show goers will want to frequent. It is a LISTENING ROOM. Period. I loved it. Photography and talking during the show was clearly prohibited, and it was amazing to see such a big crowd all intently focused on the show for a change. (Also, I did take one photo, but just so readers can see what a gorgeous venue SMAC is. I took it in 5 seconds from the bathroom door in the rear of the room and literally no one could see me and I obstructed no one’s view–promise promise!)
Rose Cousins and Mark Erelli took the stage and played in the round all night. I hadn’t seen Mark since 2012 playing with the incredible Lori McKenna, but he is warm in person and puts on a great show. Rose joked in between all of her depressing songs, and started the show by saying that she likes playing in Maine because Mainers have a deeper appreciation for Canadians because we’re literally attached. She told us that she quit her job in 2005 and the first thing she did was open for Mark Erelli at Club Passim. She opened the night with “Freedom.” A couple of songs later, she quipped “here’s a devastating little number called ‘White Flag.’” I absolutely LOVE it when artists tell us what inspired their songs, and Rose and Mark introduced every single song with thoughtful details all night. I was totally blissed out by that, the exceptional audience concert going etiquette, and the heartbreakingly beautiful songs.
Mark introduced “Look Up” (a song he said was one of those “don’t blink songs”) by telling us that he and Rose had realized “there were short but clearly definable stretches of the program where we were going to be unable to save you from double or even triple devastation.” Rose told us that Mark is so good at writing story songs, but she usually goes straight into an emotion that’s extremely uncomfortable and talks about that in her song instead. She told us both her mom and sister are married to farmers, and that she has a deep respect for how much work that is for them, which she fleshes out in “Farmer’s Wife.” Rose also mentioned that “Lock and Key” is about those people in your life who you are drawn to who are disruptive to your life who “you don’t want around but also do really want around.”
Mark played “The Hitter” for his son, who’s team was just eliminated in his Little League playoffs. He said he’d searching for cell service around SMAC (there isn’t any) to get text updates about the game. Mark and Rose have been playing an annual cover song show together for 13 or 14 years (they couldn’t remember) and recorded an album called Mixtape of the songs they’ve played at those shows. Mark joked that making his fans a mix tape was his way of “asking my audience to go steady” to introduce their cover of “Ophelia” by The Band.
Mark and Rose had just arrived at SMAC after an annual songwriting retreat on an island in New Hampshire. Mark and Rose both talked about how important that week is to them at length. Mark said, “there were maybe 18 of us this year and I think we wrote 63 songs together in five days.” He said that he collects scraps of lyrics and tells himself he’ll turn them into songs at the retreat. Mark and Rose played a song he wrote on the island a couple of days earlier inspired by just three lines on an otherwise blank notebook page called “Handmade.” It was gorgeous.
Rose also raved about the retreat. She said, it’s a “privilege to be with these nutritious friend. All year long, I empty my tank and this retreat is the best part of my year when I refill my tank.” They rough it on the island–there’s poor cell signal, no wifi, and no showers–but everyone comes together and is excited to be there to create with a creative community. Rose turned a conversation on the island with a friend who is a mother of two into a GORGEOUS, heartbreaking song about the perception others have of you compared to how you really feel you’re doing. She explained that “as a mom, you want to make everything so great and fix your kids’ emotions when they’re sad. As my dad would say, ‘they’re just emotions.’” The lyrics of her new, untitled song are stunning–“I wish my heart was a hammer, I’d put you back together, but it’s just a heart, like yours. If my hands were a pedal, I’d pull you through this struggle, but they’re just hands, like yours. Here’s what these hands can do. Be here to hold you. And when you lose your way, here’s what my heart would say–love comes back around.” I felt like the whole audience held our breath from start to finish to not interrupt a single second of that incredible song. What a treasure Rose is. I hope she appreciates how impressive her skill to express feelings so beautifully in song really is.
A few years ago, Rose told us that she arrived at the retreat feeling like a “garbage person” and wanted to write an anthemic song called “Grace.” She said she was “thinking about how it’s such a great way to walk in the world but sometimes it’s hard to apply grace in the moment.” “Freedom” rolled out of her at the retreat first, but then “Grace” came, with help from Mark Erelli. “Grace” won Song of the Year at the East Coast Music Awards, and she said it is a testament to how important that week of songwriting on the island is. Mark agreed and told us that everyone brings little pieces of ideas to the island and they work together to form songs and everyone is changed in the process. It inspired “For a Song.”
Rose told us that she wrote “Tender Is the Man” with the intention of “relieving men of the shame of having emotions.” She said “society makes it hard for that to be a normal human thing. Men are taught to compact and push aside their feelings, and that discomfort is emotion and if you want to talk about it, you can. I recorded it and realized that I have shame about having emotions, too.”
I was sad not to hear “Go First” in person again, but Rose closed with another of my favorite of her songs,“Chosen.” Rose will be back at SMAC on August 5 opening for the incredible Patty Griffin. Tickets are $100 each to support Brownfield’s Public Library. Before she sang, she told us that “Chosen” is “about the disparity between how we present ourselves in the world and how we feel about each other and the quest to bring those two things closer together.” She asked us to sing the “ooohs” together and fostered a beautiful feeling of unity in the room while she sang lyrics that bravely express self doubt and vulnerability. It felt like just the right note on which to end this beautiful evening. Rose is such a sharp lyricist, and “Chosen” is no exception–“take these arms, these legs, they are broken. This love is too much, I am frozen. And I don’t know if I have what it takes to be chosen. I arose with wings, and I am flightless. Someone’s carving a statue in my likeness and I will never live up to this portrait. I’m just posing. And I don’t know if I have what it takes to be chosen.” To hear these lyrics sung in person make them even better. Please see Rose Cousins when she comes to your town.
The crowd erupted with the first noise we’d made all night (thanks, fellow show-goers, for being so wonderfully attentive!), and Mark and Rose came back to the stage and played a lovely cover of Bruce Springsteen’s “If I Should Fall Behind.” I felt lucky to be in the room that night. Thank you, Rose and Mark, for the gift of your vulnerability and honesty in your songwriting and your bravery in sharing your heart with your fans.