The Perfect Intersection of Friendship & Music

I went to Washington D.C. to see a Mavis Staples concert.

You may think that a trip like that is a gratuitous, silly thing to do. I mean after all, why would I travel halfway across the country to see an 82 year-old artist perform? An artist who lives the Chicago area, where I live? An artist who is performing less than an hour from my house in less than a month? Why would I do such a thing???

As my good friends and regular readers of this blog likely know, I like Mavis Staples a lot. I first discovered Mavis Staples while watching the Martin Scorcese directed documentary The Last Waltz in college, and I have thoroughly enjoyed the several albums she has released during her late career resurgence, beginning with the 2007 masterpiece We Will Never Turn Back. My family and I even got the chance to meet Mavis Staples at O’Hare while waiting for our luggage at baggage claim. She could not have been nicer, or more generous.

Beyond the fact that I could not wait to see Mavis Staples perform, as an alum of The American University in Washington D.C., I always welcome the opportunity to return to my old stomping grounds and walk the streets I first explored over 30 years ago. The chance to connect with old friends. Maybe even, the chance to just be a tourist in our nation’s capital.

So, I went to Washington D.C. I went to see Mavis. And while I enjoyed the concert, the concert was far from the highlight of my journey. During my short three days in D.C., I was reminded of the connection between friendship and music. I was reminded how music becomes important because it becomes a vital part of the relationship with these most important people in your life. And your friendships make music better. And the songs become tinged with memory and experience. They become tangible reminders of laughter, sadness and appreciation.

First, I went out to dinner with Lisa and her husband Dave. Lisa and I lived in the same dormitory during college. I was on the 2nd floor of Hughes Hall, she and Clare shared a room on the 6th floor. To be honest, I don’t remember how we met, or how we became friends, but we did. Together with our tight-knit group of friends, we ate at the cafeteria, we all went to parties, and we all supported each other through various exams, relationship adventures and family challenges.

Our friendship did not revolve around music. Our musical tastes were different, and Lisa very kindly let me bore her with stories of how Robert Johnson sold his soul to the devil, how Bob Dylan went electric and how maybe the new Sting album was good, but probably not quite as good as his work with The Police. We danced to “Paradise by the Dashboard Light” by Meatloaf at a fraternity party, and I’m sure we went to concerts together as well. Lisa came to my wedding. My wife and Lynn went to her wedding.

The years went by. Lisa’s family lived in Washington D.C, and we lived in Chicago. We stayed in touch, and we would be sure to connect whenever I would go to D.C. Lisa once said to one of her friends “I may not see Larry much, but we always have a lot to talk about.”

The next night, I went out to dinner with Jeff and his wife Rachel. I met Jeff in the same dormitory where I met Lisa. Our freshman year, Jeff and I lived down the hall from each other. We shared a room our sophomore year, and then we got an apartment off campus with friends Dave and Joe for our senior year. Jeff stood up at my wedding, and I stood up at his. Jeff is a thoughtful, introspective soul. I have never heard him utter a curse word (never once), and he seems to remember every generic detail of our experiences together from 35 years ago and since. Jeff is kind, warm and generous, and sincere to a fault.

Jeff and I enjoyed a lot of good music together. Sunday mornings, we would find ourselves listening to the pristine Ray Charles and Betty Carter 1961 album of duets. We enjoyed The Beatles, Bruce Springsteen, Fine Young Cannibals, Michelle Shocked, Ladysmith Black Mambazo, and other new, strange and arcane music we discovered along the way. We explored film and literature, and we had deep political conversations because one day we were going to change the world.

Jeff and I were once young together. Somewhere along the way, we lost the hair we once had on top of our heads and grew new (gray) hair on our faces. We each have kids who are all older now than we were when we first met on the second floor of Hughes Hall. It was great to see Jeff. I got to see Jeff because I was in town to see Mavis. I was in town to see Mavis because of the music I enjoyed during those college years.

And yet, I am not sure I would feel so connected to Mavis Staples in the first place had it not been for Danny, who also lived in my dorm. One day, Danny wandered down to my end of the hallway, and he looked at my record albums. He was also passionate about music. I loved The Beatles, and he loved The Who (truth be told, he loved The Beatles too, but just stay with me here). I listened to Bruce Springsteen, and he listened to U2. He loved jazz, and I tried to love jazz. He noticed albums in my collection by Bob Dylan, Los Lobos, and Woody Guthrie. He suggested I check out The Band. I had heard of them, but did not know much. He assured me I would like them.

I went from their second album The Band, to their first album Music From Big Pink and finally to the movie The Last Waltz. The movie was filmed during their last concert at The Winterland Ballroom in San Francisco in 1976, except for performances of “The Weight” and “Evangeline,” which were filmed later on a soundstage. As “The Weight,” performed with the Staple Singers, comes to an end Mavis leans into the microphone with a satisfied smile on her face and quietly whispers “Beautiful.”

I was hooked.

Danny was pursuing a career in music from the moment we met. Following an internship at The Blue Note jazz club in DC, he went to work for George Wein, creator of the modern outdoor music festival concept, and founder of the Newport Jazz Festival, the Newport Folk Festival, the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival (to name just a few). Danny traveled the world and made a name for himself in the music business, I settled down back home in Chicago, and we lost touch.

Danny now owns a music festival and event production company of his own, and as my trips to New York increased in frequency through the years, we found ourselves getting together more often. When Danny announced that he was producing a Mavis Staples concert in D.C., I decided to go. I decided to go for the music, for a few days on a relaxing vacation, and for time with friends.

We met for breakfast the morning of the show. I last saw Danny during my last trip to New York in February 2020, so we had a lot to talk about. It was a wonderful conversation. We talked about the people we lost, changes in our lives, and together expressed appreciation that after all these years we are still in touch. Still passionate about those things we were passionate about in college. Once again, enjoying a meal in D.C. together.

I got back to my Airbnb room after the concert that night, and Danny sent me a photo of him and Mavis. He was thrilled because she asked for the photo to be taken with him.

Still after all these years, we are amazed by the music we enjoy, and the people who make that music. Danny, who works with some of the finest musicians in the world every day, was giddy because Mavis asked for a photo. I don’t blame him.

I went to Washington D.C. to enjoy a Mavis Staples concert, and I did. But it was the friends I saw that made the experience truly special. I remember discovering the music I still enjoy today. I remember spending time with Lisa, Jeff and Danny just listening. Just talking. Just enjoying.

It was a great trip.

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