Poi Dog Pondering – Natural Thing
This past weekend I was down in New York for a pair of Poi Dog Pondering shows at the City Winery. I’d never been there before but I knew that the floor plan is pretty tightly packed tables and chairs. This sounds great for quiet, intimate performers, less of an ideal fit for a band that can swell up to a dozen musicians and usually has everyone dancing.
It had been so long since they’d had a concert near us that I was a little worried the first night. What if it wasn’t as great as it used to be? If this was my last chance, would it be the kind of show I’d be happy to have as my last memory of them live? I mean, we’re all getting older, you know? The last time they were on the east coast (six years ago) they did an acoustic five-piece show and played in some unlikely places so I figured that was probably more the model we would get. I am happy to report that they were seven people strong, just about all of my favorite band members were there, and they brought along all the necessary instruments to rock the house.
We weren’t sure what to expect in terms of the setlist since they’re working on a new album but it’s not out yet. They started out with some of their oldest songs which are more conducive to that seated environment. We were right up front, as is our preference whenever possible (when you’re short, this is pretty important), and you really couldn’t move your chair at all. The pace picked up with each song and I was dying to get up and dance . But when the band got to this song, and the line, “everybody stand up!” I felt like they were issuing a call to action. I couldn’t sit still any longer. I freed my chair from the next person’s chair leg and joined the growing crowd of people dancing in the aisle. Ah, much better.
The second night we were packed in tight again but this time I had my dance spot staked out ahead of time. I found out later that after Friday’s show, the wait staff were told on Saturday to make sure not to get in the way of people who were dancing. Pretty cool stance for the venue to take, considering we were dancing in the only area where they could move around carrying bottles and glasses of wine.
On Saturday I brought my sister along with me. The woman sitting to my sister’s left introduced herself and said she came from an extended family of Poi fans and they’d all flown in from across the country for this show. She proceeded to tell us that her brother had passed away about two years ago and they had hired Frank (Orrall, leader of the band) to come and play on their deck as a kind of memorial service. She introduced us to her husband, then her brother who’d come from Los Angeles, a sister up from Georgia, another sister from I don’t remember where, her parents were a few tables over and her brother’s widow was with them. She’d come down from upstate New York. Aside from Frank playing on their deck, this was her first real Poi show.
I have to say, I got choked up about this whole scene before the show even began. There are several songs that Frank has written that address death and dying, but always in a positive light somehow. It didn’t surprise me that they had asked Frank to come and play for them; my funeral playlist starts with a Poi song too. But it’s more than that. He has this magnetic quality, this positive energy that creates the kind of devotion that brings people in from all over for a Poi show. That keeps us coming back two or three nights in a row, even after six or seven year absences. It’s not readily captured in video or audio because it’s missing the interaction with the other band members and the audience. In real life however, on several occasions, I’ve watched people at their first Poi show just fall under the spell that’s been cast in the room. It isn’t like you’re blown away, it’s more like you’re lifted up. You feel lighter.
L-R, Ron Hall, Frank Orrall, John Nelson, Susan Voelz.
One of the woman’s party said Frank knew they were all there. Shortly after that the band came on stage and Frank said, “This is for our brother, Jamie,” the woman’s brother, and they played that same song that leads off my funeral playlist. It’s a lovely, quiet instrumental song and, this family, I really couldn’t look at them or I was going to lose it.
The setlist varied, though they started off in a similar older to newer, slower to faster song progression. This time I didn’t wait as long to move to my dance spot. More people were already up dancing than the previous night. The woman we’d been talking to came over and joined me. Then my sister and her sisters. At one point my sister asked to borrow my phone to take a picture, not of the band but of the audience up dancing. She said she’d been to the City Winery a dozen times before and had never seen that many people up dancing. By the end of the night the whole place was up dancing. It was a first for the City Winery.
I couldn’t have been happier. I was happy for them that the shows were such a success. I was happy for the woman and her family who so clearly enjoyed the show and I know just the kind of cathartic release this was for them. I was happy that I’d been able to see one of my favorite live bands and dance and bask in that glow after so many years.
Last week I remembered that the Amazon music app on my phone has any CD I ever purchased through the site available to stream for free. I’d bought their album “7” when it came out in 2008 through Amazon so I fired up my phone-Bluetooth-radio set up in the car and hit play. As I drove home it started to snow, and I didn’t even care. Nothing was going to wipe that smile off my face.