Last night in New Orleans

Alynda Lee Segarra (Hurray for the Riff Raff) debuted new protest songs in a sweaty club across the street from the 60' concrete shaft and empty pedestal where a monument to Confederate General Robert E. Lee once stood.

Illustration by Ryan Sparks

Erica should have been there, but her last night in New Orleans was the night before. She would’ve loved this, though. Bodies inside Circle Bar. People sitting on the floor. Sweaty. Ten dollars cash at the door, up from the previous $5 announced on the website. That feeling of relief, age 34, that the difference between 5 and 10 is okay for tonight. We get there early so we can reserve barstools. My friend, younger than me, has a bad back. It doesn’t matter. As we melt into the heat (it feels like August already), we become that creature we are every summer. Just kids.

Once we’re inside, the band-like configurations are doing sound check. Tonight each band is one person, with friends who sit in. We are here for Lonesome Leash (nee Walt McClements, formerly of Why Are We Building Such A Big Ship? A favorite band of Jessica, who sits next to me, and of Erica, who won’t be pulling me out to the dance floor tonight, not just because we are crowded in too close to really dance and twirl, but again, because Erica has left New Orleans. Sold her house. Moved away. That morning.). Some of us are also here for Alynda Lee Segarra, who has put out records as Hurray for the Riff Raff. She posted about the show on Instagram earlier, and that’s how I knew she’d be here. She promised songs about plants. As the bar settles in its damp din, every once in a while her voice rises above us. A relief. Her voice is not a waterfall. It is not a breeze. It’s a call. Some people snap to attention. Some people look at the ceiling. We know she’s not really ready for us yet. But the voice, testing itself, testing the sound, calls.

Alynda checks her sound. Jessica points to the mirror. A sightline. Somehow Alynda is there in the glass, her face visible in a wave of backs of heads, bobbing.

I sneak to the side yard, where I’ll smoke before the show. A woman asks me if that’s weed, do I think it’s OK to smoke out here? I gesture at the world. The Why Are We Building Such A Big Ship album “Of Resolutions and Resolve” opens with a track called “Brooding,” and the song closes with this lyric: “We are as free as we’ll ever be.” The woman and I make friends. She’s a writer, too, and her name is Joanie. She’s bubbly and open and I guess we are heavy flirting. I like the name Joanie.

Earlier, Jessica and I were talking about falling in love with our friends. Erica is such an easy person to be unabashedly in love with. She freed me from so much shame. She let my love be messy. Sometimes I desired her, but that didn’t make us unsafe. Desire can muck up so much in a friendship or anywhere else. But what is the difference between restraint and denial? When I went through a great sadness, one night I slept at Erica’s house. I slept in her bed and the next morning she made fun of me for being too clingy. I wouldn’t let her go. Eventually I switched to a dog, a more suitable body pillow. When she made fun of me, it just made me feel safer. Our love will never run out.

Alynda is ready. She thanks Walt. She thanks us. She says she’s got “mostly songs about how I feel in the world right now, which is not great,” plus the aforementioned songs about plants. She opens with “The Navigator.” Sometimes it’s easier to remember that we’re all made of the same matter, and in this tiny living room bar, I can imagine our humanity actually bonded; I imagine neon mesh, something loud and queer and sweaty.

Alynda introduces “Nothing’s Gonna Change That Girl” by saying “This song is a little about nature and a little about feminine energy.” When she repeats the lyrics “before you love me” and “when you love me like that” each of them a little plea, stacked on each other, I think she might be opening a hole in the universe. Is my friend’s sweaty skin also mine?

Warmed up. It’s time. Alynda is ready to play new songs that haven’t been played outside the comfort of home. She says she will try to remember all the words. The first new song, “Jupiter’s Dance,” makes me feel guilty. Isn’t it funny that as a fan you feel guilty. But she sings, “still they wanna know my mind,” and it’s plaintive, and I’m guilty for being one of the wanting masses. I try to keep my imaginings of her respectful. How much of love is attempting to hold the space that someone else needs? She sings, “You never know who you’ll become.”

The next song, she warns, is “a little heavy, but let’s just go there.” Alynda sings about American sickness. About things being done in her name.

I feel so grateful to be here. We throw applause at her when she finishes. What does it mean to be an artist during atrocity? Ethnic cleansing is happening in America. I’m still trying to figure out how to love individuals in the kindest manner possible. How are we going to save anybody?

What do we do? It’s the question that hangs over, but in this room, the hundred of so of us, our humanity pooling in the thick air between us, there’s really only one way to go. “We’re gonna try a rock and roll song,” Alynda says, introducing “Rhododendron.” I write down bits of lyrics. Rhododendron. Foxglove. Don’t say you’re back on the mainland. Don’t turn your back on the mainland.

She plays “Living in the City,” and I think about Lou Reed. I think about beat poets. I think about how we have always tried to fill up rooms with our humanity. Hoping that people power builds.

Her last song is a showstopper. How do we live in these times? It’s inspired by the Langston Hughes poem, “Kids Who Die.” And it’s a hook: kids who will die, kids who will die, kids who will die. You want to sing along. In the streets of Venezuela. In a Birmingham jail. In AP Biology. They’ll die undocumented. They’ll die in their grandmother’s backyard. They’ll die. They’ll die. With their hands in the air. Screaming “This isn’t fair.”

She sings, less than 100 feet from the 60-foot shaft memorializing no one (I call it the People’s Circle), There will be no monuments to the kids who will die.

After Alynda, I watch Walt (Lonesome Leash), and I think about Erica. She and her husband left New Orleans because he thinks the city has lost its soul. I want to scream in his face. We haven’t lost our soul more than anywhere else. Maybe it’s worse out there.

But it’s not that. That isn’t the fight I need to have. I’m just sad because we never know how much time we have left. I want her near to me. I was telling my mom this — my mom, who lives in Kansas City, where I grew up — and my mom says, “Just imagine if it was your daughter.”

Last night in New Orleans reminded me, I can’t fix everything. Sometimes I just have to melt with the rest of us. Remember that we’re all the same particles. Just kids at a rock and roll show.