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Okay, guilty as charged. We’ve been polluting the clear country rock waters with dark and negative political screed. Let’s step away from our Kountry Kassandra persona and look fondly on this last Saturday night.

Claremont. Mysterious land of colleges and green lawns fronting stately and immaculate early 20th century mansions and lesser architectural gems. Surrounded by less green and unloved Inland Empire suburbia, where road rage and foreclosure lead our nation down its strange path (oops, stay away from the darkness). We always get lost on our way to downtown Claremont. This time is no exception. Paul M and Colleen are already arrived, and they guide us late comers (Rob, Paul L, Shawn, and Victoria) by cell phone to the fabled Folk Music Center, formed 50 years ago in the same folk explosion that gave us McCabes and the Ash Grove.

We screech into the parking lot, late for soundcheck, charge through the back door through the repair rooms, putting hundreds of ancient stringed instruments at risk. Into the big room, a museum of priceless sitars, African drums, Gibson mandolins, and hundreds of acoustic instruments lining the long walls. Like McCabes, the walls constantly hum with resonating strings. We greet our long lost sisters the Chapin Sisters, whom we haven’t played with in several months. The Folk Music Center people are swift and kind, and we do a quick sound check. The Chapin Sisters take the stage, while we lurk in the office on the other side of the concert room.

It’s a strange moment in the little room filled with Ben Harper posters and gold records. The Hawks are a bit tweaked out from events global and personal. As the angelic Chapin voices filter through drywall, Paul L and Rob wonder whose self loathing and negativity is greater. Paul L describes Shawn as “optimistic,” to which Rob claims that this optimism could be crushed like an eggshell. Shawn doesn’t disagree. We all decide that Paul M is indeed an optimist. Paul M nods with quiet assurance. How does he do it?Rick Shea appears at the office door. Rick projects a fatalism that makes negativity look like a childish indulgence. He’s just the antidote to our group angst.

The Chapins finish. The crowd loves them. We tune up and hit the stage. Hey, all our friends are here! Our cares vanish. We do a long acoustic set, and Rick Shea joins us on mandolin. It feels like there’s a fireplace in the room, Autumnal good feelings. For an encore we bring out the Chapin Sisters and stand at the edge of the crowd for an unamplified version of an old Crystal Gayle song and our song “Never Alive.” We head back to the office and the crowd hollers for more. What should we do? How about “Silent Night?” The Sisters nod. They can throw something together. We go back out, do a dobro version of the melody, and then Abigail, Jessica, and Lily let forth a seamless shimmering three part harmony. We imagine the Chapin singalongs of Christmas past, a rich family legacy, leading to this. The best harmonies you’ll ever hear.

We pack up, fond farewells to the Sisters, the FMC people and our friends. The night is young. We walk over to The Press, just around the corner. Mike Stinson is playing. Life is good. The Press is an elegant-on-the-cheap food bar that’s trapped in the year 1999, when we looked with Clintonian bemusement on the less fortunate planet around us. It’s comforting. Comforting to know we’ve left that outlook behind.

We grab a table, order food, step outside for a smokeout in Stinson’s van. A conversation on the emotional shadings of synonyms ensues. We collectively design a dictionary that, instead of definitions, assigns a subjective essay on the esthetic, emotional, and historical values and shadings of words. The dictionary will not be alphabetical. In its idealized form it will be three dimensional, perhaps a hologram showing relationships and associations among words, like the sufi web of life. It will take 10,000 years to write.The discussion turned to the emotional qualities in letters of the alphabet. A question was proposed: which is the least powerful letter of the alphabet? Rob chose “F.” Paul L chose “H.” Shawn picked “Y,” which raised a few murmurs of protest. Mike Stinson and our friend Larissa both picked “N.” Which we might concede is the winner.

Back inside, soon enough Stinson and band hit the stage, and we chomped down our food and Guinnesses, big thanks to our FMC man who bought us a round. This is honky tonk heaven, even in a dot com bar decorated with a massive oil painting of a semi naked young man over the stage. And this is our favorite version of Mike Stinson since the Tony Gilkyson days. Mike is singing like a master of country music (he is), playing an acoustic through an amp, a new and totally appropriate sound. Rob Douglas and Dale Daniel are laying it down solid as hell on bass and drums, and Rick Shea is playing like the Rock God he attains upon occasion.

rick shea.jpgRick Shea. In our Dictionary of Emotional Shadings, Rick’s photo will be in the Unsung Hero entry. He’s put out four CDs of classic and classicist country songs, played with Dave Alvin and James Intveld for years, and countless other roots bands, and plays with the Hawks when there’s extra dough to pay him. “Shea” in Irish means “hawklike,” and we’re proud to think so.

Rick is always solid, musical, and an unerring foundation for whatever song he’s playing. But on nights like this, he steps into a new realm. Here at The Press he’s sliding magically from orchestral backing of Stinson’s lyrics (are there really only four people on stage?) into burning, shimmering, liquid gold Guitar Solos. Comparisons are odious, so allow us: there is no better guitar player on earth tonight. Well all right. This town is bursting with talent and soul. Southern California, you rule. We roll westward, into the cold and good night. Good night.