Somehow, no matter how many times I’ve been here or how many advertures and surprises those trips have held, there always seems to be some shock, some moment of divine cognitive dissonance on my arrival to Pendleton, Oregon. Perhaps the nearby Blue Mountains cast some benign field of energy, perhaps the town sits in the center of a sort of Bermuda Triangle here in the wilds of Eastern Oregon, and maybe it is simply that I always get here exhausted….
Pendleton’s Rainbow Café is not, as its name would suggest, a trendy gay bar, but is, according to legend, the world’s most celebrated and notorious cowboy bar. It is also the watering hole of choice of the best goddamn redneck orchestra in the world. On my first visit there many years ago, I walked in after rehearsal to meet our four soloists who were singing Haydn’s Mass in Time of War and found them sitting bemused and a bit nervous on bar stools while two cowboys (you know, the guys in the belt buckles, skin-tight lacquered-on jeans and ten-gallon hats- real cowboys) had an actual bar fight at their feet on the floor. The fight was finally broken up by an Indian guy from “the Res” who stood about 6’5” and weighed at least 350 pounds- he picked up the two cowpokes like a couple of rowdy spaniels by their collars and carried them out the door. It was a breathtakingly funny inversion of any number of Western stereotypes.
Over the years, I’ve seen many more fights, watched a bartender (male, but it’s still a cowboy bar, not a gay bar, they keep reminding me) do a strip tease on the bar, but also eaten and drank with orchestral players, conductors, composers and soloists from all over the world. Most newcomers get it (although nobody likes the smoke- why progressive Oregon still allows smoking in bars is beyond me), but it can be a revealing indicator of one’s latent pain-in-the-ass potential if they’re unable to enjoy the Rodeo Champions Wall or appreciate the giant buffalo head (exceptions allowed for my friends with asthma, who really can’t take it).
The beer is only tolerable- the Fat Tire on tap tends to be stale- but the food, when you can get it, is surprisingly good, including the best breakfasts in town if you like good, rustic classics. Like all good greasy spoons, the cooks tend to be a tough looking bunch, some pricklier than others, and every once in a while I find myself asking “is that a prison tattoo?” However, since rehearsal ends at about the time the kitchen closes, it pays to have a friendly rapport with all of them, and to tip generously. To their credit, even sending in some of the cuter female members of the orchestra to try to flirt their way to dinner doesn’t seem to move them as much as a humble plea and a track record for tipping.
We finished our first rehearsal for this fiercely difficult program on good time last night at 9:30 (we’re doing the 1919 Firebird Suite and the Elgar Violin Concerto). Dinner looked to be a good possibility because they don’t close the kitchen until 9:45. However, first rehearsals bring with them all manner of social faffs. Finally, we climbed into the giant pickup truck (on loan)I’m driving (yes, conductor drives monster truck while rehearsing Elgar- film at 11. Does Leonard Slatkin have this much fun?). We were chatting away about just how fantastically difficult the Elgar Violin Concerto is- all of the instrumental parts are by themselves hard to play, but the whole thing is also so flexible and vast- nearly as long as a Mahler symphony. We had a bit more time than usual to chat. I’m a pretty confident driver, but handling this behemoth on ice with frosted windows slowed us down to a crawl, so when we pulled up to the Rainbow, it was already 9:50 and I hadn’t eaten in nearly 10 hours….
On weekends, the Rainbow is usually packed ass-to-elbow with cowboys, college students, truckers and trumpet players, but on this frosty weeknight, it was like the set of Bergman dream sequence- deserted and eerily quiet…. Cheryl was already ordering drinks so Michelle (who also missed dinner) and I raced to the kitchen and began groveling. “Any chance of any sort of food tonight?” I enquired in my most supplicating tone.
“Hey, you’re back,” said the cook. “Does this mean you’re in session again?”
“Yeah… Yes, we’ve got a concert next week.”
“I see,” He continued. “You’re doing Edward Elgar’s Violin Concerto, aren’t you?”
“Yeah, it’s fantastic,” I answered.
“Isn’t that one, the Edward Elgar, really, really difficult to play?”
I guess I wasn’t expecting the fry cook at the world’s roughest, toughest, shit-kickin-est cowboy bar to be that acquainted with the performance issues of Elgar’s rarely performed fiddle concerto.
The usual roar of the jukebox had been replaced by an eerie stillness that clung to the walls of the old bar like a malevolent fog. I answered slowly, carefully….
“Yeah…. It’s pretty damn difficult.”
”That’s what I thought. We can do any kind of cold sandwiches.”
c. 2008 Kenneth Woods