Peter Mulvey’s underground folk
by Seth Rogovoy
(PITTSFIELD, Mass., February 23, 2003) – 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, coffeehouses and concert clubs.
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 (“Oliver’s Army”), Bob Dylan (“Mama, You Been on My Mind”), the Beatles (“For No One”), Randy Newman (“In Germany Before the Way”) and Marvin Gaye (“Inner City Blues”).
“I’ve always gone back,” said Mulvey in a recent phone interview, 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,” said Mulvey, who in hindsight, won the very appropriate Boston Acoustic Underground competition in 1994. “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.”
Mulvey, who with fellow guitarist David Goodrich is a resident teacher at the Acoustic Music Workshops at Shaker Meadows in New Lebanon, N.Y., this weekend, performs on Friday at 8 at the Berkshire Museum, in a concert co-presented by Webnash Productions. Housatonic folksinger Rick Robbins will warm up the crowd with his new group, the Bound for Glory Players, featuring Rick Tiven on mandolin and fiddle and Steve Ide on guitar.
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 hang-ups,” 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.”
By necessity, all but one of the songs on “Ten Thousand Mornings” clock in at less than four minutes – generally the largest window of time between trains on the Red Line of the Boston subway system.
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 – including songs by
Mark Knopfler, Hoagy Carmichael, Radiohead, Billy Bragg, Woody Guthrie, Sinead O’Connor, Talking Heads, U2, Joni Mitchell, Gram Parsons, Peter Gabriel, Mose Allison, Leonard Cohen, Townes Van Zandt, Steve Earle and Thelonious Monk -- 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 from people tossing us coins and bills, which somewhat defrayed the cost of the recording,” said Mulvey.
In addition to his work as a singer-songwriter, Mulvey has also written and performed music for theatre and modern dance (Sam Shepard’s “A Lie of the Mind,” Amiri Baraka’s “Primitive World,” and for The Wild Space Dance Company), penned articles for national magazines (Acoustic Guitar, Performing Songwriter, The Writer), done voice-over work for various documentaries, and has had his songs placed in both film and TV (the Warner Brother’s drama “Felicity,” independent films “Origin of the Species” and “The Fisherman,” and the PBS documentary “Wisconsin: An American Portrait”).
For tickets to Peter Mulvey at the Berkshire Museum, call 413-443-7171, x. 10.
[This article originally appeared in the Berkshire Eagle on February 27, 2003. Copyright Seth Rogovoy 2003. All rights reserved.]
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