For Those About to Folk Rock, We Salute You

Ellis Paul celebrated his 57th birthday last night with a few dozen friends. Pretty standard old guy stuff. Except Ellis was on a stage, at a small theater, and his friends were in the audience.

Ellis Paul is a singer-songwriter. A folk musician. A traveling minstrel, really. He’s been doing his thing in similar settings for three and a half decades.

No strobe lights, no smoke machines, no flash pots, no video projections. Just Ellis and his acoustic guitars. Here’s the thing: Ellis Paul doesn’t need all the rock star stage frippery to blow an audience away. It’s the songs, the stories, the music… connecting with the audience at their souls, instead of on the surface. That’s what really matters. And Ellis Paul delivered in spades last night, as I’m sure he does every night.

He’s a kid from rural Maine — potato country, apparently — who went to Boston College on a track scholarship, hurt his knee, picked up a guitar, and never looked back. All those open-mic slots on the Boston folk scene decades ago helped him hone his craft. It’s great that artists like Billie Eilish can release albums from their bedroom, but they’re not learning the nuances that can only come from a live setting. Mic technique, vocal dynamics, the pacing of a set, when to throw in a joke, when to break out the most popular song.

Toward the end of his set last night, Ellis unplugged and wandered out into the audience to sing “Annalee”…. so simple, yet simply amazing.

It was Ellis Paul’s 57th birthday, but the folks in the audience are the ones who got the unforgettable gift.

I went to the show with my buddy John Sandman, who often will go up to the artist at the merch booth and give them some cash, saying “I listen to your music on Spotify, so here’s some cash to replace what I would’ve spent on your albums.” Not a bad philosophy – if Spotify isn’t paying much in royalties (and they aren’t), we can!

Touring and merch sales are how indie artists survive, and gigs have been few and far between these past couple of years. So if you go to a show and love it, give the artists some “certificates of appreciation.”

One Potato, Two Potato, Three Potato… Hell Yes!

In case you missed this Twitter thread from John Darnielle, the lead singer of The Mountain Goats, when it came out on New Year’s Eve:

In 2022, may we all find moments when we can appreciate “the ten trillion small things that ease the path a little — colors, shades, sounds, flavors, sensations, moods, fleeting thoughts, moments of transcendence when you’re very lucky…”

Warren Zevon taught us to “enjoy every sandwich.” Now John Darnielle has taught us to enjoy every potato. Will it be enough to get us through another year? Hell yes!

The Magic of Music

I’m not much of a Beatles fan. [I know that’s a blistering hot take for someone of my vintage, but so be it (not “let it be…”). I’d much rather hear new music than songs that have been played a bazillion times. And if I do have to listen to “oldies” I’d prefer the Who, the Kinks, Creedence Clearwater Revival, the Rolling Stones… pretty much any other band from that mid-to-late 60’s era. I’m not saying the Beatles weren’t good and ground-breaking… it’s just I could go the rest of my life without hearing another of their songs and would be fine with that.]

Basically BTS of the 60s.

However, last night the internet rabbit hole led me to an article about a guy that semi-stalked John Lennon, several years before Mark Chapman did the same, with more tragic consequences.

The article was quite interesting. As noted above, I’m no Beatles superfan, so I’d never heard the story of “Claudio” before. But what really stood out for me was a footnote… it contains one of the best descriptions I’ve ever seen about the emotional power of music.

[11] If you’re ready to stop reading because you think I’m a deluded hippie no more rational than Claudio, hear me out and think about what music actually is and how it affects you: someone you do not know and have never met creates a series of sounds and combinations of words that, once recorded, you might eventually hear and it will bring you absolute joy, or cause your body to move wildly, or reduce to you to tears, or create an unbreakable bond between you and another person, often times achieved in about three minutes or so. If there is such a thing as magic in this world, this is a solid example of it.

Ryan H. Walsh

Wow! He really hit the nail on the head… it’s amazing when you stop to think about it. Or maybe don’t think about it and just enjoy it!

[ The author of the article also wrote a book called Astral Weeks: A Secret History of 1968. I’ve read that book, and it’s a fascinating look at several wild events (some music-related, some not) that happened in and around Boston back in ’68. Well worth checking out.]

Creativity is Child’s Play

The Broken Record podcast is a treasure trove for music geeks like me. But even if you’re not music-obsessed, you’ll probably enjoy it. The most recent episode features Amanda Shires, talking about her new Christmas album.

Something Amanda said about the writing process really rang true for me – check out this 45-second clip:

Write a little bit every day.

Read good books and poems to inspire you.

Be open to the muse.

Look for the magic in the mundane.

