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Tom and Kate - Bluegrass and Sports
February 13-14, 2016Dear Diary, Friends, and Families,
Written February 15
For the Valentine's Day weekend we traveled to exotic Newman, California. Before going, I had asked around and no one I asked had even heard of the place! Google Maps showed it out in the rural San Joaquin Valley, about 45 minutes west of Merced. I hadn't even thought there WAS 45 minutes of road west of Merced, but there it was, surrounded by orchards, cattle ranches, and fragrant feed lots.
Why were we there, you might ask. We had been invited by Marianne's brother Tom for an evening of bluegrass and we have always enjoyed his shows, whether in his East Bay home grounds or in southern France and western Germany. Seemed worth an overnight in Merced (no operating hotels in Newman) and a drive across our SJ Valley.
The venue was the West Side Theatre, on Newman's Main Street in since 1940. The movie theater was reportedly the first air-conditioned building in Newman, undoubtedly a reason for its initial popularity. By the mid-80's, television at home had taken away business and the run-down theater was converted to a roller skating rink by removing all the seats. A decade later, that business had also died, but local visionaries convinced the town fathers to spend some redevelopment money, creating an entertainment and meeting center. After considerable volunteer labor and generous donations, The West Side Theatre was re-born.
Saturday night would open with Red Dog Ash, a local quartet from Denair, another SJ Valley village I had never heard of. I think there are lots of those. The feature band would be High Country, a traditional bluegrass band that Tom has fiddled with for more than a couple of decades. The band itself was founded by Butch Waller in 1968, over 40 years ago, and he is still the leader and mandolin player. This is a group with decades of credentials and shared experience. (Tom said Butch had given him his first real mandolin lessons, over forty years ago!)
I took advantage of the band sound check to take some people pictures, before the glare of stage lights make picture taking very difficult. (A lesson I had learned at one of Tom's concerts a few years back.) In fact, as good as the concert would be, I think this informal playing by incredibly talented musicians may have been even better.
Then it was time for the glare of stage lights and Red Dog's set. A talented bunch for sure, and most flattering of Butch Waller and High country.
High Country's ninety minutes were as great as we have come to expect. Of course, we are particularly impressed by brother Tom's work on the fiddle (aka "violin", outside the bluegrass and country world), but each of the "seasoned" (THEIR words) professionals makes magic from their instrument. And together, they sound like they have played together forever. They have.
Definitely a worthwhile trip and now we know where Newman is. Who knows, maybe we will return.
On Sunday morning, we all woke early and left our modest Merced motel (that shall remain unnamed in keeping with site policy to not mention places we don't recommend. But it was only $40, so what did we expect?)
We drove through downtown Merced and, I have to admit, I was impressed. Downtown Fresno is so abandoned that it is scary, yet Merced, a far smaller town, seemed to have a reasonably vibrant center business district. For breakfast we stumbled upon the Cinema Cafe and were impressed by this tiny place. With less than 20 seats inside we were lucky to get the only four-top table. (It was still a bit too chilly for the sidewalk tables.) The food was old-fashioned good, the service genuinely friendly, and the prices very reasonable. We may be back here too.
An hour later we were showing Kate and Tom around our house since it was their first visit. They said all the complimentary things we like to hear about our old-for-California home.
Marianne had to show Kate especially the art studio and works that are underway for an April show. Kate's job has her exposed to a wide range of San Francisco artists and art students, so her positive comments were particularly encouraging.
Then it was time to test the Bocce court for the first time in 2016. The weather was perfect and, after a rusty start, I actually felt like I made a shot or two. Of course it helps to play with folks even rustier than I am.
Dinner on this Valentine's Day was at New City Restaurant, the neighborhood Chinese favorite. I was a little worried about crowds, but New City managed to seat us immediately and to serve us at an acceptable pace. Their food is always good. (The Red Lobster across the parking lot had a line out the door and half-way around the building. Even the nearby, divey, Mexican bar-restaurant looked like standing room only.)
By now, it was getting late and we had to return home. Marianne and I did manage a cute Valentine's Day picture of our two visitors just before we jumped in the car to find the Fresno Amtrak train station.
We had never been to the train station, and it was pretty dark outside, but it seemed like a nice old(-for-California) building. We will have to come back, maybe for our own trip. (We need to check with Tom and Kate about the actual Amtrak performance back to the Bay Area. Their 8:20 pm departure had them arriving after midnight, so it should have been a decent test.
So, that was our Valentine's weekend. Pretty darn good: music, food, sports, and family.
No pending plans. We need to create something.
John and Marianne
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