Tag Archives: Music

gars and gambling

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This morning I finally left dear David and Shawna, who have been so so wonderful to hang out with, and tearfully bid adieu to my fuzzy bedmate Fred, and started heading south out of Memphis on the east side of the river this time. At Tunica I saw signs for a riverpark, so I turned off and drove over to the river, where this multi-million-dollar facility sits right on the river’s edge. Clearly, casino revenues are allowing all sorts of things to flourish in Tunica! But before I could even get to the door of the museum, a gentleman on a golf cart rode up and offered to buy me lunch and show me around. I’m definitely beginning to understand what is meant by Southern hospitality! Craig, who was the Construction Supervisor of the park but is now its unofficial mayor, took me over to the Hollywood Cafe, a great place nearby, (mentioned in the song Walking in Memphis,) where he showed me pictures of his carpentry and woodworking, and told me many excellent stories about Tunica and environs. Then he took me back to the grounds of the park, where they have built miles of wooden bridges for walking through the bottomlands, although the water is high enough now that portions of the bridges are impassable. It’s a wonderful place, one of the few I’ve come across that makes it easy to explore the river side of the levees from the land. Other than boat launches, there isn’t much chance of that.

Here is one of Craig’s stories, just to give you an idea of how I might have spent the whole afternoon with him: he and two employees were building one of the bridges when a machine broke. Craig asked his workers to take a break and go away for a while, because it made him nervous to be watched while he was trying to fix something. They left, but after a moment he wondered if they’d snuck back and were spying on him, because he felt eyes on him. He looked up and there was a black panther, just along the other side of the bridge. I keep picturing Craig looking up in irritation, about to upbraid his employees for coming back too soon, and locking eyes with a black panther instead. I bet he was really grateful when his workers got back and the panther melted off into the woods.

The museum itself is really beautifully done; it turns out that John Barry, the author of Rising Tide: The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 and How It Changed America, one of the books that inspired this journey of mine, was an adviser for the exhibits. Along with a simulated diving bell, and many cool videos and photographs, and some fine Native American artifacts, there is also an aquarium, with some river creatures even stranger and more mythological-looking than I had known existed. Alligator gar, anyone? If that doesn’t creep you out a little bit, nothing will!

Alligator Gar caught on Moon Lake
Alligator Gar caught on Moon Lake, March 1910

starting somewhere

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We drove through Forrest City on the way to St. Francis National Forest because I was curious to see the town, which had been described to me as one of the most segregated places in America. The downtown is a ghost town almost on the level of Cairo, but with this hopeful spray-painted message on a downtown building and a very excellent mural of a modern-dress St. Francis feeding the birds at the courthouse.

The ride through St. Francis Forest was the best biking day I’ve had on the trip so far. The road starts by wending past an excellent lake, where various folks were fishing, including Maurice, a very kind man, who expressed delighted amazement at my journey. “And you like camping, too?! You’re from New York City, you’re supposed to be shopping!”

The road turns to gravel and is more varied than most Delta roads because it follows Crowley’s Ridge. There are farms nestled back here, but it is mostly woods: deep ravines and trees festooned with vines. I kept expecting a snake to drop down from one of the vines onto my shoulders, but thankfully that didn’t happen. I like Vermont snakes, the snakes out here are way too scary. As the road gets closer to the river, you end up in the swamps, with cypress trees growing out of the water, and the sound of birds and frogs and insects is almost overpowering. I rode out to the mouth of the St. Francis River, where it meets the Mississippi, and I heard a woodpecker tapping in the trees. I don’t know if it was the famously elusive Ivory-Billed Woodpecker. But since I didn’t see it, I’m free to imagine it was…

At one place in these swamps, there was suddenly a sign for the Louisiana Purchase Baseline Survey. Turns out this exact spot in the wilds of eastern Arkansas swamps is the point from which the entire Louisiana Purchase was measured. You got to start somewhere, why not here?!

Eventually the road comes out in the northern part of Helena, but not before passing two cemeteries: the first is pretty derelict: a bunch of falling stones on a dark and wooded hillside. The second is the Confederate Cemetery, where David greeted me with a bag of pecans he had gathered while he was waiting for me to arrive.

