The Monday shower dissipates and leaves the early evening air clean and deliciously scented as we make our way down West Water Street and back to Vanessie Santa Fe for the first time in a year.
As we emerge from the coronavirus pandemic, I find it hard to trust my senses and get a little jittery in large crowds. But once inside Vanessie, the din of tinkling glasses and happy voices is unmistakable. Anxiety gives way to the anticipation of what we once took for granted: drinks, dining and Doug Montgomery on piano.
Montgomery is an ebullient lounge veteran, but that smile and friendly banter can’t disguise the fact he’s also a masterful pianist. The Chicago native is classically trained and has a master’s degree from Juilliard. He’s performed around the world from Genoa, Italy, to Rockefeller Center before presidents and princesses and swells of every stripe. Vanessie is his home field.
He gives the crowd what it wants: sweet slices of The Great American Songbook and Broadway standards along with eclectic requests delivered on bar napkins.
Over there is Ms. “Lady in Red.” Across the way sits Mr. “The Music of the Night” guy. There’s the fellow who tears up when his request for “Wonderful World” is fulfilled. Memories play out at every table and up and down the bar. Some of us are remembering Santa Fe creative community sweetheart Charmay Allred, gone a year now, who rarely missed a Montgomery night and introduced hundreds to his music.
A little pinot noir takes the edge off, and the regular crowd shuffles in (apologies to Billy Joel, who is heard from in the first set). The food is good, the waitstaff masked and happy to be busy on this Monday night.
Montgomery has known some of his fans so long he can remember when their hair wasn’t gray and they hadn’t lost a step or two. What he may not fully appreciate is that they undergo a jolt of rejuvenation when they hear him play.
A room with many strangers is transformed into a gathering with things in common as Montgomery acknowledges a fan’s medical challenges. Everyone knows something about that. Everyone has been there, and now they find themselves thankful to be back here living in the moment.
Montgomery plays on. There’s “New York, New York” and “Stormy Weather.” There’s “Moondance” and “In a French Café” with its fanciful flourishes. There’s the theme from Evita, and on and on it goes.
Heads nod knowingly as lyrics hit home and heart. Toes tap under the table. Sometime during the first set, a clap-along breaks out.
Montgomery keeps the conversation light between songs and still plays with uncommon energy even after all these years.
As song after song flows through the room, I sense everyone is thinking the same thing. It’s so good to be back in a familiar place where hearts are light and people are smiling — and you can even see their faces.
On this night, the Phantom of the Opera might be the only regular wearing a mask.
Is it all somewhat sentimental and at times even a little corny? Sure.
It’s also absolutely true to its school. Montgomery makes certain of that.
When it’s time to go home, we wave and start for the door as an elderly fellow enters Vanessie. He’s a little stooped in his tweed jacket, but the room is already working its magic on him.
“I never thought I’d be here again,” the man says.
I know the feeling, friend.
John L. Smith is a Santa Fe writer. His new book is Saints, Sinners, and Sovereign Citizens: The Endless War Over the West’s Public Lands.