If you get a chance to script your own farewell, it might look a lot like Saturday night, when Ben Eldridge made one last appearance with the Seldom Scene, the iconic Washington, DC-area band that he helped found nearly 45 years ago.
You’d be on stage, surrounded at various times, by seven of your closest musical buddies—the two other surviving members of the band, Tom Gray and John Starling, the gentlemen you picked with for the last 20 years, Dudley Connell, Lou Reid, Fred Travers and Ronnie Simpkins, and the guy who joined the band when you left, Rickie Simpkins.
You’d have your son, Chris Eldridge of Punch Brothers, standing to your left, playing the fire out of his guitar for much of the night.
The show would be at the Birchmere, the legendary music venue in the D.C. suburbs that is most closely tied to the band because of a long stint of every-Thursday-night gigs. The show, of course, would be sold out, with 500 adoring fans and friends who would give you not one, not two, but four – four!!! – standing ovations. Among the fans, some diehards who got in line at noon for a 7:30 show and others who rented a bus to come from deep in Virginia.
You’d get a chance to play Harvey, the Gibson 5-string that was featured on all of the band’s early recordings but was later surrendered in a divorce settlement.
You’d be serenaded in a video tribute by some of the best in the business – Bela Fleck, Jerry Douglas, Sonny Osborne, Bill Emerson, Del McCoury, David Grisman, Emmylou Harris and more.
You’d have your wife Barbara and both ex-wives in attendance and watch, misty-eyed, as they joined to sing For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow on that video. (A few dozen lucky souls would get to watch the live performance just after the late afternoon soundcheck, recorded by Chris Eldridge, then rush-edited into the final version.)
You’d be interviewed on stage, between sets, by another legend, NPR’s Bob Edwards.
And, best of all, you’d play with the same tasteful elegance that you brought to the stage for decades, despite concerns about back pain and a hand tremor that led to the decision to retire and made you worry if you were up to it in the months before the show. You’d finish your last set by kicking off Sittin’ On Top of the World and adding two banjo breaks as the other past and present Scene mates pretty much got out of your way.
For the encore, you’d sit through a parody song pulled together by Dudley Connell – so new that music stands were necessary to hold copies of the lyrics – Benny Boy, the Banjo Boy. You’d gamely play along for a bit, then stop to wipe your eyes, and watch during the chorus as the crowd followed Dudley’s lead to lift their glasses in a toast that ended with this:
“Wish Ben well, but not goodbye.”
Then, you’d sit for more than hour to greet fans, sign everything from banjo heads to one young woman’s bare arm, and trade stories, some of them older than your son.
Then you’d pack up Harvey and walk out the stage door of the Birchmere one last time, still “sittin’ on top of the world.”