Saturday, May 25, 2024

Flashback: John Wright and Maurice Dickson at the Postcrypt Coffeehouse - 30 March 2001

It's been 10 years since anyone has posted around here, so maybe that makes it even more appropriate to post about a concert that took place almost a quarter century ago.

I've been cleaning up things at my house this week, and I came across a poster that I had no memory of having: a generic promotional poster for John Wright and Maurice Dickson with "Tonight! Postcrypt Coffeehouse! Music from 9pm!" written in my hand at the bottom.

I had no memory of the poster, but I certainly remember the concert.  It's one that my friend Ben and I have talked about often over the years -- both for the music and because we learned the phrase "one for the stairs" that night.

When I managed the Postcrypt (Fall 1998 through Spring 2001), there was a group of artists who performed regularly and who were likely to get booked for any given Friday or Saturday night, and then there were artists who would send in their materials for consideration.  I don't remember exactly who got in touch with me about John Wright and Maurice Dickson.  I think it was likely a booking agent putting together a U.S. tour for them.  It's probably likely that I consulted with my father about booking them.  I know that he was excited about their appearance, but it was on a Friday night, which would have meant that he was hosting his radio show and so unable to attend.

In those days, the typical Postrcrypt night had three acts, who would go on stage at 9, 10, and 11 o'clock.  I usually agreed to pay artists $35, $45, or $65, depending on how far they were traveling to come to play in New York and the size of the crowd that I thought they were likely to draw.  Sometimes there were exceptions.  Looking at my notepad from the AY00-01 season, I see that Josh Ritter got paid an extra $5 for $40 in total, while we paid Pamela Means $70 for her fall appearance and $75 for her spring appearance.  Looking back at the AY99-00 season, Mary Gauthier only got the basic $35.  All of those folks can demand quite a bit more these days...  And I have to blush a little to think that those were the fees that I was handing over to them at the end of the night.  If the audience was particularly generous when we passed the hat around, we would, of course, pass along that money to the artists.  I don't have a fee listed for John Wright and Maurice Dickson.  I shudder to think that perhaps they came from the U.K. to play for $35.  There are dozens of dollars to be made in folk music, they say.

I do know that I had agreed to put them up -- in my suite in the East Campus dormitory.  And I remember there was some discussion about them having separate bedrooms -- it was the first time I heard about sleep apnea.  I don't remember quite how that all worked out.  I think that John slept in my room, Maurice in the room of one of my suitemates, and me in the common room, but I'm not sure.

My notes also indicate that we ate dinner together -- or rather tried to eat dinner together -- at the now-gone Cafe Pertutti.  I don't remember this.  My notes say that I had to go set up for the show and that I took the chicken parmigiana to go and "scarfed it while making brownies."  Postcrypt preparation in those days involved baking a pan of brownies in the stove and popping a bowl of popcorn in a pot on the stovetop in the kitchen in the basement of St. Paul's Chapel.  

When I got to the chapel, I discovered that it was going to be one of those nights where there was competition upstairs in the main chapel space.  Quoting my younger self, "CCC [Campus Crusade for Christ] is upstairs holding a rally for Jesus. Full electric band."

That meant that it probably wasn't going to be the greatest performance environment for the first act of the night, which was the terrific New York singer-songwriter David Masengill.  My notes indicate that, after he played two songs, he expressed some complaints about the "Hitler Youth rally upstairs."  Such competing sound sources were a feature of one or two nights every semester.  Sometimes we would be the aggressor when the upstairs act was, say, a performance of Mozart's Requiem, and there we were downstairs belting out sea shanties.  

David had opened his set with "My Name Joe," his song about an undocumented worker in a New York City restaurant.  He had worked in the story he tells about Louis Armstrong tricking Richard Nixon into carrying a bag with his stash of marijuana in it.  And then he closed the set with his classic "Rider on an Orphan Train."  He got called back for an encore and sang "My Home Must Be a Special Place."

The late Sandy Ross was the 10 o'clock act.  Sandy used to travel around in a camper -- before it was cool! -- and I suspect that she was parked somewhere out on the streets of New York that night.  I don't remember.  I also have relatively few notes from her set.  I have written down that she sang "All My Heroes Played the Blues," "How Was It Justified" (a song about the Oklahoma City bombing), and "St. James Infirmary" before closing with her song "Half Empty/Half Full," which I had surely heard before but nonetheless found myself inspired to record the chorus:

We take the glass and fill it up

And drink the glass half down.

The wine takes on a sweeter taste

The more we pass around. 

We live our lives in compromise

Like tourists passing through,

And we never ask the question 

If the glass is half-empty or half-full. 