We drove into town and visited the Blues Museum in downtown Helena. I like this harmonica holster a lot.

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Al Green in Minnesota

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I didn’t want to leave Memphis without doing a pilgrimage to the Stax Museum. Mary had gone last week while I was immersed in my deadline, and had raved about it, so instead of continuing south today, David and I headed over there and spent a really fine few hours reading and listening. The Museum is very well done, both a wonderful overview and lots of tiny, offbeat tidbits. For example, did you know that Al Green was born in Forrest City, AR (yup, one of those places named after Nathan Bedford Forrest) but then moved to Grand Rapids, MN?!?! That’s right, Judy Garland’s birthplace, still on the Mississippi River, just a thousand miles north! His first recording was made in Grand Rapids, and is about trains, which makes total sense when I think of the number of trains that go through Grand Rapids to this day. Here it is, in case you’re curious:

Al Green and geophysics

I had planned to go to Al Green’s church on Sunday in Memphis before the Mormon opportunity came up, so right after the Mormon service I headed over to the other side of town to the Full Gospel Tabernacle, where Al Green has been presiding for thirty-five years. Luckily, the service started at 11:30, a deeply civilized hour for church, and it was everything you might imagine Al Green’s church would be: incredible singing, an outrageously excellent band, dancing in the aisles, powerful preaching, a warm welcome to us visitors sitting in the back pews, and that feeling, that wonderful feeling of God’s love repairing every rift, wiping every tear, that radical righting of every wrong that the black church embodies in every gesture, every utterance. When I was taking care of my mother, I listened to gospel music at full volume every single day. It’s what got me through the hardest time of my life. And while I don’t honestly know whether the Full Gospel Tabernacle would actually welcome someone like me any more than the Mormons would, the fact is that not one word that was said there on Sunday locked me out or pushed me away. I’ve been reading a book called The Theology of American Popular Music which helps me understand why I love the black church so much. I really may end up there for good one of these days, who knows?!

*

A couple of months ago, a generous stranger wrote to me and told me about the research the geo-physicist Maria Beatrice Magnani is doing on the faults that lie under the Mississippi River, so I sent her an email and we met up Sunday afternoon for a really amazing and interesting coffee. I hope to have more to tell you about all this down the line, but in the meantime I just want to expostulate about how great it is to meet another river-lover, from Umbria of all excellent places!, who is a really fine scientist with the soul of an artist. How cool is that?!

room 306

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We’ve spent most of the last couple days in Memphis: serious rain (plus a blown-out bike tire and a boring computer problem that both needed addressing in town) made it seem like coming down here might be a better way to explore right now than trying to paddle or pedal in the downpour.

We spent a morning at Graceland, which was oddly moving, somehow. I’ve never been a giant Elvis fan, but the guy was incredibly generous with his gifts, and I can’t help but think of him and Michael Jackson as twinned doomed casualties of the culture of celebrity, sacrificed and devoured by the success they yearned for and had earned. So many parallels between the two lives, it’s really kind of spooky. And because I’ve been reading Bob Dylan’s autobiography these days, I think with even greater respect and understanding of how Dylan has navigated his own fame and success, and I end up forgiving him his false fronts, his mannered artifice, his refusal to come clean. There is a kind of openhearted generosity that will destroy a person — cagey bullshit crankiness, even as it veers into pretension, begins to make a whole lot of sense.

Not being myself a celebrity, I end up studying Dylan’s model not so much for self-protective purposes, but as inspiration for how delving into one’s own weird, idiosyncratic passions and interests can end up being fruitful and satisfying in ways one could never imagine in advance: and, embarrassing as it is to admit, even after all these years of foregoing the expected paths and rewards, I still need reassurance that I’m not throwing my life away by focusing on things like paddling down the Mississippi instead of commercial success, or orchestra commissions, or tenure. Not that I’d necessarily turn any of those things down(!), but Dylan’s model urges me to get more out there, more idiosyncratic, rather than succumbing to toeing some invisible line of reasonableness.

