I have been wanting to write about this but I have been afraid that writing it will lessen the profundity/power. That the moment was the ultimate in “you had to be there.” But I’ll give it a shot. I almost ceased breathing as it was unfolding: it was a moment that truly was “sublime”, in the most elementary sense of that word.
The focus on music at the Albuquerque festival was special. Music brings people together, of course, but Prince’s death, which happened on my first day at the festival, really brought that fact home. People would get in the elevator with me and none of us knew each other but we all would just say to each other, “My God. Prince.” I talked about Prince with my various Uber drivers. With the woman putting out breakfast at the Holiday Inn. With everyone.
On Saturday night, we went to the gorgeous and historic Kimo Theatre to go see Nathan East: For the Record, a documentary about the brilliant and legendary bassist Nathan East.
Nathan East was the recipient of the 2016 AFME Music Award, and attended the festival for a couple of days, participating and leading many of the events, including leading a bass guitar clinic. (By the time Saturday night rolled around, Nathan East had basically lost his voice. “You people in Albuquerque know how to party,” he croaked into the microphone, and the audience of Albuquerque-ans, mainly, erupted into proud applause.) Nathan East has played with everyone. Artists say, “Get me Nathan East.” They’ll re-arrange their own recording schedules so that he can play on their records. He is one of the busiest men in the music industry. A genius. Like Love & Mercy (fresh in my mind from the screening at Ebertfest), Nathan East is a reminder of how essential studio musicians are. They make the well-known stars shine even brighter. (It’s similar to 20 Feet From Stardom, the wonderful documentary about back-up singers.)
At AFME, Nathan East’s vibe was almost otherworldly in its positivity. And it’s genuine! What on earth is he tapped into? He has many brothers and sisters, all of whom are musicians as well, and the entire East family was there as well (plus his wife, his nieces and nephews). Their background is fascinating. Their father (now dead) hailed from South Africa, and was a track star who actually beat Jesse Owen’s record, but the Olympics that year were canceled because of the war. The entire East family, then, is first-generation Americans (something brought home in piercing clarity at the closing moments of the concert later that night, when Nathan East, alone on stage, played one of the most beautiful versions of “America the Beautiful” that I have ever heard. It was like the entire audience in that whole huge theatre was afraid to move.)
After the documentary, there was a Tribute Concert for Nathan East, with an incredible group of musicians and singers, singing songs on which Nathan East played the bass: “Easy Lover”, (my God, the flashbacks to high school), “I’m So Excited”, “Saving All My Love”, “Footloose”, “Tears in Heaven” … (And Steve Ferrone, drummer for Tom Petty, whose awesome quote about Prince is lower on this page, played!) At one point, Larry Wright, an awesome local musician who seemed to be everywhere at the same time (he showed up at my screening because he had met Annika somewhere during the festival), played the opening strains to “Purple Rain” as the backdrop of the stage went to purple. They didn’t play the whole song, just those opening guitar strains, and you could feel the whole theatre catch its breath.
Larry Wright is the dude in the cowboy hat. He was awesome. The man standing on Larry’s left is Ivan Wiener, the founder and executive director of the festival, responsible for choosing our film – and all films – for inclusion in the festival.
The tribute concert was a celebration of Nathan East’s essential contribution to not only these hit artists but to the music industry in general. Ivan Wiener, executive director of AFME, started out by reading a letter sent to the festival by Eric Clapton (interviewed extensively in the documentary). The letter was gorgeous, Clapton saying he was sorry he couldn’t be there, but paying lavish tribute to Nathan, who he is as an artist and a person.
Mum and I sat up in the balcony. The place was packed. There had been a line down the block to get in. The first two rows down below were made up of the entire East clan.
Now for the moment I want to write about:
After the tribute concert, Nathan East and his brothers and sisters, plus his talented young pianist son for a couple of songs, took the stage to play some songs together, Nathan clearly the leader, but all of them amazing.
Before they started playing, Nathan’s brother Ray, who is a pastor, came out to offer up a prayer for the concert that was about to happen. (Mum had gone to a party the night before, while I was at a horror movie screening, and had had a nice long conversation with Ray. Mum can fit in anywhere.) Ray is an elderly man and is clearly comfortable stepping in front of a packed house and speaking off the cuff. Tributes and celebrations and working an audience are in his blood. He has a beautiful sincere voice. He thanked all of us for being there. He asked God to bless all of the musician.
Then he said to us, “Please remember all of those who have passed on before us.” He started listing some names: the East parents, Ricky Lawson (who played on Nathan East’s solo album and died in the middle of making the documentary), and a couple of other friends and family members.
Then he said, looking up into the wings at God, “And please remember Prince … and anyone else who has passed on.”
Mum reached out her hand to me and whispered, “Bill O’Malley.” Echoing my own prayer. We both were in tears.
And then – from all over the theatre – people started calling out names.
Nobody had microphones. This was a spontaneous event. The voices came from everywhere. Nobody spoke over each other. There were no repeats. Name after name after name. Called out by individuals from every corner of the theatre.
It went on and on and on and on….
Until finally it stopped. On its own.
I didn’t want to hear that Prince had died. But if I HAD to hear it, being surrounded by a group of people like THAT is the way to go.