Bob Franke’s unassuming folk
by Seth Rogovoy

(PITTSFIELD, Mass., January 5, 2003) – For nearly three decades, Bob Franke has been a fixture on the folk coffeehouse scene, especially in New England. A native of Detroit who has long called eastern Massachusetts home, Franke writes his own songs and accompanies himself on acoustic guitar.

He is a modest and unassuming performer, as he demonstrated on Saturday night in a low-key show at the Common Grounds Coffeehouse, located at the First United Methodist Church. Bearing a slight resemblance to Harry Dean Stanton, Franke performed two sets of his original compositions spiced with a few songs by other writers.

Franke’s material ranges from personal, confessional lyrics, often tinged with sparks of faith one might expect from a former seminarian, to story songs, topical number and novelties. He kicked off his program with a ballad about a former racing greyhound, and followed with another ballad about a hotel kitchen worker who falls in love with the owner’s daughter. It could have been an old English ballad about class struggle and class distinctions in its style and structure, except for the anomalous mention of “Hollywood.”

He introduced “Love Bravely, Elizabeth” with a funny story about his daughter turning 21. Another funny story, about playing an old Polish bar turned hipster joint in his hometown of Hamtramck, Mich., preceded the novelty number, “Acid Polka,” in which the patrons “started making necklaces out of kielbasa” and “the Polecats from Chicago sounded like they were from Lhasa.” Some trip. “Go Heal Somewhere Else” was an amusing parody of New Age lingo and attitudes – “I’d like to feel your pain (not) ‘cause I'm reeling with my own/I don’t want to spoil your rhythm when you say you’re in the zone.”

Franke was more serious on “Hard Love,” a song that became a central plot point in a young adult novel of the same name. And “Still Small Voice” was one of his more pointed political numbers, referencing the Rev. Martin Luther King II.

Franke also paid tribute to a few fellow songwriters, including the late Dave Carter with a version of his country ballad “Cowboy Singer,” in which Carter portrayed heaven as a place where the Martin guitars beloved of folksingers are a lot less expensive than here on earth. He brought out his vintage, late-1920s model National Steel Guitar to perform a bluesy rendition of Al Green’s “Take Me to the River,” which also showcased his considerable instrumental chops that went mostly unused over the course of the evening.

While Franke was a genial frontman, there was something off-putting in his manner. He’s been performing since 1965, when as a student at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor he was one of the first to inaugurate that town’s legendary Ark Coffeehouse, so it’s hard to imagine that it was nervousness, although that’s how it came across.

Franke also suffers from a lack of affect in his performance. His voice is bold and clear and pleasant enough, but it lacks color and distinction. Even when he was singing “This Blank Page,” a song of bitterness and rage, the best he could do to vary his tone was to sing a little louder. But even on novelty numbers like “Go Heal Somewhere Else,” he was so deadpan it might have been easy to mistake the song for a serious one if a listener hadn’t been paying close attention the lyrics.

A word about the venue: the Common Grounds Coffeehouse could well be the quintessential church basement coffeehouse, except it’s not located in a basement – it’s in a lovely, warm social hall – and it was run much better than your average coffeehouse. The audience sits at tables and has access to a menu of fresh-baked goods including cheesecakes, tarts and pies as well as flavored coffees and teas. The sound and sight lines were terrific, and the atmosphere was friendly and especially supportive of those who prefer their music-going experience to be alcohol-free.

[This review originally appeared in the Berkshire Eagle on January 7, 2003. Copyright Seth Rogovoy 2003. All rights reserved.]

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