Richard Shindell at Club Helsinki
by Seth Rogovoy
(GREAT BARRINGTON, Mass., October 27, 2002) – You would be hard put to find a better contemporary folk songwriter than Richard Shindell. A master craftsman with more than a touch of the poet, he pairs haunting, dramatic narratives to yearning, infectious melodies that sound both timeless and fresh.
Shindell kicked off his show at Club Helsinki on Saturday night with “Arrowhead,” an epistolary song from a son gone off to war to a mother he left behind. Its persistent rhythm, built on Shindell’s expert acoustic guitar strumming, with drone notes and occasional accents, built a head of steam that matched the story’s slow build to panic in its portrait of a wide-eyed innocent coming face-to-face with the reality of battle. One had the feeling Shindell chose it to open his set not only because it’s one of his best songs, but perhaps in honor of the day’s various rallies protesting against the march to war against Iraq.
Shindell also played “Fishing,” whose narrative strategy reveals a tired, sadistic immigration officer toying with an illegal immigrant. Actually, one was struck by the disparity between the fervor of the officer in the song and what we have come to understand to be the relative lack of enthusiasm immigration officers bring to their jobs in the real world as of late.
Shindell recapitulated the “trucker trilogy” of songs heard on his recent live album, “Courier,” featuring back-to-back versions of his own “Next Best Western” and “Kenworth of My Dreams” and Lowell George’s “Willin’.” Shindell has a way of finding existentialist despair tinged with spiritual angst in the loneliness of the long-distance truck driver, making him the Walker Percy of new-folk singer-songwriters.
Shindell also debuted several new songs that showed he hasn’t lost a step in the songwriting department. “The Island” was a vivid portrait of the First World colliding with the Third World at an island resort where everything is pre-planned and packaged for the tourists, while the islanders are left to suffer the fate of beach erosion at the hands of an unforgiving ocean lapping at their shores. “State of the Union” was a portrayal of urban junkie blues, while “The Last Fare of the Day” found a taxi driver in the role of shepherd bringing home from the hospital a couple with a newborn baby whose name is either Hope or Grace.
Because Shindell is such a wonderfully literate writer and melodicist, it came as something of a disappointment that he is not a better performer. While he was engaging enough, there was a slight grudging quality to his performance, felt as soon as he plunked himself down in a low chair on the stage where he remained for the rest of the evening. It’s long well-established that the energy level of any performance is heightened simply when a singer performs standing up; unless Shindell had some physical reason to sit, his choice bespoke a certain laziness and indifference to his audience.
So too did the pacing of his set, which had few peaks and valleys, but rather was just a series of one ballad after another. As good as Shindell’s songs are, they don’t naturally boast a lot of variety, rhythmic, harmonic or otherwise, and over a period of time the sound of a Shindell concert is monochromatic and monotonous, one yearning, sincere ballad after another. This isn’t something he couldn’t easily overcome with a little more attention paid to song choices – even the couple of songs by other writers he sang sounded very similar to his own material.
So the greatest songwriter in contemporary folk isn’t in the top 10 of the most entertaining singer-songwriters in contemporary folk. That gives the rest of them room for improvement, just as it does Shindell. If he ever decides to work on his stage show, he could be unstoppable. In the meantime, he’s a terrific Richard Shindell jukebox, and the sold-out crowd loved him for it.
[This review originally appeared in the Berkshire Eagle on October 29, 2002. Copyright Seth Rogovoy 2002. All rights reserved.]
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