Inicio > English, The Toast Writer´s Space > Damien Jurado´s “Rachel and Cali” live in the KEXP studio. Recorded 5/25/10

Damien Jurado´s “Rachel and Cali” live in the KEXP studio. Recorded 5/25/10

                                   Rachel, would it be alright, if i stayed here in the car?

                                   There´s too many people out there i don´t know.

                                   It´s not that i´m too shy or cannot be polite

                                   I just don´t feel confident in crowds.

These are the first verses of Damien Jurado´s song “Rachel and Cali”. The lyrics record a conversation that takes place between Cali and Rachel. Cali, the lyrics tell us, doesn´t feel confident in crowds and wants to stay in the car while Rachel is getting ready to do who knows what, the shopping, perhaps, at the nearest shopping mall after having parked the car in the parking lot while Cali ducks inside it fraught with terror as to what may happen if he or she steps out of it. We don ´t even know if Cali is she or he and the whole conversation goes along this uncertain pattern. There seems to be a love relation between them and it also seems that Cali shows him or herself withdrawn and that Rachel ends up reproaching him or her for his or her attitude. It could well be otherwise and i am misunderstanding everything. But there´s also a chance that the key-point may lie somewhere else. Yes why not? May be the real issue lies in the way the music is able to work through and transform the puzzle that the lyrics contain, so that Durado´s not only voice but whole attitude and moreover the attitude and playing of the rest of the band members, their gestures, their clothes, their movements, make the confusion that reigns in the text so appealing, enhance it in such a seductive and deep manner that one, me at least, ends up bewitched by it and regrets not having been in Seattle watching them performing it live.

I´ve been haunted by this live performance for more than three years now and i´ve  watched and listened to it in the KEXP 90.3 FM Seattle broadcast innumerable times. The icing on the cake, the climax of this extended haunting experience, so to speak, happened not that long ago. In a filmed video that i came across in youtube Damien Jurado appears playing the song “Rachel and Cali” in a classroom and talking about it to some young students at Lawrence School in Kansas. While he recalls the background of his musical piece Jurado remarks that he always remembers the places where he writes his songs and that he was in the Basque Country, in the city of Bilbao he specifies, when he wrote “Rachel and Cali”. “Well”, i reflected upon hearing the singer´s words , “ it´s a small world indeed”, given that Bilbao is my hometown or rather, the town where i was born, or better, the place where my first living memories are grounded. In fact, i was  stunned by such a revelation and thereupon something inside me urged me to engage myself with the video that i enclose in this post. “I can´t let this coincidence pass me by”, i remember saying to myself after having listened to Jurado´s conversation with the youngsters from Lawrence.

So here am I, for the nth time watching the footage in which Damien Jurado strikes up the first “Rachel and Cali” acoustic guitar cords. In these first images Jurado is shown in profile. Wearing a fur lined jacket, a black sweater and black over-the-head earmuffs, his figure, with two frowning, hardly opened and concentrated  eyes staring earnestly beyond the microphone that stands in front of him, strikes me as rough, in sharp contrast to the soft rhythm that comes from his guitar. At the same time something deep in me prompts me to feel a close attachment to those frowning eyes of his, to the earnestness they reveal. I´m half-consciously aware that I expect nothing but truth from them and that this truth expectation is not going to be disappointed, though not immediately fulfilled. The match between my expectation and Jurado´s voice is not something that ensues instantly nor at one go. This match shows itself rather unstable and at the point of breaking. The lingering and somewhat high- pitched tone of his vocal cords- a kind of muffled shout in places -that sometimes seems to be on the verge of cracking bestows upon it an agonizing tinge that responds to an undefined uneasiness to which i need to adapt myself before i surrender to it. But this adaptation doesn´t take long. In addition, the swaying melody makes things easier and i´m definitely seized by it when, on the one hand, Jurado´s voice singing Rachel´s first answer to Cali

“Cali you can do what you’d like, I’ll probably be here awhile”

is joined by the sound of the bass and encompassed by its low-pitched undertone and when, simultaneously, the drummer shaking a maraca is brought into focus by  the camera.

