Danny Kalb Trio
Marble Valley Regional Correctional Facility
Friday, April 1, 2011
“I’m Gonna Tear This Old Building Down”
By Don Wilcock
As I reached for the second door into the inner hallway of the Marble Valley Correctional Facility, this voice from nowhere sounding like God in a Cecile B. DeMille Cinerama movie asked, “May I help you?”
I withdrew my hand like I’d just been burned and let bass player John Profeta respond that he was one of the musicians in the Danny Kalb Trio, and that I was a journalist here to review the show. My heart sank. I suddenly understood how the New York Times reporters felt when captured by the Qaddafi forces in Libya.
There was a loud click, we pushed the door open and two uniformed gentlemen approached us and asked us to put our cell phones, keys, and any meds in one of many one-cubic-foot lockers. They helped us with John’s guitar and amps, and we walked past the bars that were remotely closed behind us with a deafening metallic clang.
We proceeded into an open courtyard as the April Fool’s Day snow whipped around our heads. I asked one of our guides what kind of jail this was. He said it was a holding facility for rapists, pedophiles, and murderers. I swallowed hard and stared at the circles of barbed wire that topped the twelve-foot-high fence around the yard.
We entered a one-story building that felt like a refuge within the compound. The room was filled with books from floor to ceiling, and there were posters on the walls reminding prisoners to vote and listing imperatives. Number Five: Don’t wear pants low enough to show your butt crack. Another posted sheet listed hundreds of famous people who had Attention Deficit Disorder, from Dwight D. Eisenhower and Bruce Jenner to Tommy Smothers and Robin Williams.
Bobbi Shutts, a short, middle-aged woman with closely clipped hair, approached us, and I noted that she looked the part. If I were casting someone in a film to be my host at a Rutland, Vermont, jail, she’d be the one.
Then, suddenly she smiled, stuck out her hand, greeted us like celebrities, and my nervous, motor-mouth-on-automatic interviewer’s brain kicked in, and we started to talk about her role as special educator. Every inmate under the age of twenty-three who does not have a high school diploma is mandated by the state of Vermont to take daily classes even if they have a GED.
I remembered blues artist Willie Pierce who worked as a drug counselor in Coxsackie Corrections Facility, elsewhere in New York, telling me that if he had a one-percent success rate, he considered himself lucky. To the contrary, said Shutts, her students did very well, and she had no desire whatsoever to go back to the public school system where she once taught.
John Cassarino was the “promoter” of the show. He told me that the jail has about one guest a month, and that they’ve included such blues personalities as Guy Davis and Paul Geremia. Danny Kalb and drummer/Sojourn Records CEO Mark Ambrosino showed up, and the group began setting up in this library. I went into a bathroom that was marked “Staff Only” and had no lock on the door. A finely executed cartoon of the Beatles’ Yellow Submarine decorated the wall.
Just before they let the thirty good-behavior inmates in the room, I started to tell the employee who had led me in that my favorite concert scene was of Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison. Before I could finish my anecdote, he supplied the famous line that set the prisoners off, “I killed a man in Reno just to watch him die.”
The inmates filed in wearing flip-flops, sweat pants, and assorted t-shirts, including one commemorating 9/11. Each had a laminated “backstage press pass” that identified them as “inmates.” Mine said “Marble Valley Regional Correctional Facility VISITOR” and is now proudly hanging in my music room along with ones from festivals across the country.
I stood behind Kalb in the doorway to an inner office staring beyond his back into the faces of the inmates. Whatever tension I’d imagined upon my entrance was not mirrored by these guys. I’ve seen more animosity between security guards and the audience at a Rolling Stones concert than I saw between the employees and the inmates. The atmosphere was more like a school assembly.
I had been asked not to take photos of any of the inmates. Instead I stared into their eyes as Kalb launched into “You Can’t Judge A Book by Its Cover” by Willie Dixon. Kalb was within three feet of the first row, but he might as well have phoned it in. Each of these men was in his own private padded cell. Eyes unfocused, they were numb to the surroundings.
I heard the lyrics to songs as if I were listening to them for the first time. Kalb sang, “I feel so bad, like a ball game on a rainy day.” He asked, “You know how that feels!” Slow nods. He went into Little Walter’s “Mean Old World:” Some day baby I’ll be six feet in my grave/And then you won’t be treating me like a low down dirty slave/This is a mean old world that you live in by yourself/You can’t have your loving/You gotta find somebody else.
The love song “Alberta,” from his days with The Blues Project in 1965, lightened the tone a bit. Kalb was a little nervous. He told me later that there but for the grace of God go many of us. He introduced the title track of his most recent album, I’m Gonna Live the Life I Sing About, by recalling his parents playing Mahalia Jackson’s version of the song when he was a child, saying that he didn’t understand the significance of the words until decades later: People haunt me/People taunt me/Say I’m foolish/I don’t care/I can sing one thing and live another/Be a saint by day and the devil undercover/I’m gonna live the life I sing about in my song/Go to church shout on Sunday/Go out and get drunk/Raise sand on Monday/I’m gonna live the life I sing about in my song.
Then he opened the floor for questions. They were paying attention, and the Q and A unlocked their personal mind prison. Who’s your favorite person you ever jammed with? Hendrix, Dylan, my own Blues Project. Did you ever play with Stevie? No. How about John Lee Hooker? Yes. What made you decide to be a musician? “There was a lot of fighting in my home, and it was my escape.”
Kalb had found their “X” spot. They nodded. Their body language shifted from slouches with their heads cocked at an angle to leaning into the wind.
“I Wish You Would” followed the Q and A, and it was like he’d jumped from first to fifth gear without ever jerking his head. We were all on the same bus, and it had just left the facility. Muddy Waters’ “Long Distance Call” had heads bopping, flip-flops flopping, and guts in gear. “You say you love me, baby. Why don’t you call me on the phone sometime?”
Reverend Gary Davis’ “Samson and Delilah” hit home hard. John Profeta was thumping that bass and Mark Ambrosino was lost in the brushes. Danny was preaching to the choir. If I had my way I’d tear that building down/One day they took Samson by surprise/And they took out a stick and poked out his eyes/They took Samson down to a great hall/And there he met a voice/Put his hands on the wall/And then he tore that building down/And he tore that building down.
After a standing ovation and two encores, the inmates surrounded the band and shook their hands. One of them told Mark Ambrisino about seeing a peak musical experience that made him a day late coming back to the facility. His tardiness cost him five days of freedom. It had been worth it.
I had introduced Danny to them reminiscing about the 1965 Blues Bag show at Café Au Go Go with The Blues Project, Muddy Waters and John Lee Hooker. I told them how I’d come out of that basement club to face the dawning New York skyline knowing I’d just seen a show that rivaled the Dead and the Stones. One of the inmates in a faded rock T-shirt stared deep into my eyes and smiled. It reminded me of a day at the Vietnam War Memorial when I bought a pin from a vendor who looked up from behind the brim of his hat and said, “Welcome home, brother. Welcome home.”
DonWilcock is editor in Chief of BluesWax. He’s looking forward to your comments below. If you like this show review, please click on “Like” at the top of the page.
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