San Francisco, California
March 3, 2010
The penultimate show of the Bob Marley tribute tour was at the Aggie Theater in Fort Collins, Colorado. The snow had fallen throughout the previous day on that flat, frontier town, but at night, the temperature dropped to seventeen degrees and the drifts iced over. Kim and Kerry Ann hated the cold even more than I did. A few nights before we’d joked about it when Kim sang “Summertime” at our sound check.
“Kim! Kim! You can’t sing “Summertime” right now, it’s February and it’s freezing cold.”
“It’s summer in Jamaica.”
“It’s always summer in Jamaica, isn’t it?”
That night, after we packed up our gear, Kim emerged from the backstage shivering. We’d seen snow almost every day since we’d left Asheville over a week before. Even on the RV Kim was shaking with cold, so, though she squirmed a little, we made a point of sitting almost on top of her ’til she warmed up. Our hotel was ten minutes away, and we would be leaving for the airport in less than three hours.
When I finally saw my wife at the door of our building in the sunny Mission District I was one happy guy, even though I was still suffering from the head cold I often get on winter tours. I was cheered, however, when I found out that our show the next night in my hometown was already sold out. I slept most of the day and blew my nose a lot. I wished I had my horn, but I’d stowed it with the rest of our instruments on the trailer, which then on its way, so I drank tea all day slept.
I awoke groggy and sick on the morning of February 23rd. It had begun raining in the night, and it had continued on into the afternoon. More unusual weather. Our sound check at the Independent was scheduled for six o’clock, and as night fell it was raining harder than ever, and despite my pathetic, sneezy state of dripping nose and watery eyes, I walked out to catch the bus uptown. Half an hour later I was the first band member to arrive at the Independent, where a hundred precious feet of San Francisco parking were blocked off by orange traffic cones awaiting the arrival of tour manager Rich, driver Scotty, and my fellow in the horn section, trombonist Kelsey Howard. He’d ridden with the crew in order to see off his girlfriend Christa at her home in Salt Lake City. I sat in the cold backstage with more tea and waited.
I’d had a call from Harrison earlier that day. There was bad news, the RV had been delayed. Kelsey, Rich, and Scotty were OK, but we didn’t know for sure when they would arrive with our equipment.
Harrison was the next person to walk backstage at the Independent.
“They lost the trailer,” he said.
“The wheel fell off coming across Donner Pass.”
Donner Pass. The little notch in the Sierra Nevada where Interstate 80 climbs to 7,085 feet. It got its name from the disastrous journey of one hundred and fifty settlers who found themselves helplessly snowed in near the lake east of the pass; nearly all of them starved, and those that survived did so by eating the frozen flesh of their companions. When I talked to him later, Scotty was typically matter of fact. He’d piloted that giant vehicle and its trailer from California to Florida, Boston, Chicago and back without a mishap, and snow on the ground everywhere north of the Carolinas.
“Jeez, I looked in the rearview and saw that the fender was gone,” he said. “Then I saw the wheel rolling down the freeway, bouncing off the guardrail.” Everyone aboard was fine, and they found someone to tow the trailer, but they were still in the mountains, and they were going to be very, very late.
At the club, Shannon arrived next carrying a huge pot of corn soup. I gratefully ate my fill, and we had a meaningless conversation about the difference between soup and chowder, all of us worried privately about the show, wondering if anything else could go wrong.
Gradually, the cold, damp rooms of The Independent warmed up as one old friend after another arrived. Conrad brought a phenomenal apple pie, which Shannon lit into. Hossein was there, spreading cheer as always. He told a story about how some marketing people had mistaken him for Michael Franti and did a photoshoot with models and gave him a catalog worth of free gear before he told them who he really was. In the front of the house Marcus’ parents were staking out their customary table, as close as possible to stage left. They were aggressively saving a seat in the packed house for my beautiful wife, Gillian, who rarely gets to come to our shows. As the hours slipped by I let the DJ know he was going to have to try to keep the unruly crowd happy a lot longer than he’d planned. More and more records got cued up, and more heads filed in.
The show was scheduled for nine. A little after 10:30 the gear arrived, minus the trailer. I blew my nose a few more times before going to help with the load-in, but there was little to do with honorary roadies like LoLo, Frank, John, Zach and Umku around. Before the evening was over, and with the band finally on stage, Zach, who has hosted many Jamaican guests of Groundation in his home, would see his girlfriend through a seizure and a related head injury.
There was no soundcheck, though our sensitive musical gear had been thrown across the trailer at seventy miles an hour after having driven seven hundred miles through the snowy mountains and vast salt lakes of the West. If anything went wrong, there would be no time to fix it. My horn felt frozen when I took it back to the rear hallway and tried to warm it up and coax some music out of it.
The band opened with Marley’s “Soul Rebel”. I took the solo, stumbling a little. I was sick, exhausted and worried as hell about my friend Kim dancing on stage across from me. At that moment, her troubles made mine look completely insubstantial, and I marveled again at how Bob Marley’s songs can sometimes cushion the blows, great and small, that strike us throughout our lives. This is just what I felt when I first played on stage with Groundation at a Tribute show ten years ago. Bob can’t heal our wounds or cure us or rebuild us, but the hope and the humanity in his poetry and music can ease the pain for a while, and remind us that we can expect the dawn.
On that note, I have the sad duty to express the deepest condolences, on the part of all of Groundation, at the passing of Robert Pommell of Kingston, Jamaica. He was the father of Kim Pommell, Groundation singer. I’m sure I speak on behalf of many thousands of Groundation fans who would wish to express their deepest sympathy for Kim and her family, and their sincere hope for their future peace and well-being. This news is doubly regrettable coming so soon after the death of Linda Haereiti, mother of Groundation drummer Rufus Haereiti.
“Love would never leave us alone
And in the darkness there must come out a light
Could you be loved and be loved?”