Monday, June 15, 2009

A 21st-Century retro-Beck, co-mingling with an Adirondack Bjork...

What is the 6-string strand of acoustic DNA that makes a late-30s- or early-40-something guy shift into third with his song-writing? I have no fewer than five friends who are doing their best work these days, and this week, I thought I'd give them some digital ink. To wit:

Songwriter Bud The First: My boy Allen Rein *
My boy Allen, and his boy Mark Burns, are tearing up the Windy City coffeehouse scene as the Chicago-based post-hipster poster boys "The Real Jane Martin." I don't know who Jane Martin is (perhaps I "Googled" her/it once, and I urge you to, as well), but I love that Allen's CD cover features some serious analog technology--always a good thing, given today's i-Obsessions and gradual disintegration of meaning. Take that last sentence, for example. I don't quite know what it means...

A TRJM song is both basic and complex, with catch and cliche, Tastes Great and Less Filling. If the Barenaked Ladies got naked with the Indigo Girls, and the Indigo Girls were actually interested, the subsequent lovechildren just might be these guys--the kind of guys you'd want your sister to date.

There's a yearning lullaby quality to many of the 8 tunes on their debut effort, "Simple Math." Allen supplies the lion's share of the vocals with a sweet soaring timbre. But there's strength in there, too, particularly in the cruising choruses of "Astro Girl" and "Looking for Jane." So what's on these guy's minds? Well, TRJM ain't spring chickens anymore. They've done a little bit of living--home ownership, children, the adult treadmill--and have sorted out a few things that still make them croon: space in a long-term relationship, calling out substance over style, shedding day-to-day stress, all served up with wry enthusiasm and a few rueful winks and nods. "Simple Math," might be the heightened musical equivalent to a Sunday afternoon barbecue in thousands of erudite middle-class backyards: The kids are in the wading pool, the wives are boiling the corn and Allen and Mark are flippin' burgers and playin' guitar.

Given their summer tour schedule, it looks like this is the year to carry me down to old Virginny, like you always meant to.

Songwriter Bud The Second: He-who-was-bearded in Fifth Grade, Chris LaVancher **

When Chris was cast as Ebeneezer Scrooge in a musical "Christmas Carol," in grade school, I was flabbergasted--he was so mild mannered! "But you're too nice!" I protested, at the doorway of the Music Room. Without missing a beat, Chris grabbed me by the neck and shook, jokingly, but hard. "WHADDYA MEAN I'M TOO NICE?" he fake-snarled. I didn't question him again. That's Chris. He's one of the most talented mo-fos you'd never expect. He drew amazing sketches, he played piano, he wrote songs. He would have performed a devastating Willie Loman at age 12.

Now, he's not content just to play guitar... so he forages around New England for the most resonant wood he can afford and MAKES his own guitars! Yeah... he's that guy.

Similarly artisinal and hand-crafted, a Chris LaVancher song sounds inevitable to your ear and what you know to be true if you've spent more than five minutes walking in the hemlocks, or a night or two in the best dive-bar in town (accompanied, in both cases, with your true love). His melodies are a rich blackberry patch, his stories, the smoke curling off a comfy campfire. But the LaVancher aesthetic is more than "Folk Ornate," to coin a genre. My favorite tune of his is "Boogie Bride"--a funky swamp bog of a song--which must be experienced live. Put it this way--if Warren Zevon went to the Johnny Cash ATM machine to pay his tab, one of those crisp twenties would have Chris's face on it.

Check his stuff out here, and don't be scared by that stern face, whose crags and squiggles you can inspect in person--alongside fellow acoustician and life-partner Esther--in Mansfield, Pa., on July 3 at 10 West Espresso Company. Independence weekend in Tioga County, Pa.... You could do a lot worse, especially considering what happened last time with the barmaids...

Songwriter Bud The Third: Tom Willner, the Hungarian Hammer

He's Tom Willner and you're not. Tom's sunshine is so damn bright, that Cancer has to wear shades. Tom was our high-school Valedictorian, earned a degree in Electrical Engineering and is the Director of Something Important Involving Computers for the American Cancer Society. (As a testicular-cancer survivor, he's not just a customer, he's slowly taking over the company...)

I've known Tom since First Grade, and I think I've seen him in a bad mood maybe ten times. As the epitome of talent and persistence, he's managed to devote more and more time to his music over the years--with a succession of collaborators and recordings--and it shows. He performs widely now on the Relay for Life circuit, ACS's flagship fundraiser for cancer research. He's played the Concert on the Mall in the nation's capital, twice. He knows how to get the word out, and his stuff is thoughtful, inspirational and, well, uplifting in the way that a you-cannot-get-me-down attitude can be. Musically, he's fond of juggling a melange of influences--Rock, Jazz, Gospel, Reggae--and mixing it all up in a big bowl of Feel-Good.

If Dave Brubeck drove Billy Joel's daughter Alexa to her summer piano internship at Faith Deliverance Christian Church in Atlanta, their only route would go right up Tom's alley. (Whereupon, Tom might throw himself in front of Dave's sedan, hollering, "Gimme those keys, you're gonna be 89 in December fer Chrissakes!")

