An Improbable Tale of Fate and a Missouri Fiddler
I come to you today with a feel-good story; one of those true stories that asserts a romance that all too often feels absent in this generation. It’s a story I was told weeks ago, a story I retell excitedly to everyone I meet. But it took a wedding band’s version of “Home” to finally force me to write it.
The protagonist of the story is a shaggy fellow named Nathaniel Markman, long-bearded with tangled hair. He’s a soft-spoken fiddler from Missouri whose eyes lock on yours during conversation and close when his bow slides across violin strings.
As we talked – beside the swimming pool at a summer camp right outside Yosemite National Park – Markman told me one of his first memories. He was four-years-old, sitting on a bed with his parents as they flipped through the newspaper.
“They read ‘violin lessons for anyone interested’ and they asked me right then, ‘Nathaniel, do you want violin lessons?’ And I remember jumping up and screaming, ‘Yeah, I do!’ But they could have said anything, they could have said tuba or anything and I would have said yes.”
But he chose violin, or perhaps violin chose him, based on your understanding of metaphysics.
Fourteen years and thousands of violin lessons later, the bright-eyed fiddler from Missouri began to travel, first to Israel on the Birthright program and then around Europe.
“I was looking at the list of all the people on my program going to Israel and they were all Californians,” Markman said. “At the time I thought, ‘I wonder if I’ll be in California some day.”
On the trip to Israel, Markman met Danny Jolles, who eventually introduced him to a band named Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeroes. Today the band is mainstream, but in October 2009, when Jolles sent Markman the Youtube clip of Edward Sharpe on the NPR Tiny Desk series, their first album Up from Below had been released just three months earlier.
“They were this nice little band and they had this casual way of performing that seemed very improv,” Markman said. “I just liked the vibe, the feeling that I got from the music.”
Markman was living in a co-op in St. Louis at the time, finishing up his last semester at Washington University. He fell in love with the group, which is rare for him, and sent the video around to all his friends. Soon, Edward Sharpe was a favorite at the co-op.
The basement of Markman’s co-op was split in two – half was used as a kitchen and eating area and the other half was for performances. Markman’s job in the house was music coordinator; he was tasked with finding touring bands to play a set at the house and with hosting the open mic opener for the weekly show.
One night, he and some friends put a group together and performed at the open mic before the visiting band went on. They played a cover of “Home” and “40 Day Dream,” two Edward Sharpe songs.
“I remember thinking at the time, if I were to play with one band, I would play with Edward Sharpe,” he said. “But it just kind of spilled out and I didn’t think much of it.”
The next week, Markman finished up finals and graduated. He’d been in school all his life. He had an urge to roam for a while.
So he packed up his minivan with instruments and drove out to California. He would try and make a life for himself, playing his own music.
One by one, his friends began moving out to the Bay Area. A group of them started to record together and to play on a corner for tips.
Their lives were the lives of many aspiring musicians – recording and busking on the street – until February 2010 when one friend saw that Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeroes were playing in Oakland on Markman’s birthday. It seemed miraculous that the band Markman had so adored just a few months earlier would be playing in his city on that day. He felt he had to be there.
So on his birthday, his friends gathered and went to the show, which was sold out except the 200 tickets the venue was keeping at the door.
When Markman gets excited, his eye contact intensifies and his voice rises – it’s nearly impossible not to be infected by his giddiness and his delight is stoked by your response.
As he talked about the night of his birthday, a story that I’m sure he’d told hundreds of times before, I felt eager and nervous.
The story he had been telling me was well-crafted, every detail was relevant. And yet, the way he told it, it felt as if he were as anxious as I was to hear what would come next.
There was already a long line by the time Markman and his friends arrived at the Bimbo 365 Club in Oakland, so they went back to the car and grabbed their instruments. They began to perform as they waited in line.
“While we were playing, the band walked by and we were like, ‘Oh, it’s them,’” he said. “They gave us an eye but they didn’t really notice. They just kept going to get ready.”
Markman and his buddies continued to play as the line slowly crept toward the ticket window. Luck was on their side that night; they were within the first 200 people and all were able to buy tickets.
The group returned to the car to put their instruments away, elated that they’d get to see the show. But as they were loading up the trunk, one of Markman’s friends had an idea that would prove fateful:
“Someone suggested, what if I brought my violin into the music venue?” Markman said. “And then someone else was like, yeah, if you don’t bring your violin, you’re never going to play with Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeroes.”
Most people would scoff at such a statement, but Markman is a man who lives by that kind of logic. He grabbed the violin and the group moved toward the door.
At the turnstile, the security guard told Markman that he couldn’t bring an instrument into the show. He felt defeated and was ready to return to the car.
But luckily, it was his birthday; his friend wouldn’t have it and took the violin from Markman. Markman walked by the security guard, showing him his empty hands. His friend snuck the violin in behind him.
The group slid their way up to the tenth row and Markman began to tune his fiddle as the warm-up band played. When Edward Sharpe came on, it felt like a dream; it was Markman’s birthday and he was with his best friends, watching the band he’d fallen in love with months before.
Near the end of the set, Alexander Ebert, the band’s lead singer, began to whistle the first few bars of “Home”.