Stay your spontaneous “silly self.”

Our ability to write, to paint, to sculpt, to act, to dance, to create in all its forms, has been with us since we were kids. As we grow up, most of us bury it, or ignore it, or let it die of neglect. Because we’re scared of what others might think of it… of being judged.

But deep down, you know — and I know — that your “silly self” doesn’t give a damn about what others think. It’s just having fun.

Now get out there and rock on!

Best New Artist

Surely you remember my good friend Dale Doyle? (OK, maybe you don’t… and I should stop calling you “Shirley.”) Dale and I worked together at an design agency for many years, and remain concert buddies. Three years ago, Dale was “downsized” by that agency — the place where he spent 23 years of his career. I wrote about that here, and a year later, I wrote about how Dale was killing the game at Holotype, the agency he co-founded. (He still is killin’ it, btw.)

Yesterday, this happened:

The album, Serpentine Prison, is from another Cincinnati kid, Matt Berninger, who also is the lead singer of The National.

I’m thrilled for Dale, not only because he’s a great guy and an amazing artist, but also because he loves music so much. A Grammy nomination is like a perfect storm of elation.

With Turkey Day just around the corner, I am thankful that I got to work alongside Dale and other super-talented artists like Keith Neltner, Tommy Sheehan and John Ham (to name but a few). A lot of their art is tied to commerce, and sometimes art snobs can look down their noses at that. But their work is as good as anything in the Louvre.

Why yes, I do have the album, signed by the Grammy-nominated artist…

Going viral for good

The interwebs can be a cesspool. Facebook has prioritized profits over patrolling perfidy, so news feeds polarize and even radicalize. The dark web offers easier access to a virtual “endless shelf” of vices. And that boring friend of yours expects you to read his lame blog posts (guilty as charged).

But every once in a while, there’s a glimmer of hope in the sea of sewage. Sometimes two glimmers.

Glimmer #1

A 16-year-old girl from North Carolina who was missing for days was rescued from “unlawful imprisonment” in a car driven by a 61-year-old man. The car was pulled over by police in Kentucky because someone in the car behind had recognized the girl’s hand gestures as a signal that she needed help, and called 911. The 16-year-old who used the hand signal and the person in the other car who recognized the gesture had both learned it from… of all places… TikTok.

The hand gestures used by the teen have been popularized on TikTok and “represent violence at home – I need help – domestic violence,” the sheriff’s office said. A witness in a car driving behind Brick’s Toyota called 911 upon recognizing the hand signals and told dispatchers the teen appeared to be in “distress.” 

from this article on Cincinnati.com

You can read more here. And you can learn the “violence at home – send help” hand signal, created by the Canadian Women’s Foundation, here:

Glimmer #2

For a glimmer that’s a bit lighter, please welcome The Mountain Goats to the stage.

They too went viral on TikTok, when a short snippet of one of their songs, “No Children” — which was released nearly 20 years ago — was used in dozens of videos on the platform.

In most of the viral videos made with the song as soundtrack, users do a brief bit of choreography that illustrates the divorcing couple in the song drowning. Or, in many cases, they use their cats to simulate the narrator sinking into the ocean. Something about the sheer, extreme bitterness of the sentiments therein has grabbed younger generations who are clinging to its only partially tongue-in-cheek anger and despair as if it were their own.

from this article in Variety

This Variety interview with Mountain Goats lead singer John Darnielle is great, because he appreciates the serendipity of it all.

“No Children” had just been sitting there since 2002. When I say it’s just been sitting there… it’s been one of our most popular songs in our catalog. But the Mountain Goats are, I always say, sort of a boutique concern. We’re not for everybody. My voice can be a deal breaker. We’re never reaching for the brass ring. We made literary rock. [Laughs.] But when people do find it, it affirms for those of us who make indie music that when the broader public is exposed to it, there’s more people who would like it if they get a chance to hear it. The consolidation of radio and the diffuse nature of the media landscape means that there’s lots of good stuff that people don’t generally hear unless it gets a viral moment.

Mountain Goats lead singer/songwriter John Darnielle in the Variety interview linked above.

I love the Mountain Goats (so does Stephen Colbert…check out the clip at the end of this post). I also love it when the interwebs goes viral in a good way.

That’s what’s fun about this: nobody on my side tried to do this at all. Because the internet could be fun. We know it’s kind of a train wreck because of algorithmic recommendations and a number of other things that have made it pretty problematic, but the fun of something like this is really when listeners show you that they’re engaged, that they have another way of listening, and will tell you what your song did for them, even if it’s a 15-second piece of the song. That’s fun and cool. 

John Darnielle, in the Variety interview
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