OnStage: The Goblin Cellist Extraordinare

23 January 2013 § Leave a comment

As the bluegrass cradled and rocked the living room for her friends, Sophia sat on her heels, building a fire behind the stage. The sparks escaped the fireplace and embers popped like drumbeats to the strings – silky violin lines, the high tension beauty of a fast mandolin and guitar, cellos and vocal cords singing similar frequencies. The sweet pine smoke wafted through the orange Moroccan-designed room, and we listened to Rushad the eccentric cellist sing about his mini-love in striped pants and gypsy hat. His microphones were our ears; the PA his fingers and throat.

Rushad Eggleston, the self-proclaimed Proprietor of Igwarfnees, introduced himself and thanked the Three Intergalactic Lesbian Wise Women for hosting the Lily Henley band and himself. Two of the 3ILWWs were my good friends Sophia and Kirsten, and though I wasn’t previously aware of their stellar status, Sophia – perhaps in jest (or perhaps not) – quipped that the title was “not entirely untrue.”

The super secret house concert was twenty-five people strong, including the five-piece band. We’d been lit up by three lamps, a few candles, laughter, and now a campfire in the brick hearth. A giant dreamcatcher hung from the ceiling in the middle of the living room. Sometimes Lily would sing through its strings, and, true to its nature, we heard only beauty from the other side. For the night, we resided for the evening in the world of Sneff, a farm in the sky whose animals are songs that escape instruments and throats sometimes by accident, and other times from envy. Sneff is Eggleston’s creation, his home on stage, where he speaks his own language, one that lacks clear meaning. He compares many of his lyrics, which sound very much like Lewis Carroll’s poem ‘Jabberwocky’, to musical notes: it’s not about the definition, he says, it’s about the sounds that the syllables make; that’s where the meaning is.

Eggleston, veteran cellist and co-founder of popular alt-bluegrass outfit Crooked Still – and these days his new band Tornado Rider – is on tour with Lily Henley and her band, a bluegrass-ish outfit made up of New Yorkers, Southerners, and herself, an international nomad.

Mid-show, he, who claims to be half-goblin, but looks more like Johnny Depp caught somewhere between Pirates of the Caribbean and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, staged a gargoyle-pose contest between band members to kick off a song about, well, gargoyles. His comical antics on stage seem to display his blatant, innocently vulgar genius on his instrument. At times he hopped on one foot, do the can-can, or hide behind a chair to emulate the monsters of Sneff, or the goat god Pan in his storybook songs – all while playing, and quite proficiently so, his cello, which was wrapped around his shoulder with a furry pink strap.

Though his eccentric nature might seem to keep him from the “beacons by which music is measured these days – Rolling Stone, Jimmy Kimmel Live, Coca Cola commercials, and that shit.”, Rushad has no problem with said beacons, or recognition for his talent. He was the first ever string player to be offered a full-scholarship to Boston’s Berklee College of Music. In 2002, while still in school and playing with the Fiddlers 4, he was nominated for a Grammy. Recently, when Mazda wanted to commission two cellists for the commercial revealing of the new Mazda6, they found none other than the Tornado Rider himself.

Despite contagious reassurance from the public, Eggleston is transparent around his “facade” of confidence. “I’m kind of a self-deprecating guy,” he said on stage, idly playing. “Sometimes I hate myself, so if I call myself a fuck-up at any point, you could let me know, so I can stop.” And we did.

Watching him play reminded me of the semi-trance people enter when they truly listen – with all their senses – to music. When I looked around the room and witnessed the audience in varying states of bliss, the Intergalactic Wise Women included, I realized once again that music, for many, is a foreign language. We can listen to notes and syllables that at once seem to make no sense at all, like Eggleston’s lyrics, but only once we stop trying to make sense of it can we allow the notes to unfold into phrases and songs, the words into paragraphs and stories, and extract what meanings we will.

As the night quieted and tired bohemians trickled from the house awash with songs written in airplane lavatories, heavy discussions about breakups with young chilren in the backseat, or rolling down the hills of Big Sur, the band took compliments humbly and with gratitude. They sat on the floor for a late-night jam session with smiles and laughter. Said Lily, the angel-voice herself, says touring with Rushad is a blast. “It’s always like this. We go bowling, take nothing seriously, eat tasty food, and get up when we want. I love it.” The violin and mandolins accompany Rushad’s percussive cello melody with cricket sounds, and left us with what was left of the night: ice cream, and a 2 a.m. run to Voodoo Doughnuts.

Music should always be like this.

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