Modern Man's comic folk
by Seth Rogovoy

(GREAT BARRINGTON, Mass., June 27, 2004) – Saturday night’s concert at the Guthrie Center, part of the summer-long Troubadour Series featuring an eclectic array of folk artists, was perfect for people who hate folk music or are tired of its sanctimony.

Anyone who enjoyed last year’s mockumentary, “A Mighty Wind,” should check out the comic-folk trio Modern Man next time they come around. While folk music has a long tradition of satirical songs, few acts have been as willing to turn their wits inward and poke fun at themselves as this trio.

You knew you were in good hands right from the outset when the group opened the show with “Don’t You Hate It When They Make You Sing Along.” As if on cue, the audience sang along.

“We’re the first of the geezer bands, ‘Old Farts on the Block’,” said singer/guitarist Ron Carlson, introducing the group to the small crowd. As much comedian as musician, Carlson also treated the audience to a sampling of inappropriate pairings of singers and material, including Bob Dylan singing the Hallelujah Chorus, rappers doing Rodgers and Hammerstein, Neil Young singing anything, and my personal favorite, the Bee Gees singing “Kumbaya.”

As is to be expected in such a show, there were some hits and a few misses. David Buskin’s “Jews Don’t Camp” went over well with the crowd, but was marred, as were several numbers, by a combination of poor sound mixing and sloppy elocution on the part of the performers. For a trio of longstanding professionals – the group was rounded out by singer/keyboardist George Wurzbach – Modern Man was surprisingly lazy when it came to projecting their material, which was too bad, as it was clear that the jokes were flying a mile a minute. If you actually heard half of them, you were lucky.

Other highlights included a rousing, Clancy Brothers-style tune, “You Can’t Be Irish If You’re Gay,” and a general parody of the innocuousness of the folk revival called “Like a River.”

A few words about some major improvements at the Guthrie Center this summer are in order. Several measures have been taken to make a night out at the center more in line with what it might have been like to spend an evening at the series’ namesake, the famed, West Hollywood nightclub The Troubadour, where the likes of Hoyt Axton, Phil Ochs, Linda Ronstadt and the Association made their debuts.

The stage walls are now draped in black curtains, lending more focus to the performers, who used to get lost in the former church’s expansive cove. The entryway has been spruced up with vintage posters and photographs reflecting the Guthrie legacy – including a souvenir umbrella from the original Woodstock Arts and Music Festival headlined by Arlo Guthrie. And perhaps most important: a night out at the Guthrie now includes the option of a nearly-complete dining experience, with an array of sandwiches, cheese and fruit plates, coffees and teas, and imported and domestic beer and wines, available for purchase.

After stumbling through the past few seasons with several different house managers, the Guthrie is back in the hands of the very capable George Laye, who brings a curatorial vision, an attention to detail, and a devotion to the Guthrie legacy to his work – all necessary ingredients for such an effort to succeed.

[This review originally appeared in the Berkshire Eagle on June 28, 2004. Copyright Seth Rogovoy 2004. All rights reserved.]

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