Tuesday, February 26, 2013

A Brief Time Well Spent: Michael Turner And JoAnna James

A few days ago, the first reports surfaced on ESPN and other outlets that the Falcons were likely going to cut Michael Turner sometime this offseason.  A few brilliant playoff moments aside, our workhorse back has seen his production decline at a near-precipitous rate over the past few seasons.  You didn't even need to check the stats to recognize that The Burner was not really himself anymore.  He was right there on the TV screen, hitting the hole with zero force of impact, his legs no longer churning with the implacable force that once made him so difficult to bring down.  Of course, not all or even most of this is Turner's fault.  Former OC Mike Mularkey wore him out prematurely with a staggering amount of carries despite having the personnel to distribute the backfield workload far more equitably.  The loss of Ovie Mughelli, whose ability to clear a path for the ball carrier cannot be overstated, didn't help either.  It was inevitable, given the circumstances, that such a physical back would lose the explosiveness that made him special.  The overwhelming consensus seems to be that Turner's time in the ATL is at a close. 

There is a tendency among fans to slightly (or occasionally dramatically) overvalue our own.  Because we watch our teams with more frequency than any others, we see every contribution and every hustle play, regardless of whether or not they appear on a televised highlight reel.  During his peak, I thought Turner was criminally underrated by the national media, despite all evidence to the contrary, because I watched him absolutely pummel so many defenders every Sunday.  How could this man not be considered elite?  Aside from, you know, the fact that he wasn't actually one of the three or so best backs in the league.  We appreciate these players far more when they wear the home jersey than we ever would otherwise.  And so over the past few days, I've found myself grateful for Michael Turner's time here, and I've found myself thinking of a songwriter from Minnesota that, and pardon the indie-snob cliche here, you've probably never heard of. 

I probably would not have discovered JoAnna James had she not been a friend of a friend of a friend.  She wasn't exactly in my buddy Mike's musical wheelhouse, but he nonetheless threw on her second album, "Desire," in the car one sunny afternoon.  It's funny that I remember him being almost dismissive about it: "Hey, I saw this girl play the other night, you might enjoy her stuff."

I did.  What I heard glided effortlessly from ethereal pop to gritty twang to darkening soulfulness to some eerie, alchemical space off the map.  It wasn't perfect, mind you.  Some of the songs were overly direct and maybe even a little sophomoric, lyrically speaking.  But.  My God.  That voice.  Through a stereo, it was lovely and powerful and rich.  In person, it had roughly the same effect as that flash of light had on Saul on the road to Damascus. 

It is 2005.  There is a bar on 6th Street in Minneapolis called Gluek's, and JoAnna James has a permanent residency slot there on Tuesday nights.  When you meet her, she is slender and slight; she cannot be taller than 5'4" or so.  The first thing you notice is that she has the bluest eyes you've ever seen.  When her smile lights them up, which it does frequently, they are electric.  The second thing is that JoAnna James the person is sweet and humble and wryly self-deprecating and has almost nothing in common with JoAnna James, Force Of Nature, who will be reappearing on stage as soon as this set break is over.  She stands there at the mic, brandishing that gorgeous Rickenbacker 330 as the band slinks and struts through the intro.  Then she opens her mouth and ... well, you'll describe this as soon as your breath and some portion of your mental faculties return.  You have just been aurally gobsmacked by JoAnna James' pipes.  There is no way someone that tiny should have that voice.  It's a hurricane wrapped in a thermonuclear detonation.  Her range is phenomenal, her control perfect.  The depth of her feeling is astounding.  Whether she's tenderly cooing "Lucky Strike" or bouncing the raw fury of "Molasses" off the back wall, that voice envelops your world.  JoAnna James contains multitudes. 

Back in the present, I think about the fact that for two years I was fortunate enough to see JoAnna James live probably twenty or thirty times.  Every time, without fail, that voice left me deleriously, joyfully shell-shocked.  Then it was time for her to move on.  JoAnna went out to L.A. to pursue her dreams.  Were those nights at Gluek's or The Fine Line or 7th Street Entry the same as, say, seeing Mahalia Jackson in her prime?  Probably not.  But in the moment, with the thunder of that voice rolling out over you and all creation, they were surely incredible. 

That was Joanna James.  And, from 2008 to 2010, and occasionally thereafter, that's what watching Michael Turner run the rock was like.  Thanks for everything.  Both of you.

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