Vanessa PearsonI’ve always wanted to hear Vanessa Pearson sing. I’ve heard so much about this seductive siren from Johnson City, that I didn’t hesitate when Jared told me she would be appearing at the Down Home last week for Open Hoot. She started singing with her father’s band Natural Selection when she was eight. She would later turn heads and gather a strong fan base when she fronted the blues band, Blue Rapture.

Not long ago, she took a break from the band and found her way into the theater and this past Wednesday, she had a coming out party with close friends as she returned to the music scene. It was a humble second act too. No fanfare, no glowing marquee or slick posters, just all Vanessa and a few other characters that make their way into this reincarnation of a pure home-grown talent.

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Open Hoot is a weekly tradition at The Down Home. For over thirty years, the region’s most iconic live stage has presented live music from anyone who wants to perform. Bob Hoffman was at the door when I arrived. I saw him last weekend at the Electronic Music Show and we talked keyboards for a moment. I paid the two dollar cover (to support the arts – Bob said) and made my way into the room where thirty or so people were gathered.

I made my way to the bar for a New Castle and immediately saw Jared and Vanessa. I had formally introduced myself last week but told Vanessa I was looking forward to hearing her sing. She was polite and humble and said that she hoped I wouldn’t be disappointed – I couldn’t imagine that.

Josh Young is one of those players who I see pop up just about everywhere. Other than Jared, he’s probably the most visible player in the area. I really wasn’t surprised to see him scurry into the Down Home with Mona. Mona is the upright bass that has been with him since we first met as he was on of the shining new performers with Virginia Ground. Josh was wearing a bright red reggae-like toboggan and he was groping Mona like it was serious. He never carries her in a case and the old bass looked weary from his travels – a hole in the side the perfect match to a show. I always enjoy hanging out with Josh and think a lot of his folks too who continue to support his music interests. When I asked him what he was up to now, he mentioned that he was playing, “wherever he could find a note.” I couldn’t wait – it was gonna be a good one.

Josh mentoned he was playing in a reggae band, but the guys smoked so much they forgot about Open Hoot this week and he was improvising some songs with a friend of his on guitar, Craig Pruett. We bought another round and it wasn’t long before the staff at the Down Home had the mikes rigged up and Vanessa was on stage.

Vanessa is a gorgeous blonde. Dressed in a natural crepe dress she proved more than that though. Much more. What intrigued me so was the fact she was among a few friends and although she might have been nervous to start her set with the classic ‘Summertime’ it wasn’t long before the warmth of the stage had her glowing.

Normally, this artists is part of a big band and it was a real pleasure to hear the purity of her gift and I haveto admit, for his first time on the Down Home stage, David brown did a great job as her accompaniment. I was immediately pleased to hear a local artist leave the acoustic at home and rigged with only an Ibanez and a Laney amp, Brown’s chords and tones were bright, melodic and thick – there was never a void in the performance and their mutual chemistry was completely unique.

Brown tells me in the first break that he’s a retired cardiac surgeon. He was introduced to Vanessa by her ex-husband. Ron Baisler – the accordian, harmonica and organ player behind Blue Rapture. It really didn’t surprise me to see him in the audience with his new girlfriend. Eight years is a long time and it’s good to see people who care about each other.

Over the past several weeks Vanessa and David have been rehearsing music and drinking scotch. That was the story she shared from the stage before drifting off into a striking set of deep hearted blues on any stage in the Tri-Cities last week. Earlier in the night, I referred to the Down Home stage as Wednesday church and Vanessa and David were leading the altar call tonight in Johnson City.

Both of these artists were not on stage to play difficult music, nor was there a notion to deliver a new set of original songs. Instead, Vanessa and Dave gave a heart-felt and personal performance that deserved attention. Vanessa is a bright star and striking entertainer. She sings the blues with sadness and it shows in her eyes from the closed moments during her verses, until the moment she stares into the audience enough to wink at the closing refrain.

I’m just guessing, but her recent detour in the theatre will probably help her musical career accelerate even greater. Josh and I sat quiet from song to song listening to a great talent and this will be interesting to watch, a great smile, a humble confidence and extraordinary talent is sure to open doors in the coming months. She says she’s looking to start a band, so the next steps should be intriguing – probably some of the best years of her life.

