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Peter Yarrow at Symphony Hall, April 5
Obituary, George Gerdes. United Artists
Don't It Drag On, Chris Smither, Poppy
Album II, Loudon Wainwright III, Atlantic
IMPORTANT FOLK of folk-blues performers depend on intensely personal styles. They attract great audiences if their style is melodic, lyrical, and energetic. If their songs deal with problems within many people's experience, the music will be performed by lots of amateur and professional singers. Sometimes the style may be unusual and engaging, but the music or lyrical content too idiosyncratic to be broadly popular. Occasionally the distinction is not so clear-cut. Singers such as Woody Guthrie or Bob Dylan have written immensely popular songs; although the two are not exceptional singers, rarely have more capable singers performed their material as forcefully.
Peter Yarrow's debut solo concert at Symphony Hall last April 5 marked his emergence as a strong individual performer. For years, his excellent musical talents in writing and performing were submerged in the successful group efforts of Peter, Paul, and Mary. On their last several albums two of Peter's songs appeared which showed his ability to craft honest, direct, yet thoughtfully poetic pieces: "The Great Mandella" and "Day is Done." Bassman Bob Coucher and guitarist Ralph Towner helped him perform his music with extraordinary richness, enhancing Peter's naturally powerful and sensitive tenor.
Recent albums by three other folk-blues singers, Chris Smither, George Gerdes, and Loudon Wainwright, also bring to public attention exceptional individual talents which have, until now, enjoyed only limited audiences. Chris Smither has often performed in Boston, and, for several reasons, is the most likely of the three to meet wide acceptance.
Smither's chief assets are a rough, powerful voice, the ability to interpret and arrange music with understanding, and a talent in saying things simply, but not tritely. With the help of Eric Kaz, who plays fine back-up paino and harmonica on Smither's Don't It Drag On, he performs Dylan's "Down in the Flood" more excitingly than Dylan, a usually impossible feat.
His own compositions, unlike Yarrow's, deal almost entirely with issues of personal life. He is more influenced by blues which usually convey more of a sense of personal oppression than of social conflict. Hence, Smither writes more about his own perception of the emptiness of life than he does about the hopelessness or perhaps the hope of life in general.
"Lonesome Georgia Brown" paints a moving image of people waiting their entire lives for nothing. "I Feel the Same" and Mick Jagger and Keith Richards's "No Expectations" sadly consider how ephemeral are moments of love and fulfillment. The dreariness of life and the absence of real intimacy between people flowing past each other in time are caught in "Another War to Find You" and "Don't It Drag On." Smither's disquieting sense of lonely resignation is eloquently sung in lines such as:
You know I've got nothing to sell you.
Takes me hours to say there's nothing to tell you
And when you don't call at all you show me how well you know me now.
GEORGE GERDES, a schoolmate and friend of Loudon Wainwright's, has also tried to learn a lot from Bob Dylan, inviting a comparison which is perhaps unfair. He has the same narrow vocal range, which he stretches around the edges. He uses harmonica in the same upbeat, folksy way although he plays both it and guitar much better than Dylan. On the whole, however, Gerdes is less successful, at least on his album Obituary--he is simply not as intense a folk or blues performer.
The themes of Gerdes's blues are familiar, especially his preoccupation with women who have treated him badly. However, his portraits are deeper and more engaging than more caricatures, especially "Sweet Janine," a nostalgic picture of a California club singer.
Gerdes's lyrics have the same personal quality of Dylan's and Smither's, but they are not as subtle nor as consistently poetical. They are all good, but one gets the feeling he could have frequently said as much with considerably less strain. "Peas Porridge Hot" and "Real as Rain" are mellow, light songs in which Gerdes relaxes, sings smoothly, and plays his guitar well. "Time Will Let You In" and "Gardenia Lady" are also fine songs, which express with moving melancholy the dilemma of people caught in time.
The most original of the three albums is Loudon Wainwright's Album II. His experiments in almost shrieking emotional honesty do not always succeed completely, but the openness, eloquence, and powerful directness of his desperate loneliness make James Taylor's moanings seem sadly trivial. Several times, Wainwright's attempts to reduce emotions to the briefest, most forceful, and most blatant lyrical statements sound dangerously close to the slogans on insipid posters in the Coop. When his attempts bear fruit, they are absolutely searing, as in "Me and My
Friend the Cat," an angry lonely song, whose half-pleading, half-sung chorus strikes the album's theme:
If only you'd been there
You'd know what I mean--
If only you'd been there
If only you'd seen.
THERE IS so much that Wainwright seems personally struggling against--the familiar hypocrisy of society and what it does to individuals ("Be Careful, There's a Baby in the House"), his religion ("Nice Jewish Girls"), his ambitions ("Saw Your Name in the Paper"), the emptiness of renewed past acquaintances ("Old Friend"), and, of course, ultimately himself (a trilogy on suicide). His concerts are not novel, but the controlled rage with which he sings his songs is. His bitterness about human inconsequence shows up in "Suicide Song":
When you get hung up
Hang yourself up by the neck.
What the hell, what the hell, what the heck.
In those songs in which he shows off his sense of black humor, the comic is always mixed with a deep-seated sense of disgust. "Motel Blues," whose lyrics are almost more tears than words, is his best example of stark dissatisfaction and yearning, in this case, for a lover.
On top of his compositional skill. Wainwright is an infectiously good guitarist and he uses extremely little back-up music. This reinforces the album's overwhelming sense of aloneness and, because Wainwright is so good, he carries the show successfully.
Wainwright is not likely to have the broader success one might expect of Peter Yarrow or Chris Smither, simply because his style is so uncompromisingly personal. People like George Gerdes, however, are already showing Wainwright's influence. Wainwright's will be an exciting, original contribution to folk and blues, which must always be rejuvenated by forceful, gifted artists
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