We stopped in for lunch at a place downtown called Earnestine and Hazel’s. We were the only customers there on this rainy afternoon, so after making us really excellent hamburgers, Butch took us upstairs and showed us around the former brothel, and told us stories about musicians — how, for example, Little Richard worked as a dishwasher here for a time. Butch’s training is as a geologist, and he has worked all over the world, and we had a fine time talking about skateboarding, and earthquakes, and kids, and the river, in addition to music. You want to come here next time you’re in Memphis, for sure for sure.

Nearby is the Lorraine Motel, which has been turned into the National Civil Rights Museum. At first I wasn’t so sure how I felt about having the museum right in the motel where MLK was assassinated, but after going through the museum, I think it’s absolutely right, somehow. Having real remnants of the 1960s — the motel sign, the cars parked below the room — brings that terrible time vividly to life. I am not enough of a baby boomer to valorize the 60s as free love and flowers and all of that — I see the 60s through my parents’ eyes, and they were horrified, sickened, by the murders and the assassinations and the bullhorns and water hoses and the bombs and the bomb shelters. And talking about the museum with Mary Rodriguez later, we agreed that the right adjective for the museum is sickening. You get a feeling in your throat and your belly and it is awful. The obviously monstrous Bull Connor and Bobby Frank Cherry are dead and gone, but racism has just gone underground, gotten coded so that hate radio and TV can spew their bile with a certain deniability.

Reverend Abernathy chose to put this on the marker in front of Room 306: “They said to one another, ‘Behold, here comes the dreamer… Let us slay him… and we shall see what becomes of his dreams.'” (Genesis 37: 19-20)

I take this as a heartbroken exhortation to keep dreaming.

another confluence

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Because I wanted to go to church this morning, Mary decided to paddle the first part of the day, so I helped put her in at the tiny town of Commerce, well-named, since an unpleasant guy there actually charged us ten bucks to put in at his decrepit ramp, which I had to clear of logs and trash before we could use it. I decided to forego church in Commerce, and drove west to Charleston, MO, and ended up at the First Baptist Church. I was a bit worried what I would hear, after my experience of Baptist church in Fort Madison, but I really liked the service. There was a strong chorus, accompanied by both piano and organ, and the conductor was skilled, and she would have us sing the final verses of the hymns without accompaniment, a fine way to experience the coherence of the gathered congregation.

The sermon was good, nothing about beating children or the fires of hell, but an exhortation to give of the gifts we have been given, not just the offerings required by law, but freewill offerings from the heart. And he spoke vividly of time and talent, as well as treasure: it was not all about money, for sure. The sermon was all the more effective because he got quieter at the climaxes, drawing us in to follow his argument. Not unlike the a cappella final verses of the hymns.

I was repeatedly and warmly invited to stay for dinner (no coffee and donuts here, it’s a whole meal!), but I had to leave right after the service to drive way out on farm roads to the boat launch where I took over paddling from Mary. The last bit of road was too muddy and pitted to drive, so I left the car and hiked about a half mile to the ramp. Beautiful place, really remote: it’s at the beginning of a ten mile meander the river takes, shaped like the Greek letter omega, almost doubling back on itself before continuing down to the confluence with the Ohio. When Huck and Jim traveled this stretch it undoubtedly looked very much as it does now.

It’s becoming a Sunday afternoon tradition to hit a big confluence! I took a back slough at mile 5 (the river mile numbers start again at Cairo), and came out on the right side of the ”long tongue“ below Cairo Mark Twain describes, and there’s actually a point, the tip of the tongue if you will, where the Ohio and the Mississippi come together. It was a bit intense getting across the confluence and down a couple of miles on the left where I had told Mary I wanted to get out. The swells were big enough that the kayak disappeared in the bottoms of the troughs, and down in them I couldn’t see land at all. The ramp was obscured between some dry docks, so I almost missed it, and had to paddle hard to get in. No boils or breakers this time, just fierce big water. I take it very seriously.

We drove back in to Cairo and picked up a bottle of wine to celebrate the official completion of the upper river. 1325 miles. I am very moved to be here in the heart of the heart of the country. But it is heartbreaking to see the state of decay Cairo is in: practically a ghost town except for some pretty awful barracks-like projects on the outskirts. The liquor store was virtually the only functioning place in the whole town. We camped completely alone at Fort Defiance, which felt a bit risky, but somehow necessary, and were rewarded by a clear night with a million stars. I kept Uncle Bob’s very sharp knife in the hammock with me, more as a totem than as an actual weapon, and slept without fear.

