Let it Carry You
Written to the song “Let it Carry You” by Jose Gonzalez (and his entire Live in Europe album)
Friday was painfully slow. Coffee then seltzer then gum then finding reasons to wander around the office. Somehow I finally boarded the 1 train at rush hour and sped away from the weekdays (...let it carry you away).
We were meeting at six o’clock at the Hop House Harlem, a few blocks from the Apollo Theater. I chipped away at fries and chips and the kale salad we all shared––a weird mix of unredemptive choices. We were seven people, six girls and Carlos, all music enthusiasts. We had purchased our tickets months in advance, and were now stuffing our faces with fries, preparing to be swept away by art.
At the Apollo, we were ushered through a backdoor, several hallways, and a few staircases until we emerged in the upper, back corner of the theater.
The Apollo is iconic. Chandeliers and theater boxes make sweeping declarations of one hundred years ago. But there’s an intangible quality simmering beneath the elegant trimmings. There is soul here. The Apollo Theater is in Harlem, and the spirit of Harlem lives in the Apollo. Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin, and Alicia Keys presided, invisible but palpable, taking up the space they deserve. We sat on the front row of the first mezzanine, the best seats in the house, putting our feet up on the rails.
I sat back, ready to absorb. I liked that we were all seated. It allowed for reverence, attention, an absolute focus on the art and the artist.
The house lights dimmed. Musicians filed on stage. I noticed that over half of them were women in their twenties. Velvet tank tops and faded denim, flowy rompers and 1950s pin-up hairstyles, t-shirts and sneakers, heels and blazers, a smattering of clashing styles that, somehow, worked, like a sampling of customers in a Brooklyn coffee shop. I admired and envied them. That could have been me, I thought, in another life. I pictured myself playing the cello in a denim jacket and velvet loafers, my face a combination of concentration and blissful detachment, my entire body moving in unconscious rhythm to the music.
The conductor wore baggy jeans and a button down flannel. His hair, sweaty and long in the front, stood straight up when he pushed it away from his face. He nonchalantly slipped his black sneakers off, kicking them to the side, and faced the orchestra in sock feet as if ready to take on an army.
Then Jose walked on stage, small and humble. The audience erupted as he gave a gentle wave and genuine smile and sat at his chair. He picked up his guitar and the stage went dark.
The orchestra bowed in heavy unison as their silhouettes retrieved something from under their chairs. By the faint light at the back of the stage I could see they were plastic bags. Slowly, methodically the orchestra rubbed plastic bags between their hands and the muted sound of rain and white noise filled the theater. We barely breathed. It was a moment of beckoning. Of awakening. The orchestra stirred as one, leading us in a meditation, a centering, an invitation to step out of distraction, noise, thoughts.
The entire night pulsed with violins and percussion and Jose’s hypnotizing voice. Resonance filled the soul of that theater, and I was aware of the limits of my senses. I wanted to fall into the sound, to float up with it. I wanted my consciousness to leave my body and become one with the vibrations and maybe it did.
At first I felt self-conscious, sitting there with my eyes closed, drinking it in. And then self-forgetfulness settled in.
All attention was focused on the art, and we beheld it for the living thing that it was.
The final piece was a send-up of layers: percussive beats, bass vibrations, flutes, strings, a webbed harmony of voices, flashes of light, and Jose’s gentle humming. The conductor lost his mind, waving his arms and stomping his feet to the wild and reverent sound. I didn’t even notice I was clapping and practically coming out of my seat, my body so caught up. When they finally walked off stage to the roar of applause, I felt emptied and still. The pouring out of my heart and soul met the pouring out of the artists. We met in the space between seat and stage and mingled with the sound. “Let it carry you, let it carry you away.”