By Tom Nicholson
Special to the Eastern Shore Post
Earlier this month, something magical occurred right around where “up the road” meets “down the county.” There would have been standing room only that cold Saturday night, were the Chair Place in Craddockville not aptly named. Those who arrived early claimed seats inside, most of them singular antiques. Latecomers huddled outside around the doorway, telling tales and scanning for a vacant perch. At its peak the crowd looked to be dozens strong.
For the past 18 years, Chair Place proprietor Bill Aeschliman has hosted weekly acoustic jam sessions for a rotating cast of musical characters. These informal gatherings, which take place on Thursdays at 8 p.m., are open to the public and welcoming of new and young talent. On Saturday, Nov. 17, this amorphous collective treated enthusiastic guests to a concert for the ages.
Up on stage, three generations of players wielded hand drums, horns, a keyboard, an upright bass, and about half a dozen guitars. There was a banjo, a mandolin, and a harp – or harmonica, to the uninitiated. The sound of this jam-packed amalgam could have easily disintegrated into cacophony; to the contrary, it was quite the joyful noise. In fact, the arrangements appeared effortless as the group sailed through compositions by the likes of Johnny Cash, Jerry Garcia, and Bo Diddley. Said Pocomoke percussionist and relative newcomer Pete Bottinelli, “This is the easiest gig ever.”
If so, the quality of the players involved certainly presents no obstacle. The caliber of musicianship at the Chair Place is famously high, to the point where its reputation can sometimes intimidate. When asked why he had taken so long to attend his first jam, Mike Waterfield, of Atlantic, responded, “I had heard the legends and I was too chicken to show up.” He needn’t have been. Waterfield’s performance on lead guitar the night of the concert was masterly; however, virtuosity is not a required credential in this part of downtown Craddockville. All one really needs to be a respectable musician here is a certain measure of curiosity, humility, and perseverance.
Take for example one Alex Holt, a talented up-and-coming young picker with the purplest hair in the place, and no slouch on guitar himself. Holt said he doesn’t find playing with so many old-timers all that daunting, even though most of them probably have decades more experience. “They’re all, like, a thousand times better than me anyway,” he mused (although they aren’t). Hyperbole notwithstanding, Holt’s attitude exemplifies the kind of humble moxie that garners respect from his elders on the scene. It also speaks volumes about an environment in which one so young can feel safe to be vulnerable and uninhibited. Those don’t grow on trees in the way that chairs seem to sprout from the walls of this fertile garden.
And it isn’t only newcomers to the stage whose participation is encouraged and valued. Sporadic singalongs dot the musical landscape to engage the crowd — “Shake, Rattle and Roll” was particularly rousing the night of the concert — and spectators with instruments such as bongos and spoons blur the line between performers and audience. Almost everyone keeps time in some visible, if not audible, manner, and frequently the entire room seems to pulse and breathe as a single being. As singer Amanda Butler remarked from the edge of the stage, “You’re just as much a part of this as what’s going on up here.” She then proceeded to bring down the house with a, at times, teary rendering of “The Wayfaring Stranger,” a plaintive song taught to her years ago by her late mother, Candy. The Chair Place community shares more than just smiles and laughs.
When asked at the close of the evening how he feels about being the heir apparent to such a scene, precocious young Nathan Butler —nephew of Amanda, the daughter of owner Bill — smiled and said simply, “I just want to keep it going.”
And the Shore will be ever the better place for it if he does.
By Tom Nicholson