Philadelphia has long been known for its music scene, both as a place where great music has originated and as a destination for travelling musicians to come and share their talents with a city of music lovers. Lady Day and The Duke use to come through regularly. All the Gospel greats made sure to come through the Metropolitan Opera House on North Broad Street. The music making team of Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff brought some of music's best talent through Philly. And the gritty street-wise sound of Philly Hip-Hop has brought the best in the rap game to the City of Brotherly Love and Sisterly affection over the course of the last 30 years.
One of the highlights of Philly music in recent years has been the free concert series on the water held by the Delaware River Waterfront Corporation. My man Josh who has been a music trading partner of mine for years (he put me down with Funk, I introduced him to Maxwell) told me he was coming to town to see Raul Midón play at this free event here down on the edge of the city by the river.
"Who's Raul Midón?" I asked.
Sitting just four rows back, I saw the man escorted out to a nearly bare stage that held nothing but a guitar stand, a pair of bongos, a small sound board and a microphone. As he was handed his guitar the crowd lost its mind. Ten seconds into his first song "Don't Take It That Way" I understood why.
A free concert watching a free man. Broken invisible chains. Beyond category.
With eyes closed I am in the presence of a five person band. When I open them all I see is genius. Not five men. Just one man. One free man. Raul Midón.
Where there's a will there is a way.
Born in New Mexico, Midón has been studying music since his father, an Argentinean folkloric dancer, introduced him to a broad range of genres from Classical to Jazz during his early childhood. His African-American mother died while he was young. His Afro-Argentinean identity shines through his difficult-to-classify music. He's Jazz, He's R&B, He's Folk. He dropped a reggae piece during the show which had me throwing it up and doing the butterfly at my seat. His Latin Jazz guitar had people high fiving and shaking their heads. They hadn't seen anything like it before. He draws from and builds upon so many different genres and styles that he's difficult to categorize. That can be challenging for an artist's career as it can potentially impact radio play, and make it difficult to grow a fan base that doesn't transcend musical genres with the artist. Yet there are those musicians who must cross musical borders because that is who they are. They can't be contained in just one category.
Ahhhh, I can hear the great Duke Ellington gently playing the keys. The highest compliment that the Duke could pay someone was saying that they were "Beyond Category."
Where there's a will there is a way.
It is easy to compare him to Ray Charles or Stevie Wonder. Midón has been blind since infancy, but like Ray and Stevie his music is so good, that his being blind tends to be one of the last things fans learn about him. When Stevie, who collaborates with Midón on the latter's State of Mind album, first came on the scene, part of what was so wonderful about him was that this kid had overcome blindness to make fantastic music. But it would ultimately be his music making ability that made him into one of the greatest musicians of all time. Watching Raul, a blind man, perform will make your jaw drop. But it is his slap style guitar play that will get you from "Wow" to "Yes!" Easy to compare him to Ray and Stevie, but he's beyond that category.
And his mastery of the guitar brings to mind greats like Carlos Santana and Sister Rosetta Tharpe. But again, he's different. He plays with such freedom and joy that his hands smile. His slapping style allows him to play a melody while creating percussion as he plays without disrupting either sound. At first it's a fly trick that if he were a street performer in Harvard Square with a hat out, he'd make a killing. Yet again, he moves from cool to amazing. His skills on the guitar are world-class, revealing not only years of time spent with the instrument, but a love that produces that rare effect where an instrument becomes an extension of one playing it. The guitar has become a part of Midón and he moves effortlessly while creating a sound that is both warm and familiar and yet new.
In an age where the most downloaded music is over produced and the artists that get the most spins on media conglomerate radio stations are chained to predictable formulas for each single, video, album, and show -- to see a man free from those invisible chains is not only refreshing, but it is encouraging. Midón is making the music that he wants to make and you can hear the difference. The price of realness in the industry is a steep one, but his fans appreciate it.
The show was amazing. I was clapping, cheering, dancing, tweeting, posting, and preparing to come home to a night of Raul Midón on You Tube when I looked to the left side of the audience. It was then that Raul went from being cool and amazing to inspirational.
The audience, while being ethnically and seemingly socio-economically diverse, was also diverse in regards to ability. A number of the fans in attendance that night were accompanied by seeing-eye dogs. Others had to come in through an elevator on the side of the auditorium because they were wheelchair bound.
The concert that they attended was different from the one I attended. They knew all about Raul Midón. People who could not see the mesmerizing hand work on the guitar could most certainly feel it. Folks who couldn't dance to the beat produced by the brother's right hand -- certainly were moved.
Raul Midón is not "a blind artist." He's more than that. But he is an artist who is blind and that, I believe, means so much to his differently-abled fans.
Towards the end of the show he broke into a song called "Invisible Chain." It begins with the following words;
Where there's a will there is a way. Where there's a will there is a way
It's a crying shame to lose the game
As a prisoner in a picture frame
Made for you and me
If only we could see
The invisible chains.
The invisible chains.
I suppose an artist puts a little bit of her or himself into every piece that they produce. This song certainly has an autobiographical aspect to it. But like all of the best songs, it allows for others to enter into it and sing the words as if they were their own. There was wheelchair bound sister whose seeing-eye dog was sitting close by. To see her swaying to the beat and mouthing the lyrics is to understand the great potential of music to move people. I found myself moving as well -- for different reasons. I have different chains. I'll keep swaying and dancing and praying that my chains fall off. Raul Midón has broken his chains off. He is free and beyond category. And that's what makes his music so good.