Fall Folk Preview: Peter Mulvey takes it back to the subways
by Seth Rogovoy
(BOSTON, Mass., September 12, 2002) -- For most singer-songwriters, the subway is the place where you start out playing, hopefully never to return on your way up to fortune and fame – or at least to gigs above ground in cafes and coffeehouses. So it’s all the more puzzling that for his sixth CD, Peter Mulvey went back underground – specifically to the Davis Square T-stop in Somerville – to record Ten Thousand Mornings (Signature Sounds), a different sort of live album featuring the ambiance of the Red Line -- including loudspeaker announcements and the sound of trains pulling in and out of the station between versions of songs by the likes of Elvis Costello, Bob Dylan, the Beatles, Randy Newman and Marvin Gaye.
“I’ve always gone back,” says Mulvey, trying to explain this odd career move for a new-folk singer-songwriter with a record contract, a manager, a publicist and a booking agent who gets him legitimate paying gigs across the country. “Playing in the T reminds me of what I love about singing -- the stripped-down situation devoid of lights, cover charge, the presumption that they’ll respond. You get very honest responses down there -- even people telling you to go away. But when you get applause down there, it’s because you’ve really moved them.”
Dragging his Roland VS-890, a digital recording studio that fits into a small, rolling suitcase, into the Davis Square T-stop whenever his tour schedule brought him to Boston between June 2001 and March 2002 also gave Mulvey the excuse to play his favorite songs by songwriters who aren’t Peter Mulvey.
“It’s easy to play covers because they don’t come with your own hangups,” said Mulvey, who when he’s not touring or busking in Somerville calls Milwaukee home. “You should approach all songs as if they’re outside of you. Putting my own songs up against these songs is good, it’s challenging. It’s certainly raised the bar for my next record.”
Playing in Somerville also gave Mulvey, who used to live around the corner from Davis Square, the chance to catch up with old musician friends who still live in the area. Several stopped by to play with him on the album, including singers Erin McKeown and Jennifer Kimball, guitarist David Goodrich, mandolinist Sean Staples, and blues singer Chris Smither, whose trademark shoe-tapping propels Mulvey’s version of Paul Simon’s “Stranded in a Limousine.”
Ten Thousand Mornings features 10 songs – including Gillian Welch’s “Caleb Meyer” and Los Lobos’s “Two Janes” – selected from over 80 that Mulvey recorded down below. Many of the others are available as free downloadable MP3s from his website, www.petermulvey.com.
Taking the recording sessions to the subway also had another unintended fringe benefit. “We made a few hundred dollars, which somewhat defrayed the cost of the recording,” said Mulvey, who celebrates the release of his new album at the Somerville Theater on October 5 (call 617-628-3390). Mulvey will be joined for the occasion by the Davis Square T-Stop All Stars, including McKeown, Kimball, Goodrich, Staples, Kris Delmhorst and Anita Suhanin.
Once again close to 100 musicians, including singer-songwriter Patty Larkin, Australian folk-rock trio The Waifs, singer-comedienne Cheryl Wheeler, Americana folk-rocker Mark Erelli, country-folker Nanci Griffith, English folk-rocker Richard Thompson, Arkansas country-folksinger Iris DeMent, labor balladeer Utah Phillips, folk balladeer Bill Staines, Cajun band Barachois, zydeco singer C.J. Chenier, bluegrass outfit Southern Rail, and Boston string band Rust Farm will perform on five stages over the course of the two-day Boston Folk Festival produced by folk radio station WUMB 91.9 FM on the campus of UMass-Boston (call 617-287-6911) on September 21-22. The festival will also showcase up-and-coming singer-songwriters including Rachael Davis, Mindy Jostyn, Frank Morey, Tanya Savory and Alastair Moock, whose terrific new CD, A Life I Never Had (Bad Moock Rising), features his Dylanesque vocals on 10 originals and covers of Jimmie Rodgers, Woody Guthrie and John Prine.
“Difficult men are the ones who don’t think they’re difficult,” said Christine Lavin recently, explaining the logic behind the title track to her upcoming album, I Was in Love with a Difficult Man (Redwing). On the new album -- which includes guest vocals by Suzzy Roche, Heather Eatman and Levon Helm’s daughter Amy -- Lavin turns her satirical pen toward aging, wind chimes, and strangers who feel comfortable striking up conversations with her. She also gets serious about 9/11 on the ballad “Firehouse.” Julie “From a Distance” Gold – like Lavin a co-founder and emeritus member of the Four Bitchin’ Babes – also lends vocal support. Gold joins Lavin at her CD release concert on October 12 at Sanders Theatre in Cambridge (call 617-661-1252).
