By coincidence or some kind of cosmic magnetism, Collie Ryan and Mia Doi Todd both play the same guitar. Ryan’s is a 1967 Martin and Todd’s is a 1969 and some specialized model I can’t remember—but after the show, the two ladies held up their guitars for comparison and chorused at each other with cheerleader glee, or like two computer geeks comparing code: “It’s the Martin D2P4-11-Q!” Todd’s is in pretty good shape except for a large burn on the guitar’s bum. Ryan’s has been in the desert for more than a quarter century and it’s faded and cracked. “You’ve got some high action—you do!” Todd exclaimed, inspecting Collie’s axe. Meanwhile, Michel Gondry taped the scene on his point-and-shoot photo cam. “Michel, did you get our picture?” Todd asked. Then a tall wide man with white hair and a neat beard approached to give Collie advice on fixing her guitar. She asked him to play something and he finger-picked a romantic flamenco melody about the sky. He mentioned afterward that it was a song he hadn’t sung in decades. “And you’re a poet, too,” Collie said because she’s a sweet lady. I happened to be pretending invisible, and they ignored me so I could absorb the conversation.
The couple handfuls of people gathered at the Philosophical Research Society auditorium were shuffling out. Not sure what they study or ascribe to at this place, but it definitely has something to do with ideas and mindful things—that’s why Collie’s show had been booked there. Opener was Erica Hyska—her with guitar and her bandmate Casey on single drum and they made quite the couple. She was young—pretty, messy hair; shy but tough chick-looking—and somehow she’d crossed paths with this Mr. Rogers. At one point she prefaced an anecdote by saying “because Casey would want me to do this…” And he nodded yes and pushed up his glasses. He also played a song he wrote for when she disappears without a trace. She sang along. Their voices mingled comically—he was reprimanding her with Pooh Bear softness and her weird sound was like the image in the back of his mind. When she sings, her shy talk transforms to contorted soul—helium and nitrous each pulling her voice in the opposite direction.
Mia Doi Todd—next—is pretty much a super lady. A babe—a pagan worthy perhaps, wisely connecting lines between humanness and nature—lovey dovey, but existential. Todd dropped tiny ideas into gentle phrases about being and lovers’ poems. In her context, something like “soup is on” or “yes yes yes” reverberates meaningfully. And Mia Doi Todd and me were excited for Collie Ryan. Collie had a backup guitarist keeping rhythm with her. He desert tan, too—I imagined he also lived in a bus, like Collie, chiseling animals and plants into rocks while Collie paints her hubcap mandalas. Then I found out—it was a long eavesdropping session after the show—that the three high school-aged kids with matching ‘80s sunglasses on their heads and hipster duds sitting front row belonged to him. I tried to hold on to the fantasy.
Collie Ryan blows the mind—in the ‘70s, she made it to Big Bend from San Francisco. She sought the middle of nowhere and found it—one of the hottest spots in the U.S. Here, she pursued trippy philosophies: “Does it really take time to be free of your mind?” She stopped time to figure it out, zooming in on a cityless reality where she grew wise, painting and talking to indians… Now she reemerges silver-haired with a busted guitar to rattle the cage. She told us about Hopi traditions between songs she’d written for the desert, about the Rio Grande, about ventures into Mexico and the circle from which everything spirals out. Her voice may not reach the high notes it used to, but her wisdom has aged beautifully. How the guy from Yoga Records found the few recordings she made in the ‘70s in order to release them, I don’t know—glad he did.