As mid afternoon broke over the horizon of the magical Tennessee green fields a solemn sobering reminder of rain lay in wait. Building to the Northwest were billowing thunderheads and white cumulus clouds exploded silently overhead, you could feel the air already heavy with humidity suddenly getting colder, the wind beginning to blow with more persistence.
As I glanced at my schedule for the festival I realized the moment was at hand. Earlier that same day I was beckoned by a stranger in the midway; “hey, are you the photographer guy ? “ – this sounded correct so I acknowledged with a nod. He went on to say that Jeff Clayton the lead singer for ANTiSEEN was requesting my presence at one of the food vendors tents. I carried on and went in search of Jeff and his bandmates, within a few minutes I located him with long time fan and loyal friend of the road Mr. Bandana Cloninger. Mr. Bandana is the classical example of a Southern US Rebel steeped in heritage and ‘rebel proud’, he is a road worthy veteran of pavement, rubber and miles shot down. His formidable stature is adorned with many tattoos and scars which tell the story of a man with only the strongest convictions to his beliefs of hard work on the road and dedication to the music that dwells deep in his soul. They sat beneath the white tent of the food vendor exchanging road stories and general chit chat amidst vapor trails of deep fried nourishment from the kitchen. When I sat down and greeted Jeff, he was as always the consummate gentleman and polite beyond reproach; he went on to say how good it was that I was back for more and this would be a very important sentimental show with Mighty Joe Young being absent. Clayton proceeded to outline that I was the only permitted photographer in the stage area this was to me a significant sign of validation and I was speechless.
As we made it to the stage the ANTiSEEN load in began to a few mixed sprinkles of rain. Die hard ANTiSEEN loyalist fans approached the front of the wooden stage, clad in their Music City Punks vests and jackets they stood armed with quart sealers of local moonshine, semi crushed cigarette packs and a hungry gaze in their eyes. As they gathered and congregated in anticipation of the ANTiSEEN spectacle about to unfold the sky above suddenly opened with an apocalyptic deluge. The stage crew raced to tarp in the electronics feeding the sound board, the front of house speakers, all the stage hands and crew huddled close under the tin roof of the old wooden stage. It was in this moment as the rains spilled onto the Muddy Roots grounds, this was perhaps our finest hour, looking out into the front of stage area there stood the Music City Punks soaking wet not relinquishing their grip or claim on the stage front premium real estate.
Listening to the storm gathering momentum, lightening lit up the field with a tremendous clap of thunder and a subsequent shaking of the earth from the South end of the midway. As the Muddy Roots faithful were sent scurrying, some embraced the rain – one such girl dancing alone in the rain as if her soul were channeling the lost highway spirit of Hiram Hank Williams Sr.
The ANTiSEEN grouping clustered under the safety of the old wooden stage;I sat amongst them, Jeff Clayton to my immediate right gazing into the distance as if he was communicating with something beyond this world – his eyes seem to speak as he gazed into the distance. The torrential downpour was now in full effect as the muddy roots iron rich thirsty soil ran down the pristine grassy hillsides, runoff creating streams, which gave way to creeks, which soon gave way to rivers. It wasn’t long until the rivers began claiming their first victims in the way of low laying campsites, minivans, cars and the odd Harley Davidson. Among the raging rivers that cleansed the site, a precariously balanced port-a-potty danced a gracefully awkward waltz through the red river rapids until. . .it lost it’s footing and collapsed on its side with a overwhelming groan from the observers on the stage shelter; the familiar blueish green contents spilling forth and raging downstream to the neighboring campsites.
As the storm raged on, I sat beside Jeff and he I reminisced about the last chance encounter together on better terms and times before. You could see Jeff was hurting inside but he wasn’t about to let it dampen the spirit of the performance yet to come. I happened to say to him, “you know there aren’t many bands that can follow this type of display of wrath and power from mother nature; ANTiSEEN is the only one” – Jeff smiled his toothy scarred smile and you could see his sinister wheels turning. He politely said he liked my line and he was going to use it to open the show. It was at that moment I felt a chill and my skin erupted in goosebumps – it was far from cold out; I like to think that was the moment I felt something bigger was at work and was observing from beyond; those of us on stage knew what it was. . .I’m not a religious man but I am spiritual and I am a firm believer in learning to tune your body to your surroundings like an instrument; you will soon hear the messages so many of us walk by day to day. At that moment I looked skyward at the raging storm and knew Joe Young was not present in the form we knew him best; he was present, it was as if he was there with the thunder and lightning as his guitar pedals, the rain was the wash of screaming guitar chords and feedback we became used to in his presence – the rain was essential to hide the tears to know Joe’s message to us; “I’m here – carry on. . .”
Carry on they did, Clayton rocketed into his first song and it was a barn burner, settling the questions in all our hearts. . .we have not seen the end of ANTiSEEN – this is simply a new beginning. True to form at approximately the third song the cascade of red crimson began to flow from Clayton’s brow, the man attacking his right arm and forehead with the precision kiss of stainless steel he launched deeper into his darkened abyss. His long brown hair soaked with rain water and now washed in an impromptu Muddy Roots blood baptism Clayton continued his growling presence beckoning forth the George Jones reference of he’s aged 20 years in 5. His only moment of pause came toward the end of the setlist where he acknowledged a moment of “silence” as the Mad Brother Ward’s guitar wailed skyward under the watchful eyes of the dearly departed Joe Young. Clayton stood front and center stage his lone fist raised in the air defiantly punching the blank blackened night air and proclaiming this is for our brother who lost his way Joe Young. In his hands he clutched the handmade washboard with Joe Young’s picture in black and white and his epitaph is Sharpie marker reading the stark message of RIP – Rest in Peace.
Clayton dropped the board at his feet knelt before it like an alter soaked in kerosene, he lit the washboard which erupted in a volcanic explosion of fireworks, the embodiment of an imprisoned Joe Young escaping his mortal coil at last on command and finally extinguished by Clayton himself. Clayton reached in and swung the board counterclockwise over his head and catapulted it into the wayward waiting hands and hearts of the fans – the people who mattered most to any artist and a fitting return and release of the soul on hallowed grounds.
After the brief encore, the set was concluded on stage with Mad Brother Ward strumming a massive power chord and inverting the guitar against his cabinet the feedback a deafening reminder of the last, the lost and the least among us, Mighty Joe Young.
We move on and never forget! “Fuck All Y’all”