Saturday, September 27, 2008

Peter Mulvey in Madison Square Park

Today in New York, San Francisco's fog was in town. There was a grey cloud covering Manhattan for nearly the entire day. Normally, I can see the Empire State Building from my bedroom window; this morning, I looked out and did a double-take because it wasn't there. But then I realized that the airborne moisture was to blame.

I stepped out into this misty atmosphere and made my way to Madison Square Park for the penultimate Mad. Sq. Music concert of the season. The Madison Square Conservancy distributed a number of WFUV ponchos to the concert attendees and showed no intention to not let the music go on. And the rain stayed mostly away. There was a light misting now and then but nothing that had anyone considering leaving.

Peter Mulvey is an artist that I have not seen enough of in my life. I remember him from some of my first Falcon Ridge Folk Festivals in the early-to-mid-1990s, where he took the stage to play a song with four capos on guitar called "Four Capos on My Guitar" (or something like that), and he also came out at the very end of a festival to sing "Sunday, Bloody Sunday" one year. (The multiple capos thing has now become the signature domain of Randall Williams, who I encountered for the first time at this year's Falcon Ridge. And frankly, the "Sunday, Bloody Sunday" memory might be wrong, so I'd love it if someone could confirm it.) I also have a memory of saying hello to Peter at some downtown club -- the old Living Room perhaps? -- in 1999 or 2000, telling him that I booked the Postcrypt, having him say, "I need to play that place again!" and then having nothing come of it.

Mostly, however, Peter Mulvey, for me, is his 1995 CD Rapture. That disc was his major label debut, and it was one that I fell in love with in high school and knew intimately. Featuring lots of different open tunings on the guitar and a deep and husky voice, this was a CD that spoke to me. The opening four songs -- "Rapture," "On the Way Up," "Questiom Mark" and "Smell the Future" -- are a rat-a-tat-tat of solid songwriting and engaging performance. Also notable is his cover of The Waterboys' "The Whole of the Moon," which appears twice on the album -- first in a studio version and then in a version recorded live in the Boston T.

"Smell the Future" is the stand-out track from that album, and I often find myself thinking of its evocative and aggressive portrayal of the 1992 L.A. riots:

Lying face down in the street, they beat the sh*t out of him --
His face was such a sight.
Lying to us blatantly, they handed down not guilty;
I say that's not right.
Lying on my mother's couch, screaming at the television,
Watching L.A. burn into the night:
That night we smelled the future
We smelled the future.
Do you smell the future?
Well, it smells like gasoline.

Peter was fresh back from his No Gasoline Tour, where he traveled from gig-to-gig for 10 days on a recumbent bicycle. He spoke several times about the tour, saying that next year he's going to rename it the "Up Yours, Big Oil Tour" and also referring to it as "the most incredibly stupid thing I've ever thought of -- burning your body to go 100 miles!" And later, "I learned a lot this summer. I learned you should never mess with a male redwing blackbird when he is feeling territorial, and I learned that dogs are nicer and better behaved in Wisconsin than they are in West Virginia."

The set opened up with "The Knuckleball Suite," which is not a rocking song, but the strum of Peter's guitar was powerful (and also complex as the overtones kicked in), and his resonant voice carried throughout the park. After a somewhat lackluster opening set by the husband-and-wife duo Hungrytown, my ears perked up, and I said, "Yes! This is what I'm here for!"

The second song was a new one, called "Some People." It's allegedly going to be the only original on a forthcoming CD of jazz standards that Peter will record this winter. Let me do my best to capture a topical verse about Larry Craig:

Some people go to the synagogue;
Some people go to the church.
Some senators go into the men's room,
And end up with their reputations besmirched.

At the end of the third song, "Let the Mermaids Flirt with Me," a car horn sounded on 23rd Street (right behind the stage), and Peter said, "Wow! I love this town! That was a major third above the final note." He later referred to New York's propensity for "John Cage moments."

He then played "Old Simon Stimson" and his terrific song for jazz bassist Charlie Haden, "Charlie," which he prefaced with a great story about Charlie Haden and Ornette Coleman playing free jazz at The Blue Note, and Haden playing with his eyes closed, partly out of fear for the way that the crowd was reacting to the music. When he opened his eyes, there was a man with his ear right up against his bass! That man was Leonard Bernstein.

He introduced "The Dream," a song from my beloved Rapture CD inspired by the Boston T, by saying, "When you get a liberal arts degree in theatre, it's in your contract that you have to become a subway performer." A great cover of Mose Allison's anti-war song "Everybody's Cryin' Mercy," which Mulvey had worked out in a hotel room in Pennsylvania a few days earlier, followed. He described it as a "surprisingly relevant song."

"If Love is Not Enough" was again from Rapture and remains classic Mulvey. The capo covers five strings on the guitar, and the sixth string is tuned down to provide this pounding bass throughout the song -- a great sound. A new song called "Kids in the Square" (written with Timothy Geering of Somerville, Massachusetts) followed. Then came "Tender Blindspot" and the Duke Ellington song "I'm Beginning to See the Light." He closed the set with "Mailman" and "Faraway from Home."

A lot of the songs that Peter played in the set can be found on his most recent CD, Notes from Elsewhere, where he has stripped them all down to be (mostly) just him and an acoustic guitar.

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