Cliff Eberhardt's bittersweet sounds
by Seth Rogovoy
(PITTSFIELD, Mass., January 2, 2003) – Singer-songwriter Cliff Eberhardt closed his first of two sets at the Common Grounds Coffee House at the First United Methodist Church on Saturday night with a song called “Merry-Go-Sorry.” Eberhardt explained that the title comes from an archaic expression meaning laughing and crying at the same time, an emotional state to which he relates deeply and which he said could well be the theme of all of his music – and perhaps his life.
That combination of laughing and crying, encapsulated in the word “bittersweet,” is not unique to Eberhardt, but few contemporary singer-songwriters mine that vein so relentlessly and with as much success as Eberhardt. He specializes in ballads of heartbreak and emotional devastation that lay out the bitterness for all to see. The sweetness, however, comes in the strong, clear melodies, which resonated with the influence of the greatest ballad writers from Irving Berlin through Harold Arlen, the Gershwins, Paul McCartney and Billy Joel.
What Eberhardt added to the mixture was his rootsy guitar playing that drew deeply from the blues but avoided tired, overused blues cliches – he uses the vocabulary of the blues, but dispenses with the form, relying instead on classic-pop and folk song structure. His pleading, organic vocals and his poetic sense of detail, offered just enough personal revelation, but not so much as to fall into the trap of solipsism that undermines so many of his ilk.
Thus, with its vivid sense of place, “Merry-Go-Sorry” could have been an autobiographical tune about Eberhardt’s finding a home in the rural Pioneer Valley, not far from where his ancestors first docked on these shores when they came off the Mayflower. But the details didn’t matter; the song spoke to anyone in the sold-out crowd who had moved from place to place and spent any amount of time on the road and then found the right place in which to settle down, warts and all, for the long haul.
The emotional long haul was also the subject of several of Eberhardt’s songs that talked about the bitter taste that still lingers on long after a relationship has imploded. The ballad “Memphis,” one of two that he played on piano, spoke of finally achieving a goal long hoped for, only to be unable to enjoy it for the haunting presence of an absent lover.
If it sounds depressing, it was, but Eberhardt leavened the melancholy with his generous, witty, between-song banter. In spite of some problems with the sound engineering – the guitar lacked richness and sustain and his vocals occasionally overwhelmed the mix -- the sheer beauty of his melodies and the virtuosity of his playing on guitar and Dobro also served to contrast the prevailing downcast mood of his material.
[This column originally appeared in the Berkshire Eagle on January 4, 2003. Copyright Seth Rogovoy 2003. All rights reserved.]
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