73: With Crystal Garden

I first met them on a dimly lit Facetime call last summer, hours after they had met each other. It was late for me, well past one in the morning, and I was already in bed when my phone rang. They were in the studio with a musician friend of mine. He had found them. Or the universe had led him to them.

A shy but funny trumpet player from San Francisco who was busking on the street. Three Canadians who had ended up roommates thanks to Craigslist. A quiet, contemplative, wickedly talented singer who had been playing a showcase in New York and had no idea my friend was in the audience. It was circumstance, happenstance and perhaps a little bit of fate that brought them to him. It was he who brought them together.

I’m limited by contract and conscience how much I can write about him, my friend and client. But I woke up this morning needing to write about Crystal Garden, the band brought together in a way that Hollywood would reject and who, for the last few months, have been finding their sound.

The next time I saw them was a month later, the end of August in Central Washington. I’d been flown in to meet them and while I slept in a cushy yurt, they emerged from tents and sleeping bags at a campground. They were tired, dirty, having slept in the same clothes they’d been wearing for the last couple of days. They were happy, excited, full of hope.

Joel, a percussionist, with his electric smile and faux-hawk. He would leave the band in a few weeks, but I didn’t know that then. He’s got a music school to run back in Toronto and, having kept in loose touch, I’m sure he’s going to be a success.

James, the trumpet player with the family crest tattoos and patchy beard. He wore a Giants hat low as he told me about growing up in Vegas, about his parents passing away, about how long he’d lived homeless, busking on the street to provide his living.

Matt, a quiet tactician of a drummer and devoted music student from just outside Toronto. His blond hair would glow later that night when they would play an impromptu show at the campsite – banging away on a bucket with a bunch of glow sticks I taped together.

Charlie is the bass player. Funny, effervescent, the energy of the group, constantly bouncing around, charming everyone he meets. He’s got the deep soul of an artists, but the perspective of his 24 years.

Mycle, whose voice leaves people speechless when he steps to the mic and sings one of his songs. He’s the former Army Chaplain’s Assistant, the contractor from Seattle who has a career of his own, but who can’t help but make music every chance he gets.

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We spend a couple days together, on and off the tour bus, standing in the wings. Every quiet moment is filled with music. Charlie beat boxing. James blowing something smooth on the trumpet. Matt, like a kid off his meds, beating on any surface he can. Mycle scatting, belting out lyrics to old R&B.

They have the excitement of freshmen unleashed on campus for the very first time. They know – beyond their years – how incredible this opportunity is, how surreal.

A few months pass and my phone dings again in the middle of the night. It’s a track off their album, just mastered and not ready to be shared. I listen and am confused. It’s great, but I’ve never heard anything quite like it – a mix of mid-90s Morphine and Al Greene soul. I can’t wait for more.

They follow my friend on tour. They move in together in Seattle. They play and play and play – honing their sound, honing those silent communications that bands have: the head not, the bass riff, the drum line, the scat. They finish the album – Let the Rocks Cry Out – and you’ll be able to get it soon. I listen once then walk away. I listen again, then again, then again.

Three weeks ago, I get an email at 10 pm on a Monday night. Can I be in Virginia the next day for their first show? I thought this might be coming. The ticket is attached and I’m on my way to the airport at 4 am. At noon, I’m helping them load their gear onto the bus that will take us all to the venue for sound check and a whole lot of waiting around. Sound check in a beautiful old theater starts off a little nervy – it’s the first show and hundreds of people are expected to come. Most are probably coming because my friend is going to sit in, but others, true enthusiasts, are coming to hear something new.

They settle down, kill their sound check and then it’s back to the bus – to drink water, to talk, to do whatever they have to do in order to pretend they’re not nervous. They are nervous. I can see it on their faces. I can see it in their eyes. I talk to them individually. I tell them they sound great. I tell them to relax and enjoy the moment. It won’t always be pomp and circumstance. They will have to pay their dues. This is just the beginning.

“I can’t wait for that part,” says Matt. “I can’t wait to be in a crappy van, going from county fair to crappy bar. That part excites me.”

There’s time for that. There’s still time, lots of time.

They come out on stage to polite applause. Their first couple of songs sound good, but the nerves are still there. By the middle of the set, there are people dancing in the aisles, while others sit and watch. By the time they do their encore – my favorite track from the album called “Devil Woman” – Mycle has them eating out of his hand. Charlie has worked up a sweat bouncing around on stage. James has found his solos. Matt is playing with his eyes closed.

They finish and the applause breaks out. It’s no longer polite. It’s enthusiastic. It’s the same mix of confused “what was that?” and “how do I get more?” that I had when I heard the album.

The next day, I’m worried I’m going to miss my flight. Charlie and Matt volunteer to drive me to the airport and we talk the entire way – about music, about the world, about the kinds of things twenty-somethings talk about and I miss in my life. I take my window seat next to the propeller and can’t help but wonder what’s in store for these guys, this Crystal Garden.

I text Charlie and thank him for the ride.

“Absolutely,” he tells me. “You’re part of this too.”

I don’t know what comes next for a band like this. I don’t know what the future holds for a group brought together by fate and my friend. But I know one thing for sure – this is just the beginning of the journey and it will take them places they haven’t considered before, places they have yet to imagine. But as long there’s music, I’m sure they’ll find their way.

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