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confluence

Today was one of the best days of my life.

I got up and went to First Presbyterian Church in Alton with Wita, which maybe was backsliding in a way, since I’ve been aiming to go to churches that are theologically and liturgically less familiar and comfortable to me as the journey continues, but I was really glad I went: the people there were so very welcoming and kind, and the sermon (on that tricky passage about the rich camel going through the eye of the needle and all that) was really excellent. A guy who quotes Hank Williams as a spiritual advisor is a guy I am happy to listen to.

After church, we headed out to brunch with Dale and Linda Chapman, the President and Dean for Academic Affairs, respectively, of Lewis & Clark Community College, an institution that gives me a whole new understanding of the phrase “community college.” What a team those two are! They are building a River Research Center just down from the Alton Dam that is going to be an incredible place for research on all aspects of the river, and after brunch they took us for a tour of the nearly finished structure, which is completely self-powered (hydro and wind), built of limestone layers (really beautiful) with a green roof, and full of labs that will allow scientists to study the river on a scale and intimacy that has never been attempted before. And this is just the start: they are planning the second building as this first one nears completion, and we can all hope that this will be the Woods Hole for river research, an international center for understanding rivers. How cool is that?

But this was just the beginning of the day.

We said goodbye to Dale and Linda, and to dear Uncle Bob and Wita, and drove over the bridge to the boat launch just south of Alton Dam, where beloved Mike Clark, who I paddled with last week under the full moon, had within a matter of a couple of hours managed to get a canoe up to Alton and to wrangle Steve to be a shuttle driver so that Mike and Mary and I could go out on the river together.

Mike and Mary got into the canoe, and I got in the kayak, and we paddled south through a back slough, where Mary saw her first eagle in the wild, a very excellent thing, and then we headed down the main channel to, yes, you’ve got it, the confluence of the Missouri and the Mississippi. Oh my, oh my! I imagine it’s a miraculous thing every single day, but I felt really lucky to experience it after these few days of rain have swelled the river. The Missouri appeared actually to be uphill from the Mississippi, I’m guessing because all those locks and dams hold back the flow of the Mississippi, and the afternoon light shone on this fierce flow of water coming from far far in the West, and at that moment there was no question in my mind that the Mississippi is the tributary here, the Missouri is the MotherFather river for sure for sure for sure. And just after I paddled into the actual confluence, a wave materialized before me, deep down in the water, a real breaker like you see on the ocean shore, and that breaker somehow transformed into a spiral, and it circled first down and then rose up and pulled me into it and I lifted my paddle above my head to let it take me around, amazed, and after it had let me feel it, let me know its power, it released me downstream and I soared into the meeting of these two great streams, exultant beyond anything I have ever experienced before.

I think this must all sound pretty over the top, I wish I could fully articulate the ferocious beauty of this water, this complex and ravenous flow. I had always thought real power resided in the circular, but this river, with its braids, both horizontal (in its sloughs and meanders and coursings) and the invisible multiply braided currents and knots that flow vertically, beneath the surface, creates an unbelievably complex directed line, made up of all these uncountable curves and circles that knit together to make this inexorable directed flow. It is counterpoint on a vast, overpowering scale — counterpoint that you can’t subdue or resist, can’t even comprehend or encompass.

We paddled on for a bit and then stopped at 4 pm for Mike’s river version of high tea on an island, and then Mike took us through the vaunted Chain of Rocks, which were safe riffles as opposed to the murderous rock course it would have been a week ago, and we paddled down to Mosenthein Island, where our campfire of a week ago is under 14 feet of water today, and we stopped to visit the cottonwood tree the beaver is almost done with, and I found an intact and beautiful turtle shell, and then we paddled hard across the channel to land at North Riverfront Park, where not only Steve but also Scott were waiting to take us back north to the car.