Tom's a busy chap these days, with the big job, and three kids (their newest, Miles, is but a wee bairn), and he's also trying not to sweat the small stuff. Despite his historical hegemony over all things electronica, you know what made him really happy most recently? He bought himself a piano that doesn't plug in! Ah the sweet, simple sounds of a Chopin prelude--foreplay to the musical appetite. But I digress....

Here's but one of his numerous You-Tube-able performances. OR....
Check out his Web site, or his concert musical about his experience with cancer.

Songwriter Bud The Fourth: Chuck Dorman ****

Chuck wears the double-stick Union Label on both sides of his sleeve. A former Minstrel of City Center, he played as many songs as he hung lights. As students of the Off-Broadway movement in New York City surely know, that's a lot of light-hangin' and song-singin.' Life has thrown some wicked deuces at ol' John Charles recently, and so to help make the world right, he teamed up with fellow musician and stage carpenter Ben Cadillac to write down the bones--and thus Cadillac Dorman was born, just this spring, like a wet fawn on wobbly legs. (OK, but this fawn came out smoking a butt, and in the movie version would be played by Tom Waits...)

To describe Cadillac Dorman...hmmm. Carolina Urban Folk Rock... New York City Labor Blues, The Journeyman Stagehand Band....I'm out of my lex·i·co·log·i·cal element here, but I'll take a stab:

If a stray hound--who once made his living off Bob Dylan's back porch before comin' to the city to sniff out its fortune--jumped the F-train to try and make it to some lawyer's office in order to sign closing papers on the doghouse of his dreams, and if there were a track fire somewhere between Broadway/Lafayette and Queens, and our hero got his good, wet nose all jammed up with soot, smoke and crap... he'd survive that day, that ol' hound dog, but at great cost--his nose would be gone, but he could still howl deep down from the base of his doggy padded paws; he could still sink his canines into a nice slab of meat; he could still remember how the good times smelled.

Well that thar might be a good place to begin the Cadillac Dorman experience--a group who traded in their pick-up trucks for mandolins and slide guitars on the open road of heartache. Don't pause to listen if you're not buying a round, but please do throw them a bone.

Songwriter Bud the Fifth: Chris Clarke *****

There's a new sheriff in town, and he and his young deputy are kicking ass and taking names. This is what happens when you major in theatre, do a grad acting degree, banish yourself to Eastern Europe for like fifteen years and then come back. I don't know what Chris has been doing with himself all these years, really. I think perhaps he was part of some art collective, and/or taught English, and/or started a photography studio, and/or served two tours as the Ballet Master for the Prague Opera Ballet and/or directed a Puppet-Theatre production in Copenhagen of Hamlet, on Ice!

What's clear, however, is what he's up to now: Teamed with fellow North Countryista and Lady of Saranac Lake, Meadow Eliz, he is half of the new Web sensation "Swimming in Speakers." Both retro and modrene, Chris handles the instrumental side of things, laying down groove-a-tronic tracks with a Casio keyboard, a laptop, and whatever he found out back in the barn. Eliz's voice is stratospheric yet detached, intimate yet unavailable. It'll slice through you on one tune, stitch you back up on the back swing, and then drown you with silk hankies on the next.

There's a lot of variation on their new EP, and each spoke of their wheel takes you on a fresh, fascinating journey--definitely unique, but all part of the cycle. Their songs are space irony and pure pop fun--if "In Knowing," their likely-to-be viral Internet hit, doesn't put a smile on your face, you're either a card-carrying member of the Undead in search of souls to devour, or you're Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (Who doesn't need the West--he's got his own damn blog!)

The knee-jerk line I came up with to describe Chris and Meadow actually provided the spark for this entire blog post--

a 21st-century retro-Beck, co-mingling with an Adirondack Bjork.
Hey -- thanks for reading. I hope you enjoyed this.
And always remember, if the Keebler Elves sold crack instead of cookies, Smurfette would still be the hardest working Smurf in show business...

* I was Allen's bunk counselor at Camp Ballibay in the 1980s.
** Chris and I have appeared together on the same stage at least thrice.
*** Tom is of Hungarian extraction, which means to say, both his mother and his father extracted themselves from Eastern Europe, and made a new life in the U.S. in the 1950s.
**** Chuck and I met at the Manhattan Theatre Club, where he used to play guitar in the stairwells (sweet reverb). Once or twice he let me accompany him, on recorder. He plays guitar a lot better than he'll admit.
***** Chris and I attended SUNY-Binghamton in the late 1980s. We did a scene together from "Orphans," directed by the tap dancer Chuck Castleberry. Chuck gave us each a bottle of wine upon our performance in his directing class (the house White from The Four Seasons). It was probably the classiest move I had ever seen,

1 comment:

  1. I will supplement Andrew's well-spoken musical props (to which, I dare add nothing) by filling out the pictures of talent in the area I'm most qualified to speak to. Allen Rein was also an extremely talented actor as a lad who, at the time, made me want to quote John Wayne in "True Grit": "I like [him] - he reminds me o' me!" Chris LaVancher, from a young age, has always been an acting inspiration, setting the bar for all those who followed in his considerable wake. Chris Clarke was simply one of the most talented actors I knew in grad school. His performance in "Thanatos" remains one of the highlights of my KC experience.