I Saw the Light – You’ve never heard the classics sound quite the way they play them at this Northern California festival
Fine then. Scraping up bits of my self-esteem, I study the festival program. The roster of musicians and their songs reflects a range of music that surprises me. I expected a lot of cowboy and country standards like “Red River Valley” and “Streets Of Laredo”. But I’m not prepared for the variety of tunes ranging from “La Mer” (performed with great savoir faire by a 60-year-old Frenchman), “O Sole Mio”, even Pachelbel’s “Canon In D Major”.
I’m wising up fast to the eclectic offerings of the Musical Saw festival, but nothing prepares me for the next musician, billed as “An Artist Formerly Known As Mr. Hej.” Stocky and bald, he looks like Mr. Clean’s grandson. Resplendent in a lavender shirt and sharply-creased khakis, he assumes center stage, then slams out a rendition of “All Along The Watchtower” that has Jimi Hendrix rubbing dirt from his eyes and wondering if it’s possible to experience post-mortem flashback.
Everyone, punks to bifocals, listens respectfully, if not comprehendingly. Slowly he pulls his bow across the saw in what appears to be a soulful finale. But wait. Thin, like wire, the note unwinds, then somehow Mr. Hej reels it back, turns it inside out, and seamlessly segues into “Somewhere Over The Rainbow”.
While the closing notes are still spiraling skyward, Mr. Hej stands up, takes a bow, lifts his chair, and delicately yet athletically balances it by its back left leg on his outstretched chin. Crazy ovations pour from the audience as he goes down on one knee, back arched and arms poised like a ballerina’s while keeping the chair aloft, then stands back up.
Cheers engulf the stage as the emcee tries to announce the next act. The applause won’t let up until Mr. Hej reappears, takes a sweeping bow sans props, and blows a few kisses. Finally the crowd is satisfied and he exits the platform stage.
I must talk to this Mr. Hej. I’m even nervous. God help me, I’m a saw groupie.
“Artist Formerly Known As Mr. Hej?” I ask. He looks straight at me. His eyes are pewter gray, and I can’t tell where his head leaves off and his neck begins. Clearing my throat, I grasp for a witty opening salvo. “Uh, what do they call you?”
I laugh a bit, thinking he’s being droll, but his expression doesn’t change and my laugh turns up at the end, like a question. Brilliant. New tack. “How did you come up with pairing Jimi Hendrix and Judy Garland?”
“I had my CD player on shuffle once, and I just noticed how one song seemed to pick up where the other one left off. They just fit, you know? And I thought, ‘Hey, this’ll sound really cool in a set,’ so I fooled around with the key sigs until they worked.”
“It’s surprising how they work.”
Other Hej fans are hanging on the perimeter, so I thank him for the stunning show and step out of the circle. Once my head clears, the question strikes me: Hej listens to Judy Garland?
Next up is the Chorus of Saws. The stage holds twenty or so musicians comfortably. But people keep streaming on, finding space on the stairs, filling the tips of the corners. Thirty-three sawyers politely claim their own little spot and smile. Jenna is a quarter of the way back, showing off her saw to the Frenchman. Hej is balancing his bow on his nose. The emcee faces them and raises his arms for attention. Saws and bows poised, all eyes on him, he lifts a little on tiptoe, then swoops into the tremulous opening of the saw musicians’ universal opus, known in eastern cultures as “Friendship Forever”, recognized by us westerners as “Auld Lang Syne”.
You may think hearing 50 saws playing our New Year’s Eve standard in the middle of summer is odd. You might think it’s not for you. But take a cup of kindness offered with humor and generosity, midsummer sun’s rays wrapped around your shoulders, and you’ll see.
Your old favorites will never sound the same.