Mike has been telling me bits and pieces about Scott Mandrell and his re-enactment of the Lewis and Clark expedition, a project he has been doing in segments for years now. Scott is an incredibly charismatic man: I could immediately regard him as the Captain after being in his presence for about thirty seconds.

It turns out Scott and Steve had returned this very day from the last phase of their re-enactment. They had been riding horses through the wilds of Tennessee yesterday, living out the 200th anniversary of the last day in the life of Meriwether Lewis. Scott is absolutely certain that Lewis did not commit suicide, and he has a totally thrilling theory about what actually happened in those woods 200 years ago, but I will not tell that here, leaving it for Scott to explain in his own time.

The idea that Scott and Steve would come and drive a van around in order to allow Mike and Mary and me to go out on the river together — on the very evening of a day that started for them in the deep woods of Tennessee following Lewis’ journey to the end — completely blows my mind. These people are teaching me something incredibly powerful about the merging of the practical and the conceptual, the physical and the spiritual. I begin to understand what confluence really means.

counting stuff works

Last night, Lori and I stopped off at the River Music Experience, where Terry Dame happened to be setting up for a show, an unexpected pleasure, and we caught a few songs, but couldn’t stay to say hi, because we had to head back north to Bellevue, where we had left Lori’s car these last days, and we wanted to set up camp before dark. We camped right by the river, haven’t done that in a while: it’s a real pleasure to wake up and watch the dawn come up right over the water. I said goodbye to Lori, who’s been a great fellow-traveler these last days, and then headed down to Le Claire and caught a service at the Presbyterian Church before driving down to meet Susan and Jim in Davenport. I’ve known Susan for a couple of years now on Walker Tracker, a site for counting pedometer steps (totally nerdy, I grant you, but a really fun community.) We’d never actually met in person until today, and I was really happy they drove all the way from Tremont to spend the afternoon with me. Susan is part of my inspiration for doing this trip: I really respect and enjoy her whole approach to life, and love all the very deep commonalities we share despite our ostensible differences. And Jim is great: a tall, handsome, laconic Republican pacifist. (But still not much of a TV watcher(!)) After a leisurely brunch, we went to the Figge Art Museum, which has a pretty great collection, augmented by work that was displaced from the University of Iowa collection by last year’s flood, including a really fine Jackson Pollack that captures something amazing about the river and the farmland, and an Odilon Redon pastel woman on cardboard, which I think Despina would love a lot (and I’m really happy because I just found an online photo of it.)

After Susan and Jim left, I drove down to Muscatine and realized I’m tired enough that a motel and a day off are the answer, so I found a fabulous Econolodge and gratefully settled in. There is absolutely nothing interesting to look at or take in or experience in this motel room, and I have running water and a hot shower and free wifi at my fingertips, and it feels absolutely luxurious to be able to take a day to clean up, take stock, and get ready for the next leg of this journey.

a dog in the night-time

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Monday we finally left Wabasha for real: I started out from Minnieska in some pretty gorgeous fog and before I could even get out of the main channel, the phone rang, and it was David Echelard, countertenor and hurdy-gurdy player, a good friend of my old friend Jeff, who invited us to stay at his house in town, OR out in a slough where he has a boathouse, OR to show us some cool hidden campsites. I put Mac and him in touch to figure it out and by the time I got going in earnest, I could actually see a little bit, definitely a good thing, ’cause this being Labor Day, there were really A LOT of powerboats and jet skis and all that, not to speak of the towboats and barges, who don’t seem to get a day off from their laboring.

I had a long wait at Lock 5A (it got put in after the Army Corps had designed and numbered all the other locks; they suddenly realized that without it, Winona would get flooded out. Oops! Glad you caught that little design error, guys…), so I didn’t arrive until about four, and we went out to David’s very excellent boathouse, which Mac had wisely chosen for us from all the riches David had laid before us. This boathouse deal is something new for me: a series of sheds, really, like garages out on the water, that people fix up and appoint to various levels of fabulousness and use sort of as retreats, hanging out there even when they aren’t boating at all. David told us he did most of the memorization work for Anthony Gatto’s opera out there, something I really like picturing. Gertrude Stein would definitely be pleased.

