May 26th, 2007
Darmstadt (sort of rhymes with varnished cat), Germany
"Rainout, rainout, RAAAAinout!, Rainout, rainout RAAAAinout!" I chanted in the stifling backstage tent. Ike looked at me and grinned, saying, "I know Dude, if there was EVER a night for a rainout, this is IT." He joined in my chant, "Rainout, rainout, RAAAAinout!, Rainout, rainout, RAAAAinout!" Betse looked over disapprovingly. "I don't WANT a rainout. This is our LAST night in Germany."
I stuck my head outside the tent. The sky was a combination of pissed-off purple and bad-omen black- each of the colors swirling and cavorting into a wall of doom. The air shifted with each gust of wind from a humid Mississippi July, to a crisp Vermont October. The rumbles of thunder added to our chant in the near distance. "It's coming, and it's coming hard, " I said. Ike looked out at the sky from behind me. "Right on, I love it!" We both ducked back in, and uncapped a cold beer in celebration...
30 seconds later, the stage manager stuck his head inside the tent and said, "Wilders, we need you onstage...NOW."
A few menacing raindrops speckled my hat as I begrudgingly lugged my cases to the stage. "No way, I said to myself. No way this is going to happen. It's going to POUR."
Luckily the stage was covered-but barely, and I made sure to put my instrument cases well under the tented part of the stage. The inevitable downpour was minutes away, and I didn't want to waste a moment getting my stuff safely stowed. The sound man came up to me and asked for the details of our sound setup. I said, "Look, the show is obviously going to get rained out any minute, so why don't you just set up one mic. That way, you won't have to pull as much off stage when it comes." He agreed, and began the necessary preparations. My instruments were nearly impossible to tune, due to the constantly changing pressure and humidity. Looking out from the stage, the sky had now darkened into a disfigured grayish-black mass with pulsating, darker formations in the near field-all of it sagging with the weight of the water that would soon be dumping all over us. The crowd of revelers didn't seem to be concerned though, and as I tried to tune my mandolin, I noticed a contingency of the curious moving toward the stage.
Frankly, I was pissed that they were making us start at all. I mean, it just seemed so pointless. But to insure that we would get our paycheck, I went through the motions. Although the storm was imminent, it was taking it's sweet time before washing us out. Once we were as close to as in tune as possible, Betse shrugged her shoulders, and then sawed up a blistering introduction to her rocking fiddle tune, "Old Dirty Boot". Having already played from one end of Germany to the other, Switzerland AND The Netherlands in 25 intense and tiring days, I was sort of surprised at our power as we ripped into it. The crowd looked dazed, and I could see the party contingent at the lip of the stage begin to rock and roll. As we gave it everything we had, I thought to myself, "Well, at least they are getting a little taste before the storm washes them away."
Betse tagged the ending, and our audience went crazy. The cold drops of rain were more frequent now, but more people moved toward the stage- packing in all the open spots until it was about 5-6 people deep all the way around. Other, more prudent audience members stayed back, under the cover of a bratwurst vendor, or the kebab seller's tent, or the covered beer garden in the back. So, in addition to the brave 50 or so in front of us, there was a spotty mix of about 75 more people looking out at us from the distance of their safe spots.
Suddenly, the water started coming. The people in the front pressed together to try to get under the stage roof, but there just wasn't enough room. That's when everything changed. That's when a certain rainout, a definite and much-needed night off, became something very different. That's when Ike said, "Hey y'all come on up HERE with us and get out the rain, come on up, come on UP y'all." In response to Ike's invitation, those at the stage lip pulled themselves up, then turned around and helped others climb up behind them. Suddenly the stage was filled with Germans, and I feared that it might collapse under our combined weight. Ike smiled at what he had done, and began singing, "Bring a drink of water, Leroy. Bring a drink of water..." "Nien!" I grumbled into the mic in a bad German accent (this was apparently funny only to myself and Betse). Ike continued, "If I can get to the mercy man, he'll give me some I know." It was pouring now, and several more people ran from their safe spots to join in. Ike continued, "I got a girl in Vicksburg, Bertha is her name." We were now surrounded by a semi-circular sea of soaking-wet Germans sitting indian-style looking up at us with wide soggy eyes. "I wish I was tied to Bertha, instead of this ball and chain". It was like a giant German story hour hosted by The Wilders. "I'm goin' to Memphis!" Ike sang, and our twisted story hour commenced to the sound of their screams as the rest of the band kicked into gear...
Two hours later I put my sweat and rain-soaked instruments back into their cases. For everyone's safety, the single microphone had long since been put away. Only a few audience members remained. And two fierce-looking security guards still stood their ground at the lip of the stage- their arms folded, their faces scowling. I snapped the final latch on my banjo case and looked out into the wet darkness. There was no sign of the young German girl in the pretty red dress, who had sat in a mix of spilled beer and rain water for the entire show screaming like it was a new kind of Beatlemania. She sat and screamed for both sets, with dancers splashing puddles of beer and rainwater all over her. She never stopped loving it for one minute. It was inspiring.
And there was no sign of the drunken scotsman who had stood at the edge of the stage heckling us until we finally did "Man of Constant Sorrow" to shut him up. This was the scotsman who later, begged to Ike, "Now, I want to sing, " Ike's response was. "Go ahead!" Sheepishly, the scot whined, "But I need a microphone." Ike, knowing full well the mic was long gone, had had enough, "Dude, are you BRITISH?" he accused. "Hell, no, I'M A SCOT!" the drunk roared. "Oh," Ike said, "I thought you must be British if you need a mic to sing. If you're Scottish, then you don't NEED a microphone do you?" Ike stood toe-to-toe with him, mentally drawing a southern-Missouri-redneck line across the stage for him to cross. I actually thought we might get our first Wilder/audience fist fight in 10 years. Finally, the drunken scotsman caved, and wheeled around to the crowd-breaking into a slurred lyric that none of us understood. He DID put his heart into it though, and the crowd ate it up in spite of his poor elocution and annoying insobriety.
And there was no sign of the young Turkish man in the muscle tank who had danced with boundless energy to our music for at least an hour. He had danced in every possible position and style, on every possible part of the stage, with every possible person. Once, he had even danced backwards laying OVER my back in a hilarious limbo position as I crouched down to take a low dobro solo. Toward the end of our set, I changed from dobro player to pinball flipper- turning my back to the Turk and bouncing him away whenever he danced too exuberantly toward Betse (who takes a dim view to young Turk impacts to her antique fiddles). The stage was filled with dancers and this melee finally brought the security force into action. As they roughly began pushing people back off the stage, I knew the night would soon be over.
The storm was intense while it lasted, but just like the crowd, it too had moved on. A feeling of equilibrium had settled where, earlier, there had been so much instability. The air had a sweet smell- the kind of smell that suggests that the storm's needs had been satisfied. I certainly felt that way. It wasn't a rainout- no, far from it. It was a rain IN . It was our last night in Germany, and it was absolute mayhem. It was the kind mayhem that is equal parts frightening, weird, amusing and invigorating. We survived them, and they survived us. And we were all richer for the experience.