10/19/01: Graham Parker's return to form

Graham Parker

by Seth Rogovoy

(GREAT BARRINGTON, Mass., October 17, 2001) – Graham Parker’s latest album, “Deepcut to Nowhere” (Razor & Tie), kicks off downright prophetically with “Dark Days,” in which knives are brandished, India and Pakistan are on the brink of war, and the planet itself is threatening suicide.

It’s vintage Parker, who has been singing about the pain of romance and politics since the late-‘70s when he burst on the scene as a soul-rocker lumped in with English pub-rockers like Nick Lowe and punk-rockers like Elvis Costello.

Although Parker never quite garnered the sort of mainstream success to match the critical acclaim he received, with comparisons to Van Morrison and Bruce Springsteen aplenty, he churned out a steady stream of soulful rock music, including such college-radio favorites as “Heat Treatment,” “Stick to Me,” “Fool’s Gold” and “Hold Back the Night.”

His greatest hits also include one of the classic kiss-off songs to a record label, “Mercury Poisoning,” and a raved-up version of the Jackson 5 hit “I Want You Back.”

Parker, who makes his debut at Club Helsinki (528-3394) in Great Barrington on Saturday night at 9, has followed in the path of fellow English rocker Ray Davies in recent years, mellowing a bit, writing books (“Carp Fishing on Valium”) and mixing musical appearances with literary readings and concept shows.

“Deepcut to Nowhere” is a return to form for Parker, who has called Woodstock, N.Y., home for the last decade or so. Chock full of angry if self-aware tunes like “I’ll Never Play Jacksonville Again,” a knowing bit of invective about the indignities of being an aging rock star, and “It Takes a Village Idiot,” a vintage-style soul-rock ballad.

One of the biggest musical surprises of the past year has been the newfound popularity of bluegrass and traditional American roots music, spurred on mostly by the Coen Brothers-produced “O Brother, Where Art Thou?,” the unlikeliest hit soundtrack in years.

As a result, American roots artists like Doc Watson and Norman Blake suddenly find themselves in hot demand. The Clark Art Institute in Williamstown was quick to jump on the bandwagon and has scheduled an entire fall and winter series based on this new interest.

The “American Roots: Traditional Music from the Rural South” series kicks off at the Clark on Friday night at 8 (458-2303, x. 324) with a concert by Doc Watson, the legendary singer and guitarist who virtually invented the art of playing mountain fiddle tunes on the flattop guitar.

The 78-year-old blind musician was born into a musical family, and from a young age showed promise and skill. It wasn’t until the 1960s, however, that Watson, who also plays harmonica and banjo, was discovered by a national audience as part of the great folk revival. It didn’t take long, however, for Watson’s unique blend of Appalachian roots music with bluegrass, country, gospel, old-time, folk, jazz and blues to be heard at colleges, festivals and in concert halls including Carnegie Hall.

These days, Watson is considered one of the three most influential country-roots guitarists, the others being Chet Atkins and Merle Travis. People like Ricky Skaggs, Vince Gill and Emmylou Harris have long credited him as a key influence, and he is also a kind of godfather of the new-acoustic movement personified by the likes of David Grisman, Tony Rice and Norman Blake.

Next up in the Clark’s “American Roots” series is Norman Blake on November 3.

For the past decade or so, the Pioneer Valley-based folk-rock quintet the Nields gave the pursuit of national acclaim its best shot. The group put out albums on several major and independent labels, including Guardian/EMI, garnering critical acclaim and a loyal fan base, and toured relentlessly.

About a year ago, however, the members of the group reassessed their direction and decided to call a halt to their pursuit of the elusive goal of national recognition. Several members were feeling the tug of their day jobs, and others were beginning families.

The quintet still occasionally gets together for full-band shows, especially in the region and during the summer. But for the most part, the Nields are now stripped down to their essence as a sister act featuring Nerissa and Katryna Nields, who will be performing on Saturday night at the Berkshire Museum (443-7171 x. 10) in Pittsfield at 8 as part of the “Originals in Song” series.

Berkshire musicians have been quick to respond to local and national events, using their platform to help raise money for a variety of causes. This weekend affords audiences two chances to catch all-star lineups of Berkshire artists while helping to raise money for worthy causes.

On Saturday night, a group of musicians including Robby Baier, Meg Hutchinson, Adam Michael Rothberg, Bobby Sweet, Eric Underwood, Matt Sloan, JoAnne Redding and Fran Mandeville join forces to raise funds for Rett Syndrome research at the Guthrie Center in Great Barrington beginning at 6.

Then on Sunday, another all-star team, including the Dooley Austin Band, Reverend Tor Band and Friends, Robby Baier, Tamboura, Meg Hutchinson, Suitcase, Adam Michael Rothberg and others play a day-long jam at Bucksteep Manor in Washington (623-5535), scheduled from 1 to 11, to benefit the American Red Cross’s September 11 Relief Fund.

[This column originally appeared in the Berkshire Eagle on October 19, 2001. Copyright Seth Rogovoy 2001. All rights reserved.]

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