One of the most awkward moments seemed to be toward the end of the set. She was finishing up a round of Bill Withers, Al Green, Bonnie Raitt and even a Julie London version of Cry Me A River. From the shadows on the left side of the stage, a disheveled man in a hat pulled over his eyes intrerrupted her performance stating he was a guitar player and half mumbled…loudly “I play harmonica, can you play something in G.”

Vanessa was polite and managed to finish her set, but I found out later, this was “Guitar Dan.” Otherwise known to many in Johnson City as “the guy who plays in the breezeway.”

Guitar DanHis real name is Seth Harley and he had a Yamaha guitar when he started to set up his stool on the Down Home stage. The guy had plenty to drink before he got there and after the abrupt interruption at the end of the set, not too many people paid attention to the old man in flip-flops, long brown hair and worn from 8 years on the street. The guys at the Down Home tells me he comes by often and I was lucky to catch him tonight as he was up next at Open Hoot.

I was mesmorized by “Guitar Dan.” The sound guys finally got him settled in behind a microphone and in a moment or two after he looked out on the crowd, he mumbled a few words, but I did hear him say that he wanted to sing a song about an old girlfriend…”100% Half a mind to think about you.” Now I’ve seen and heard lots of music, but I couldn’t help but realize that was I was hearing was raw, dirty truths and Seth was livin’ everything he was singing about. At times, it was hard to understand him. The liquor was no doubt numbing but tougue, but every now and then, he would find the chorus and Guitar Dan was a true street-poet.

From the bar, I could tell they were ready for Seth to get off the stage, but he couldn’t see them nor hear them. They keep a pretty tight schedule on Open Hoot and it was no surprise for me to watch them turn the mike off before he could start another song. He had played several original tunes and some his favorite Southern folks songs. The crowd murmor as he seemed puzzled and walked off the stage without too many people noticing him.

A couple of folks patted his shoulder and as he came from the bar, I asked him – “Why do they call you Guitar Dan?”

He was polite and looked at me with a smile and said, “that’s what the kids call me.” I bought him a beer – good choice – a Killian’s Red and proceeded to tell me about his home near Grandfather Mountain and the eight years playing music for money on the streets of Johnson City near Gatby’s. The breezeway is a have-to pass-through from the State of Franklin parking lot that leads people to downtown streets. He told me that he played The Down Home…”because it’s good promotion.” Nothing else really mattered.

I got an interesting video and a few pictures of Guitar Dan – a real original. Hang out with him any warm night in Johnson City and don’t walk by. Stand a few moments, grab a few dollars and contribute to another good cause.

Tonight was interesting night for talent. After Guitar Dan a couple of sisters got up on the stage. One with long blonde hair seemed to be in her upper-forties and she was leading her blind sister around the stage. Before they began, she admitted timidly to the audience -“this is the first time we’ve ever sang out in public, but it’s something we always wanted to do.”

These girls weren’t singing karoke. Instead they were living a dream and this pair were a little rough getting started, but as the lights warmed them up and the applause came near the end of their seat that included Janis Joplin songs, these ladies were radiant and what we listened too was something that until now was probably reserved for the front porch or family gatherings.

Josh YoungIt was close to 11.30, but I wanted to hear Josh Young sing and I wasn’t disappointed. He’s an incredible performer and when he closes his eyes and starts pulling on Mona’s strings, I’m reminded once again why I’m so impressed by this guy. He loves performing and it shows. We see each other often and it was just last year that we played Maggie Valley together, but so far, Virginia Ground is still finding it hard to regain any traction and Josh keeps playin’ wherever he can. Together with Craig Pruett, I enjoyed their set of old tunes and reggae and can’t wait to catch this new reggae act if the guys can remember to make the gig.

Open Hoots are great middle of the week adventure. I regret that I don’t make it out more often, but that may have changed tonight. I really enjoyed the experience and the true talent across the Down Home stage. Many thanks to the guys and performers who continue to make this one of the best nights out in the middle of the week in the Tri-Cities!