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by Mark Peres

November 5,2006

Eric Clapton lit into the first chords of “Pretending” even before he walked on stage. The set lights flashed color incandescence, the crowd exploded, and Eric took center stage beside his touring band. To his left were bassist Willie Weeks and Chris Stainton on keyboard. To his right was Tim Carmon on keyboard, and guitarists Doyle Bramhall II and Derek Trucks – perhaps the greatest slide guitarist playing in the world today. Behind Eric, drummer Steve Jordan drove the rhythm to the band’s rock, folk and blues.

I was there with my buddy Paul, a fellow fan of the Zen of the blues. We smiled and shook our heads at the ridiculous privilege of being awash in the spiritual evocations of this wall of sound. We felt the mournful pain of “Old Love” as the three guitarists joined by Robert Cray all played memory-filled solos, listened in amazement to the air-raid sirens of “Anyday,” and watched Eric put his Stratocaster aside for his Gibson ES-335 to jam to “After Midnight” and “Little Queen of Spades.”

We know these moments. We all have them. These prisms of transcendence when purpose and talent come together. We have them at work when we achieve. We have them personally when we connect. We have them alone when our childhood and future align. In all of these moments, we feel in flow with streams in the universe greater than ourselves.

Charlotte is in this moment. I think of this city as being in an extended jam session of new architecture and possibility. A few days after the concert, I took a walking tour of South Tryon Street with out-of-towners who had come to Charlotte to attend the “Cultivating Creative Communities Conference” for community builders. These guests had arrived from New York and Denver, Alexandria and Miami, to explore themes of equity and amenities, creativity and sustainability. As we took our walk, we talked about towers and museums, service tunnels, pocket parks and sound gardens. We talked about people on the street, scale and design, and the price of things to come. It occurred to me as we showcased this city – my city, my home – that we are living in this heyday of newness and experimentation that we will look back upon with the same fondness as some of us do the years of classic rock.

Tracks for light rail are being laid down. High-rise condominiums are under construction. Movie theatres and bowling alleys are being built. Demolition is underway to clear land for a hall of fame. A baseball stadium, a new central park and a new neighborhood appear imminent. Three new museums and the renovation of a place of discovery have designers busy – the hits keep on coming.

At the conference, our mayor said we want it all. We want to be a city of choice, offering big city opportunities while maintaining small town values. The president of our Chamber of Commerce said that our success is due to a culture of leadership and partnership. One of the keynote guest speakers said that population growth will not stop. We should expect hundreds of thousands of new Charlotteans in the years ahead. After all, he said, we are a young, dynamic, global city of aspiration.

We are in this time of creation. Conversations are not quite as intimate. Noise is rising. The tension of others wanting in, of not abiding by long-standing codas, of disparities of money and concerns, is causing dissonance that jars and retunes. Entire new songs are being written reshaping our civic, sonic landscape.

That is the attraction to Charlotte – an open jam session where anyone can take the stage and riff and play. Music is being played here. If not in enough jazz halls and blues joints, then in the offices of bankers, developers and community builders who are writing in their own score. The stage is large enough for environmental activists, students, seniors and artists of the most conventional sort.

Eric Clapton and his band ended their night playing an extended rendition of “Crossroads” – with joyful fills and deep cut solos. The song is an apt one for Charlotte as we make our bargains and improvise.

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