I´d like to linger a while on the impressions that these two new figures stir in me. In order of appearance, firstly, the bass player. His face remains off camera. The view is constrained to his upper limbs playing the bass and to his upper body covered in an orange and brown checkered shirt. His contribution to the band´s overall effect is limited to the low-pitched sound he produces. There´s nothing more to add, lest the cameraman´s purposes aimed at using the common shirt pattern of bassist and drummer as a guiding thread meant to grant to the next presence he focuses his camera on a sort of flowing coherence.

Secondly the drummer, wearing also the mentioned checkered shirt but this time in faded purple. Again the earnest expression on his face, such as the one I previously appreciated in Jurado´s, conveying that impression of earnestness and abandon to the truthful task the band seems committed to. Also again the over-the-head earmuffs as well as a hardly opened pair of eyes set in his face while he performs the task he has made his own. However, contrary to Jurado´s, the drummer´s eyes are not frowning. His figure transmits instead a vague nonchalance. Besides, his readhead lavish beard, his livid white complexion, his woolen cap, his rythmic shaking of the maraca with his right arm, each of these features and gestures provide a sense of mysterious and languid elegance that puts a spell on the spectator, or at least,on me.

As if I were driven in the air by the compelling sounds of guitar, bass and maraca i reach the verse in which Rachel´s answer to Cali ends momentarily in:

“I’ll leave you the car keys in case you want to leave.”

A pause follows next during which Jurado´s voice stops singing and, as if arriving from far away, the single notes of an electric guitar join the maracas, the bass, and the sound of Jurado´s acoustic instrument, in charge of putting everything in motion at the beginning. The electric guitar player enters the scene making a light spiral movement with his body, the movement waves up slowly from his waist, up along his back and shoulders and ends up in a stretching of the neck and a swaying of the head to the rhythm of the single, sort of remote, notes he is playing. He wears a poncho with a wide blue stripe pattern that is followed by a beige one and a brown- black fretwork crowns his poncho outfit at the top. Blue tassels are hanging from its bottom. Like the eyes of the rest of the band´s  members, his are barely opened. He conveys the same earnestly meaningfulness as his colleagues. One would say that his absent eyes dwell in his fingers keenly plucking the guitar cords. His eyes are, as it were, his fingers. His skin is also of a livid white colour, his hair light brown and his face shows an old-fashioned moustache curled at the ends, his lower jaw being faintly covered in a blond shadow beard.

Jurado´s voice resumes its singing and  footages of his figure overlap randomly others showing the electric guitar player as we listen to these words from Rachel.

“You´re welcome to stay at my house, my parents will both be out.

There´s a blanket in the closet, if you decide to sleep over”

The singer dwells on the last word of these verses, on “over”, in a decidely grave tone. In doing so he appears with his mouth half opened, his eyes in an everlasting frowning, two short locks of hair rigidly, as if fixed with hair gel, falling in his forehead. The image of a boxer having finished his training session in the gym and revisiting with professional detachment or out of sheer habit the blows he has received takes a clearer shape in my mind than when i saw him playing his guitar at the outset of the song.

Rachel´s last words are followed by Cali´s reply:

“Rachel, I am sorry to call, I can´t sleep at all

The closet´s unfamiliar, your parents soon to be home”

Two more band members make their appearance while Cali speaks these words through Damien Jurado´s voice. They both hold one maraca in their respective right hands and are placed in a kind of symmetric position with their backs turned towards each other. Thanks partly to this symmetric display of their two right forearms shaking at the same time I come to realize the important role that the percussion instrument plays in the hypnotic unfolding of the song. One of the maraca players, in particular, the one in the foreground, a guy wearing a grey t-shirt and long brown hair with no trace of beard nor of any hair whatsoever in his limpid, dark complexion face, helps to enhance this hypnotic hallmark of the song. Shaking meticulously – his eyes intently shut- his maraca, his introspection is highlighted in such a way that one can´t help but wonder what this introspection is all about and if it is not really its content what the band members are passing each other on  and what makes them sort of sleepwalk at the same pace and live out thus the same ongoing dream. By way of contrast, the guy standing symmetrically opposite him gives us less hints as to what his feelings may be. He is perhaps the most trifling figure in the whole set of musicians before the camera, but still his shaking rhythmically the maraca reinforces the wake along which the song unveils its pathos.

