Graham Parker proves it all night

Graham Parker proves it all night (Club Helsinki, 10/20/01)

by Seth Rogovoy

(GREAT BARRINGTON, Mass., October 21, 2001) – After opening his show on Saturday night at Club Helsinki with a few of his early hits, Graham Parker introduced the first of several new songs he would play over the course of the evening by saying in a mocking, good-natured manner, “I’m a current artiste – not just a hack from the Seventies.”

While many of the fans who packed the club to see Parker surely came to hear some of their favorite Parker songs from the late-1970s and early-‘80s, when Parker first burst on the scene as part the English New Wave invasion, Parker had nothing to prove. He has indeed continued over the course of the last two decades to put out new recordings of consistently high quality, and his latest, Deepcut to Nowhere, stands shoulder-to-shoulder with classics like Heat Treatment and Squeezing Out Sparks.

But prove he did that Graham Parker is still a vital writer and performing artist. In fact, Parker showed that a quarter-century on, he is still a committed performer, not resting on any laurels but earning his keep with a body of new songs and passionate versions of old favorites.

Backed splendidly by the Figgs, the Saratoga-based power-pop trio, Parker plowed through plenty of old favorites and new songs that are welcome additions to his portfolio of bitter-tinged, soulful rock songs. The stripped-down arrangements emphasized Parker’s vocals, which were surprisingly smooth and less gruff and raspy than they tend to be on record. They also highlighted the built-in riffs and hooks that Parker, a master craftsman of pop songs, plants in his tunes, devices that contrast and comment upon his strong melodies.

The small, lanky Parker kicked off his set with “Fool’s Gold,” an early, gritty bit of soul that set the tone for the evening. He then pulled out “That’s What They All Say,” one of his lesser-known but best putdown songs – a genre he specializes in. The folk-rock arrangement, replete with mouth harp on a wire rack around his neck, seemingly nodded to the song that launched this entire genre – Bob Dylan’s “Positively Fourth Street” – and Parker returned to songs of this ilk throughout the evening.

While Parker’s songs have a clear, Graham Parker-quality to them, his sources are broad and he is a versatile writer. He dug into his bag of reggae-laced rock for “Devil’s Sidewalk,” “Get Started, Start a Fire” and “You Hit the Spot.” The r&b-laced rock crunch of “Local Girls” and “Soul Shoes” owed a bit of inspiration to the Rolling Stones, and the catchy hooks and wordplay of “Discovering Japan” recalled his fellow New Waver Elvis Costello.

Parker is often and incorrectly referred to as an original punk rocker. Although he burst on the scene around the same time as punk groups like the Sex Pistols and the Clash, he was always more of a roots-oriented craftsman than the bands that built their sound on garage-rock.

What Parker shared with the punks, however, was brash attitude. His specialty was an all-encompassing misanthropy which was so inclusive it almost made up for the misogyny of songs like “You Can’t Be Too Strong,” a thinly-veiled anti-abortion song, and “Tough on Clothes,” in which the singer complains that he has to get a job to support his girlfriend’s penchant for shopping.

One suspects – one at least hopes – that Parker has his tongue in his cheek on these songs and others. His pleasant, somewhat self-deprecating manner certainly suggests it. And if he evidenced a lack of humor, he made up for it with a loyal and sincere tribute to Joey Ramone with a set-closing version of the Ramones’ hit, “Sheena Is a Punk Rocker.”

Parker has such a deep, rich back catalog of hits that he barely seemed to skim the surface. One could easily have come up with an entirely different set list of chestnuts from his first four albums. Perhaps he’ll return soon and play all the songs that fans requested but that he wasn’t able to get around to playing.

[This review originally appeared in the Berkshire Eagle on October 23, 2001. Copyright Seth Rogovoy 2001. All rights reserved.]

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