Since we live in an era where we can just call up songs, listening to this one again, I find that I either recorded the fourth and penultimate lines wrong or else she was singing the song differently than the recorded version.  More likely the former.  On the recording Portraits of Innocence, she sings, "And the wine takes on a sweeter taste / Each time we pour a round." and "Lest we stop and wonder / If the glass is half-empty or half-full."  It's a great song and worth taking a listen to.

Sandy was also called back for an encore.

My friend Ben arrived just before 11-- after the first two acts had finished.

John Wright was living as a shepherd in Northumberland at this time.  He had grown up in suburban Manchester and had served in the Household Cavalry.  He had played in rock bands in his youth and sung in piano bars in London's West End in the 1970s.  In 1990, he had self-produced a cassette tape of unaccompanied traditional English songs, and with that, had launched an unexpected career in music.

Maurice Dickson is from County Antrim in Northern Ireland.  

On the Postcrypt voicemail, where I announced each week's shows, I had described them as "two singers from England" or "two singers from Britain."  Maurice had called the Postcrypt phone number to leave a voice mail letting me know that they had arrived in New York.  He began his message, "This is Maurice Dickson from Northern Ireland," and found at least one or two other ways to let me know that I needed to be a bit more careful with my classification of national origin.

So why was this such a memorable show?  Because they made brilliant music.  John Wright's tenor voice was gorgeous, so resonant in the amplification-free Postcrypt space, bouncing off those Guastavino tiles.  The two of them weaved in and out with each other musically in a flow that was either gentle or energetic depending on the song.

The set began with the traditional ballad "Lord Franklin" and then "What's the Use of Wings?" a song written by Brian Bedford of the group Artisan.  Maurice sang "When the Soft Wind Blows" and then played the instrumental "The Jesters Dance." He then sang "More Than She" and "Where Eagles Fly."  They sang "Dumbarton's Drums" and closed with "The Kerry Recruit," which had first turned John on to traditional folk music when he was in the army.

They were also called back for an encore, and they extended the night with three more songs: "Black is the Color," one of the Appalachian ballads collected by Cecil Sharp that then made its way back across the Atlantic; a blues song; and "Danny Boy" to close.  

Whereas Postcrypt sets were typically 45 minutes, John and Maurice had played for almost 90.  I don't remember how many people were left at the end, but I'm sure we were all captivated.

And then we decided to go out for some drinks!  It was me and Ben, two college students in our early 20s; John and Maurice, two middle-aged U.K. folksingers; and as I have written in my notes "two other blokes," who I recall as also significantly older than me and Ben.  

Ben and I both have a vague memory of going to the Lion's Head Tavern at the corner of 109th and Amsterdam, but my notes don't indicate that.  We might have gone in and then gone right back out again.  We definitely ended up at SoHa, located on the opposite side of Amsterdam, south of 108th street, which the New York Times described in 1999 as having "Goth-inspired decor, including chandeliers, floppy couches on split levels and a red pool table perpetually surrounded by men in goatees."  I remember it as more glam than goth, but it certainly seemed like a strange place to be bringing our entourage of companions twice our age.

After a drink at SoHa, the "two blokes" peeled off, and Ben, John, Maurice, and I headed over to the legendary (but also long-gone) West End.  My notes are hard to read, but I think they report that we were there for last call.  What Ben and I certainly both remember, for we have repeated it to each other often, is that when the question came as to whether we were going to have one more round or not, either John or Maurice looked at us and said, "One for the stairs, boys -- one for the stairs," and we had another round.

Ben headed back to his place, and I took the visitors back to my dorm.  The next morning, I got up before they did to embark on my Sunday morning routine of going to church, having breakfast at Tom's Diner, and then hosting The Moonshine Show on WKCR.  I found a parking ticket on the windshield of their rental car, left where it shouldn't have been left on Amsterdam Avenue; I picked it up and paid for it with Postrcypt funds.  I don't remember seeing them again that day.  I think that they must have gotten on the road while I was on the air.  

Indeed, I never saw John Wright again.  He died in 2008 at the age of 60, earning an obituary in The Guardian.  Whenever I take a listen to one of his albums, I am always struck by the great control that he had over his voice and the warmth and emotion in that voice.

I haven't seen Maurice Dickson again either, but he is still out there making music, and I regret that Ben and I -- who met up in Belfast this past March -- didn't make an effort to get out to Antrim and check on his memories of that night in New York two decades ago.

Rest assured, though, when we were there on the soil of Northern Ireland, we did say, "One for the stairs, boys..."