by Matt Meade
Wheaton, IL is a real Anytown, USA type of place. There’s no litter, all the streetlights work, and there are a lot of skinny kids wearing tank tops (not “wife beaters,” white, or black and menacing, but tank tops, bright and happy to be seen). The kids are healthy and ethnically integrated; board, but not mischievous. They stand in long lines for DQ and wander around the perimeter of the park, but don’t go in because, of course, the park is closed after dark. No one jaywalks, no one frowns, and if anyone is smoking crack, they aren’t doing it in the bus shelter.
Despite what any Wheaton College kid’s facebook page will tell you, this is not Chicago. This is some good, wholesome Heart of the Nation type of shit and I hate it. There is no danger, I am not worried my car will be vandalized, or my iPhone stolen. I expect everyone to obey all traffic signals and even the train that zips though the center of town barely makes a sound.
River City Roasters is just like any local coffee shop across from a Starbucks on a main street in a harmless suburban downtown. It is playing the part of the underdog, pretending to half-ass it with its distressed brick, distressed wood, and distressed jeans on the baristas. Even the lightbulbs are from the same place every music video director from the 90s got theirs, dangling nude from the ceiling and glowing a special shade of fake-dingy yellow. But this wannabe cage has something very special inside it on Friday, May 9th, 2014, because on this day, Steve Slagg, or Youngest Son as he is known musically, is performing inside.
I’ve written about Slagg before. He’s a good piano player, a good singer and has a rare gift for song-craft. When I see him in person for the first time I realize that Slagg, is one of these guys who is sort of impossibly handsome, symmetrical, like television’s Aaron Paul, or like Ryan Philippe circa 2001, except without the silly attempts at being a bad ass. He is clean cut, wearing brown slacks, and a tight blue shirt, and he plays a key board like he’s trying to nudge it back to life. He is delicate with it, tender, but also methodical and insistent. There is a Peavey amp propped up on, of all things, a wooden chair, which by the looks of it, has appeared in countless Whistler portraits. An avuncular looking woman named Cathi is playing the cello alongside him and it sounds so warm and so commanding, my heart sways back and forth like a boat lost at sea. (After the show she wonders aloud if she sounded ok, not in a needy way, but in a truly inquisitive way, like she wants to know what it would sound like to hear herself play… Oh Cathi, if only you could hear what I hear.)
I show up late, but just in time to hear him play a song called “Untitled Memory Song.” It’s the one where people who have died call him out by name. They say, “Stephen we need you tonight.” I look around the room at the other people in the room, people who, like me, have come to see this young, unique performer. Everyone here looks like they are the type of people who have first names for last names, like Andrew Bradley, or Donald Nathan, they look like they are the type of people who say “pardon me” instead of “excuse me,” and who smoke an occasional cigarette without being consumed by the vice. There are a lot of hip, but worn out shoes and Buddy Holly glasses. Not a single hair is out of place, not a single shirt has gone untucked. It would seem the only thing I have in common with them is that I am moved by the music of this Steve Slagg.
The performance is precise and exacting. The songs in a live setting sound remarkably similar to the way they do on his recordings. He is a little too precise, but that is not a terrible thing. It’s like, he has already revealed so much through his insanely personal songs that it seems as if he is using the construct of the song and the performance to protect himself. But we don’t need him to be Jerry Lee Lewis. No one wants him to be. We just want him to be as honest as humanly possible, more honest than any of us could ever dream of being.
We watch with inviting, solicitous, starry eyes. We want to be charmed, seduced, loved. We are arcing our necks, gaping our mouths, staring with wet, spinning eyes.
“The day of the living is coming,” he tells us, and we believe in him because we have to. My eyes are spinning too and I am hearing the things I need to hear. We are all hearing the same now. And we all love him the same.
Because I am late I don’t know if he has played any of his transcendent covers, like Harry Nilson’s “Think About Your Troubles,” or if he has played the perfect “Derek,” the song where he combines the same four words in different ways to express every possible frustration and exultation of a relationship, “I came, I saw, I wanted / I wanted, I saw, I came.”
But I do know that the final song he plays is “Corpus Christi” and when the song starts, we all look around and nod knowingly. Everyone looks at everyone else like we all belong, even me.
And I’m afraid we are all of a sudden connected. I’m afraid we are now all friends now and we’ll have to go into business together, probably opening a bakery that is a lot of work, but thrives because the neighborhood where we open it needs and loves us for our breads and pastries. We’ll rely on and trust each other until one of us lets everyone down and then another of us will come to that friend’s defense and it will cause permanent rifts. We will all indulge in the petty bickering and self proclaiming that people do when there is something at stake and it will be difficult, and painful, and when it is over we will all wish we had never become such good friends that one evening at the Youngest Son performance at the River City Roasters in Wheaton, IL.
When the music stops, though, I open my eyes and look around.
If there is one thing I can be sure of, now that the music has stopped, now that we have made that weird transition from everyone being on the same wavelength while the music plays, to then no one being on the same wavelength once there is that post applause silence, it is that I am in a wholesome, kind place, and its a place that I don’t belong.
I leave the coffee shop and walk through an alley of downtown Wheaton, completely unafraid that I will get mugged, or harassed, completely unafraid of anything except that nothing will change. I get back in my car and drive home.