David paid us a visit as we were finishing up dinner, and we had a great time together. He and I had been on a concert together in Minneapolis in maybe 1991 or something, but haven’t seen each other since, so there was a lot to talk about! We had such a fine time that it was well after dark when he went back to town and Mac led us out to the slough where he and Mary Kay had set up camp in the afternoon. It was very cool to bed down in my hammock in the dark having no clue what my surroundings actually were.

Here’s the view of the slough that greeted me from my hammock in the morning:

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Pretty great, no?
And last night, after Mary Kay’s long day of paddling, we all gathered at David and Suzanne’s for a great meal, and David played us some of his multitracked countertenoring (really beautiful) and I had the first shower since I can’t even remember when, and we got to meet their very fine son, Hudson, who turns 14 in a couple of days, and then we headed back out to the slough, where this gorgeous hunk of a dog came out of the dark and greeted us as we parked the car, and accompanied us out to the camp, and ended up staying the night. He decided to sleep directly under my hammock, which I really loved, except that every hour or so he would rouse himself and go dive off into the slough (hunting? a moonlight dip?) with a serious splash, so my sleep last night was just a series of dognaps, and I’m definitely ready for another one right about now…

sing it

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As we were parking the car in town this morning, we ran into Nancy again, walking her Black-Lab-ish dog, Greta, (not kidding!) and we got to talking about parking and she told us that some residents of Wabasha complain about the parking, which had us sort of incredulous. And she told us that the way they solved it at the town meeting was that someone came up with an overlay of a standard Target store and its parking lot on the town map, which shows how the whole downtown of Wabasha is not as big as the parking lot of a Target store, and so therefore if you park anywhere in town you are within equivalent walking distance of any store in town as you are from the Target store in its parking lot. This clever argument seems to have worked; they didn’t build a parking structure downtown.

Mary Kay and I headed off to church to see the window, and wow, it really may be the best Tiffany window I’ve ever seen. The photograph doesn’t show how there’s cloudier and crisper glass that gives a really marvelous sense of distance and dimensionality to the image. And we nearly fell over when the lay reader read a sermon by none other than our beloved Father Barrie, how cool is that?! I guess Mary Kay and I made a bit of a scene when we heard his name, because after the service everyone came over to ask if we knew the author of the sermon, so we got to bask in a bit of reflected glory for a bit…thanks, Barrie!

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Little House in the Big Woods is set in the woods near Pepin, which is just across the river from Wabasha. I had re-read the book yesterday for the first time since I was nine or whatever, curious as to what I’d find, especially after reading the New Yorker article about Rose and Laura Ingalls Wilder. We drove over to a wayside rest area that has a log cabin that purports to be a reconstruction. There was no cellar, the attic was a loft, and the spot is now surrounded by cornfields instead of big woods, so all in all I was not blown away by its historical veracity.

So we headed to early Sunday dinner at a waterfront restaurant in Pepin — actually, the most expensive meal we’ve had on the trip; not bad, but not exactly anything I needed — and I was really beginning to get a bit cranky. It began to feel like one of those endless Sundays Laura Ingalls Wilder describes in the book. I have always had a certain curious dread of 4 pm on a beautiful Sunday afternoon: like I might get stuck there in this enforced state of suspended merely attractive idleness and never get free. It’s occurred to me that perhaps I’m going to die on some future beautiful Sunday at 4 pm, and my aversion is a kind of odd prognostication. I would much prefer to die on a rainy Sunday. Or any other day of the week. I think Linda Norton knows exactly what I mean: see Landscaping for Privacy for evidence.

Anyway, we headed back over the river to our riverfront cafe headquarters with free internet and five bars of cell signal and three kinds of root beer to choose from, and I felt way better almost immediately, and then it was time to go to the gospel choir rehearsal Nancy had invited us to, so we drove back to Pepin to the high school, and walked in and there are what one woman described (not completely accurately, but pretty close) as “seventy-five white Norwegian Lutherans” singing serious old-school Black gospel, and I tell you, they are REALLY good. Not good-for-a-volunteer-choir good, really amazingly good. Tight, crisp, bright, beautiful, fierce singing. Absolutely committed. And hearing them sing “Let My People Go” brought tears to my eyes.

Music changes the world. For real.