Mallett's New England-style folk
by Seth Rogovoy
(GREAT BARRINGTON, April 11, 2003) – In the manner in which he personifies old-fashioned Yankee values, David Mallett could well be the quintessential, New England folk singer-songwriter. At the very least, he is a key transitional figure between singers who performed traditional folk music and those who write confessional, first-person based ballads.
There is a paradox at the heart of Mallett’s art, and it provided much of the tension that made his show at Club Helsinki on Thursday night somewhat gripping. The craggy-faced, graying Maine native brought an old-fashioned stoicism and taciturnity one typically associates with his state’s lobstermen and lumberjacks – not exactly qualities you look for in a folksinger or a performer of any kind.
But there was something rather refreshing in Mallett’s lack of polished stagecraft, in his unwillingness or inability to establish a rapport with his audience by telling stories or cracking jokes – the typical tools most commonly found in the arsenal of contemporary folk singer-songwriters.
In fact, at times Mallett – who has been performing for over a quarter-century – seemed downright uncomfortable on stage, mumbling between songs, staring down at the floor, and seemingly muttering to himself. He repeatedly checked in with the audience after each song by asking, “Is everything all right?,” a question presumably meant as much for himself as for listeners.
The answer, for the most part, was yes. Mallett sang straightforward, upbeat folk ballads in a rich voice that combined the deep resonance of Richard Shindell with the slightly-pinched twang of Willie Nelson on top. He accompanied himself on acoustic guitar with energetic rhythmic playing. And his songs were clearly communicated character portraits or stories about loneliness, rural life and youthful love.
“Closer to Truth” was a Bruce Cockburn-like anthem of mystical and political musings about apocalypse now put to a faux-mariachi beat, and “Tomorrow at This Time We Could Be Walking” built up an ominous undercurrent of steam with an ambiguous notion of bottled-up violence.
Mallett even played a marvelous version of his best-known song, “The Garden Song (Inch By Inch),” reclaiming it as his own with a complex guitar arrangement featuring lush fingerpicking and harmonics and a mature reading that took it out of the realm of kids’ music and brought it back to its origins as an environmental ode.
There was little navel-gazing to be found in any of Mallett’s material, except for one new song into which the singer seems to have invested all the self-absorption he has been fending off all these years.
“Why am I lonely when I’m in a crowd?” he asked. “Well I guess it’s just the artist in me,” he answered, and on and on he went, running down a list of stereotypes and cliches of the romantic temperament – “Why do I live on coffee and wine…Why am I awake when the whole world is asleep…Why do I seek these universal truths?” – each time explaining them away with the line, “I guess it’s just the artist in me.”
The singer hasn’t recorded this song yet. Note to Mallett: don’t.
[This review originally appeared in the Berkshire Eagle on April 12, 2003. Copyright Seth Rogovoy 2003. All rights reserved.]
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