Words are inadequate.
As a musician, as a bard, I understand this.
I understand that words can only bring you so close to a story or thing or moment.
Or to a feeling.
Music, perhaps, can get you closer.
Or at least it’s more immediate. It’s energy, it’s vibrations, that act upon your brain often without perceived cognitive mediation.
While you impose yourself on words, music imposes itself on you.
This notion is really at the heart of my Odyssey performance: it seeks to add the music and rhythm of performance back into the epic story, to reintroduce them as a way to supplement words.
Of course sometimes (most times, all times) all we have is words to try to tell a story so… we work within their limitations, we do our best. We “paint a picture” knowing full well that even a picture of a story is empty, devoid of context, a ghost of the moment at best.
But… we try.
And I’m going to try to tell the story of going to Athens to perform my Odyssey as part of a three show European tour one month shy of 20 years after I wrote it.
Put that way it sounds implausible. If you told 2001 Joe sitting in his tiny bedroom on Magnolia Ave singing into a tape recorder and scribbling in a blue journal with the words Voyages: A Traveler’s Journey on the cover that what he was writing and singing would two decades later bring him to O’Hare airport on a Sunday night waiting to board an overnight flight to sing those very songs in Greece… he would have dismissed you as crazy.
But after almost two decades, after a year’s delay for covid, after a summer spent vacillating between “yes it will happen” and “maybe it’s too risky”… there I was, sitting on a mostly empty plane headed for Athens by way of London with additional shows in the Netherlands and Rome: a three show 10 day tour.
Other than a delayed departure from O’Hare, my flights were without incident. I passed out (thanks to British Airways for the free wine!) and slept most of the way to London, had coffee in Heathrow during my 3 hours layover, and was on my connector to Athens by shortly after noon.
I had not been to Athens since 2003, a lifetime ago, and as I careened through the evening streets in a cab with a driver who spoke little English other than the word “traffic,” I tried to take everything in.
I was staying and playing at the American School of Classical Studies, a beautiful campus of several buildings that hosts American graduate students and researchers for year long programs and research activities.
My contact, the assistant director, greeted me with the greatest sentence I have ever heard: “Dinner is in 20 minutes.”
I showered off the 20 hours of travel scum, ate a wonderful meal, met a couple people, and promptly passed out cold for 10 hours.
Tuesday was mine to explore: I walked the two miles to the Acropolis, wandering up the famous hill under I reached the top. The air had a feel I remembered from 18 years previous but the light and the stone seemed more vivid. The Parthenon is indescribable in its majesty and I slowly circled it trying to capture every angle for later appreciation.
Next I made it to the Agora. If the Acropolis is full of wonder, the Agora has an intimate energy of the every day. It’s where business and politics were carried out. You can share the ground with souls from 2500 years previous. It’s the place in Athens I feel the most human connection.
Finally I went to the Acropolis Museum which was on the actual Acropolis last time I visited but has been somewhat recently rebuilt in spectacular fashion right next to it. The curation is remarkable in particular a third floor reconstruction of the Parthenon friezes that took my breath away when I figured out its conceit.
The rest of the day and evening was as mundane as being in Athens can be: a great run in the ASCSA neighborhood, another nice dinner with the students, a reasonably early bedtime.
Wednesday was show day.
In the morning, an incredible meeting: my very first Greek professor at UW-Madison (Dr. John Bennett, who left while I was there to take a job in England) happens to be the director of the British School of Classical Studies which happens to be the neighbor of the ASCSA so… I walked over and got to catch up with Dr. Bennett for the first time in 25 years.
Talk about a full-circle moment.
Following that I sound-checked at the beautiful theater in which I would perform. From the second I played a chord and starting singing, I could hear that the room sounded amazing. The sound/tech person dialed it in with care and I could tell I was in good hands.
Lunch and conversation with the brilliant classically-inspired poet AE Stallings at the Byzantine Museum, a couple hours to myself, and it was show time.
The house filled with about 50 masked attendees, a nice crowd from what I understood given the pandemic limitations.
One of the students introduced me and off I went on my 333rd performance.
I disappeared into the moment and tried to be just a vessel for energy. The singing felt comfortable and I could hear every consonant and every pick stroke.
38 minutes passed in a blink and I let the last chord dissipate for what felt like a full minute.
Strong, warm applause.
The discussion was intense, funny, and wonderful. Both of the folks with whom I visited earlier that day were there, which was touching and meaningful. The tech coordinator told me we had over 800 people watching on the live-stream.
Afterwards, there was a short reception in the courtyard and a Greek woman named Dora approached me, took my hands, and said “You are very brave. It was beautiful.”
Later I gathered with the students back at the school and we drank wine until well after midnight (it was Greece after all) and talked more about the performance and epic.
I had an early flight the next day to the Netherlands but I didn’t care as I dozed off to a short but satisfying night of sleep.
Words can only capture so much of an experience and these are my best shot - you can see and hear the show HERE on the archived livestream.