Because if we accept the definition of pathos asa quality, as of an experience or a work of art, that arouses feelings of pity, sympathy, tenderness, or sorrow, ” it turns out that  true pathos runs through the entire song . Not crocodile tears but true pathos. In a muted way, in a way, if you like, that comes to light in flashes, but that can be tracked down to the moment when Jurado sustains his vocal cords in a muted shout such as he does, as mentioned before, in the “over” of “sleep over” in the song´s third verse or, more openly perhaps, when the singer puts in  Rachel´s mouth the following words in the song´s fifth verse:

“Cali there´s a way you´ll be calm, my closet door has a lock.

I´ll keep my window open so you can get in”

At the beginning of these lines, when striking up Cali´s name, the right corner of Jurado´s mouth stretches out in a faint grimace and the frowning of his eyes deepens in what could be described as a moaning sign. On the verge of breaking, the singer´s high- pitched vocal cords take on for an instant a sort of agonizing slant trying to express Rachel´s reproach for Cali´s reluctance. This is the story the lyrics can possibly be telling us. However, one can´t avoid asking oneself where the hell Jurado´s muted groan really comes from. The singer casts over the innocent, neutral, yet to some rare degree disturbing conversation between Rachel and Cali, a stern and sad pathos. Nothing relevant is apparently there at stake, where everything might as well be at stake. The text keeps its neutral, ordinary tone while the singer blows into it all the needed verve. Crying out “Cali”´s name, Jurado makes place for a stern sadness and leaves the listener wondering if this sadness wasn´t there from the start, feeding the introspection which the members of the band go through .

After these two lines and before Jurado strikes up the two final verses of the song  an instrumental lapse follows during which a new sound and a new musician show up. It´s the keyboard player´s turn. A guy wearing a blue-t-shirt with the name of Leon Russell printed on it and from whose short sleeves two white skinned arms come out with tattoos on them, appears softly pressing the keys of an electric piano with his hands. Bespectacled, dark-haired and giving an impression of a certain frailty one is tempted to take him for a swot that has gotten mistakenly into the wrong place but that is nevertheless keen on profiting of the new intellectual challenge that the band offers him and that goes and scatters his toy like single piano notes in a matter-of-fact way over the recording studio. The impression of frailty he conveys is not new, anyway. The drummer, the electric guitarist, the mesmerized dark-skinned maraca player, every and each one of them, to a certain extent, strike as being on the brink of fainting and letting themselves be carried adrift by the musical slumber that envelopes them. Nonetheless, together with the bass player´s- also a pale young guy wearing a baseball visor cap whose face is finally brought to focus after the two last verses – the keyborder´s eyes are fully opened as if he- in spite of the impression of frailty- and his colleague on the bass were the only members of the band still capable of resisting and abiding by what could be called a “cold performance”

In the meantime Rachel, through the regained contention of Jurado´s voice, continues her reproach to Cali for her alleged awkwardness and want of commitment.

“Sometimes I wish you knew, how I keep living for you

A friend is only a lover you´re not committed to”

The lyrics´ bottom-line may wind up finally to this: falling in love with a reluctant teenager is not always easy to deal with; a common issue, I suppose, in the love experiences that every average teenager-or adult, for that matter- may gather along his life.

Should one be disappointed by this? Not for one moment. Cali´s awkwardness has been able to trigger off the band´s abandon to the path of a musical pathos. The alternation of contention and momentary pathos releases makes out the song´s undertone, provides its latent tension, seizes the members of the band and, it goes without saying, captivates me, the listener, almost from the beginning. Is there anything more one could ask from a song?

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