“One of my friends put me on his shoulders and I was air-bowing in the audience,” Markman said, “and I got a finger from Alexander the singer to come up to the stage and play something.”
Markman was shocked by the gesture, but the crowd began pushing him toward the stage. He was in a daze: it was his birthday and he was being crowd-surfed toward the band he’d dreamt of playing with for months.
When he stepped on stage and began to play, the band quickly understood that he was not just an average fan. They extended the song to allow Markman to take a solo.
“There weren’t enough mics so Alexander was grabbing mics from different members of the band,” Markman said. “He held three up to the violin so people could hear it.”
A moment like this does not come along twice; for 99% of the population, it doesn’t even come along once. But Markman was the perfect man for the moment; and he grabbed it.
“The way I perform, the more nervous I am, the more comes out of me as a violinist,” he said. “I completely let go and just gave everything I had – It was exhilarating, it was definitely the most people I’d ever played in front of.”
When he left the stage, amid glad-handing and cheers, he thought his miraculous night was over. He thought he’d had the greatest birthday he could ever have imagined and that was okay with him; Markman is not an unreasonable man.
“But that wasn’t the end,” he said.
After the show, his group of friends saw Edward Sharpe packing up their instruments, getting ready to go down to Santa Cruz. Jolles, the friend who had exposed Markman to the band months before, had an idea: Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeroes had been nice enough to play for them, so they should go play a concert of their own for the band.
“So we all got our instruments and played them a few of our own songs while they were packing up,” Markman said. “They were like, you guys should come and open for us. This was the week that all my friends had graduated and moved west – we were all together. There were six of us and we were all free – I think we were gonna go on a trip anyway that week – so we just got our stuff together, called up a couple more friends, and headed south.”
Markman’s group opened for the opener in Santa Cruz, San Luis Obispo, and Santa Barbara, touring with the band they’d waited in line to see just days earlier. And the shows were sold-out, so the venue was already three-quarters full when they started playing.
“We’d just stand in the audience, have everyone circle around us and play acoustic sets. We played Klezmere music and a lot of jam stuff and the fans came out and were dancing, going crazy – the energy was very camp-like; very raw and not staged at all,” he said. “And once we were done opening, I’d just go up onstage with Edward Sharpe and play with them.”
After the Santa Barbara show, Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeroes was set to go to Australia. Markman and his buddies weren’t about to follow them halfway across the world on a whim. But they parted ways with a promise:
“They said, if we are ever back in California, we want you to come and play with us.”
Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeroes made good on their word and called Markman when they returned.
He met them in the Midwest for a tour, playing Milwaukee, Bonnaroo and Markman’s alma mater, Washington University.
After the tour, Markman came to work at Camp Tawonga, the summer camp in Yosemite, which could have meant the end of the dream. But instead, as fate would have it, Edward Sharpe played a few festivals in the area over the summer and always made sure to shoot him an email to see if he could join them.
So while most counselors would go and hang out by the river on their days off, Markman would hop in a car and go play Outside Lands or the High Sierra Festival.
“At Outside Lands, we went backstage to huddle up and when we came back on there was the biggest sea of people, beyond the gates all the way onto the hill on the other side,” he said. “I remember walking on and almost fainting.”
After summer ended, he returned to Oakland and played with the band at the Fillmore in San Francisco and down in San Diego.
Now if this story were a movie, it would end with one of those performances. We’d see Markman, on a spotlighted stage, fiddle raised and eyes closed, before a mass of awestruck fans. The song would end, the curtain would fall and the screen would turn to black.
But this is real life and Markman is still only 24-years-old. So I asked him what happens next.
“The last I played with them was right before Tawonga began this summer and then I stopped contacting them,” he said. “It was just becoming really distracting to be a part of them. I was always checking my email – when is the next thing, when am I gonna play? I just wanted to be here.”
Markman was fully there all summer, lifeguarding and gardening in one of the most beautiful places on Earth. The biggest performances of the summer for the fiddler – whose camp name is Asparagus Toes – were Tawonga’s weekly Shabbat services.
But now the summer is over; Markman and his friends are back living in Oakland. He still loves to reminisce about his time touring with Edward Sharpe, but he is far from stuck in the past. He wants to farm. He wants to be an educator. And he wants to play with a band of his own.
“If I really put my heart into one thing and it is just music, I’m pretty sure the Universe will provide – it will come together,” he said.
And after meeting Markman, it’s hard to argue with that logic. He’s a resonating force on the fiddle; simultaneously melodic and morose. But also, he’s seems to fit well in nature. I truly believe that the unkempt and unassuming fiddler from Missouri is the type of man the Universe will protect.
Markman has played with the Wildbirds and Little Owl, while continuing to write his own music since touring with Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeroes. Here are two of his favorite tracks that he has recorded on this year:
The Wildbirds: “This Is Our Town”
“We recorded this album as a live session one night when I was home last fall (Milwaukee is where my parents recently moved). I went over to Hugh’s house for a pumpkin and hard cider party which set the stage for an awesome live recording.”
Little Owl: “Black on White”
“I spent a lot of wonderful sunny time in Santa Barbara recording and performing with these friends of mine. The songs are written by Yoni Berk; a lot of potential here.”
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