Ani DiFranco’s new, two-disk live album, So Much Shouting, So Much Laughter (Righteous Babe), which comes out next Tuesday, documents DiFranco’s recent efforts as the James Brown of phat-pholk, performing her funky folk songs fleshed out by an eight-piece band including keyboards and a four-piece horn section. The album includes three previously unrecorded songs, including “Self Evident,” written in the aftermath of 9/11 and which refers to President Bush’s subsequent war efforts as “some prep school punk’s plan to perpetuate retribution.” When DiFranco performs at Avalon (call 617-661-1252) on November 2, however, she’ll be all alone on stage. But as anyone who has seen her knows, even solo DiFranco rocks.
What more could a gruff-voiced guy ask for than for his songs to be recorded by the sweet-voiced likes of Iris Dement, Shawn Colvin, Victoria Williams, Mary Chapin Carpenter, Lucy Kaplansky, Lucinda Williams, Ani DiFranco, Ferron and Gillian Welch? Going Driftless: An Artist’s Tribute to Greg Brown (Red House), featuring over a dozen female singers performing their favorite numbers by Greg Brown, is due out next Tuesday. Proceeds from the album will benefit The Breast Cancer Fund of San Francisco, in memory of Widdie Hall, founder of the legendary Peterborough, N.H., coffeehouse, The Folkway. The dark, dour Iowan himself comes to town on November 16, when he performs at the Somerville Theatre (call 978-369-4127) on a bill also including Canadian folksinger Garnet Rogers.
On Ellis Paul’s The Speed of Trees (Philo), his first new studio album in four years,
due out next Tuesday, producer Duke Levine surrounds Paul’s earnest, pinched soprano with guitars, mandolins, sitars and keyboards – many played by Levine himself -- and harmonies contributed by Lucy Kaplansky, Jennifer Kimball and Dennis Brennan, among others. If you can’t wait until his official CD release concert at the Somerville Theatre (call 617-628-3390) on November 23, you can catch the ubiquitous Paul at Northampton’s Iron Horse (1-800-THE-TICK) on September 20, at the Boston Folk Festival (617-287-6911) on September 22, and at Club Passim (617-492-7679) on December 30-31.
Former Boston restaurateur Mary Gauthier has been garnering well-deserved comparisons to Lucinda Williams and Steve Earle for her terrific new, Gurf Morlix-produced CD, Filth and Fire (Signature Sounds), chock full of dark narratives of sin and redemption. Gauthier’s album was recorded in Austin, Texas, the former stomping grounds of Texas outlaw Guy Clark, whose new album, The Dark (Sugar Hill) includes the immortal phrase, “She was a pre-Madonna primadonna part-time Southern belle.” Catch Clark and Gauthier together at the Regent Theater in Arlington (617-661-1252) on October 11. Clark is also at the Boston Folk Festival on September 21.
Husband and wife singer-songwriters Victoria Williams and Mark Olson perform songs from their new albums – hers, Sings Some ‘Ol Songs (Dualtone), featuring standards like “My Funny Valetine” and “Moon River,” his, December’s Child (Dualtone), a reunion with Gary Louris from the Jayhawks – on September 28 at the Middle East Up (617-497-0576) and September 29 at the Iron Horse in Northampton (1-800-THE-TICK). The Laura Love Duo is at the Regent Theater in Arlington (617-661-1252) on October 5. Singer-songwriters Susan Werner and Deb Talan are at the Somerville Theatre (617-628-3390) on October 19. David Wilcox and Beth Nielsen Chapman will perform separate sets and harmonize on a double-bill at the Somerville Theater (617-661-1252) on November 1. Vance Gilbert celebrates the release of his new album, One Thru Fourteen (Louisiana Red Hot) at the Regent in Arlington (617-492-5300) on November 2. Erin McKeown warms up the crowd for Dan Bern at the Regent Theater in Arlington (617-661-1252) on November 15. Women’s music pioneer Holly Near, whose landmark live album with Ronnie Gilbert, Lifeline, has recently been re-released in a remastered, two-CD version called Lifeline Extended (Appleseed), performs with Cris Williamson at Sanders Theater in Cambridge (617-661-1252) on November 16.
[This article originally appeared in the Boston Phoenix on September 13, 2002. Copyright Seth Rogovoy 2002. All rights reserved.]
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