by Jerry Cusack

Last Thursday night Chris Medici  hosted a chat about  “Top 3 Concerts”.  I was teaching a lesson with one of our members at the time so I couldn’t make it but wanted to share one of mine.

Somewhere around 1995 or ’96 I saw Roberta Flack was playing at an outdoor summer music series at a park in Oyster Bay, Long Island. The great jazz guitarist Larry Coryell was opening for her with a trio, whose playing and energy I always loved so I decided to go. The venue was a typical temporary outdoor stage set up with a large tent with rows of chairs for maybe 500 people and the rest could set up on the lawn picnic style with a little vino and listen through the sound system. I purchased a seat under the tent and got a seat close enough to the stage to check out Larry’s playing. From what I remember Larry was his typical self. He always put together an interesting set of tunes to improvise over and let it all hang out. As an improviser he was never afraid to walk the razor’s edge and that is what I admired. 

I remember feeling very satisfied with Larry’s performance and was really looking forward to hearing Roberta. I had grown up with her music in my house because of my father. He had three of her records that I still own and drop on the turntable frequently. (If you don’t know her recordings with Donnie Hathaway check them out especially their duet of  “You Lost that Lovin’ Feeling”.  Every time I hear it I feel the passion that they put into their artistry.)  

It was a beautiful late summer evening in New York. August was always the hottest month but being in a park right off the Long Island Sound, there was a nice breeze and the sun was going down. By the time Roberta started, it was getting dark. She had a full band, backup vocalists and herself playing a baby grand piano. About 2 songs into the set the power went out. Not on the stage, but on Long Island. The stage was dark and everyone was sitting patiently waiting for them to take care of this technical difficultly. But as time passed and people started to realize that power was out everywhere, you could feel a little tension and a lot of chatter. Out by the lawn area there were a few lights from a temporary generator, just enough light to make out where you were. The beauty of this moment is that from the stage candles were being set up on the piano… who has a spare candelabra? Someone did. And the band members were holding individual candles. Everyone got real quiet and Roberta asked if everyone out on the lawn would come in and fill in any spots around the stage and isles. Within a few minutes the entire audience was under the tent sitting on the grass, on the stage or standing around the perimeter. The saying “you could hear a pin drop”… there was complete silence as she started to play the piano. The piano was very quiet trying to stretch its sound acoustically in the open air but soon you felt your ears adjust and really tune into the music. She played  beautifully while the band sang back up and added what they could either with voice or acoustic instruments.

The audience did not make a sound.  I felt even the breeze took a gentler tempo as not to disturb the moment. I sat there feeling I was witnessing something very special. She was in complete control and had everyone in the palm of her hand as they say. I could feel her energy. We all could.  After about an hour or so the power came back on. I remember feeling disappointed as if the power coming back had intruded on this sacred place in time.  I think everyone felt that. They finished an extra long set with the full band and seemed to be extra exhilarated from the experience, but that one hour without power was magical…the collective quiet was powerful…. humanity had a beautiful moment… and a single artist bent time and made life simple for a moment.

Roberta Flack

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