Tuesday, April 25, 2006

One of the things I love about folk shows is that they're one of the only kinds of concerts I can think of in which, when you arrive a few minutes late, the only other person in the parking lot is the performer, unloading his own gear in the rain.

That was the case Sunday night when we saw Richard Shindell, a singer-songwriter whose work I've long adored. I think I first heard him when he was part of Cry Cry Cry, the folkie supergroup he formed with Dar Williams and Lucy Kaplansky. (Their only album is absolutely fantastic; you should check it out.) He's got a warm, rich voice, and he writes songs that are remarkable for their detail and their humanity. His background is interesting, too -- he spent a couple years in the seminary before deciding to pursue this music thing. You can hear his intellect at work in his songs; he's a very literate guy, but he doesn't come off as highbrow, even though a song on his most recent album uses a stanza of a John Donne poem as the final verse.

We'd seen him perform once before, at the Falcon Ridge Folk Festival in the Berkshires. But we were far away, and I believe he was performing in the round with other singer-songwriters, so we'd never had a chance to really see him do his own thing. Since he lives most of the year in Argentina, chances to see him -- especially in Maine -- are few and far between. So when we heard about this show, with $20 tickets, we signed up immediately, even though it was a Sunday night show in Waspy Town about 40 minutes south of here. After a whirlwind trip to Providence and back, heading out into the rain again was not something we were looking forward to. And if it'd been someone we'd seen before, or someone I appreciated less, we probably would have eaten the tickets and stayed on the couch.

Boy, am I glad we went. First of all, I love this venue -- the basement of a Unitarian church in Waspy Town, it tends to draw graying New England lefties, who can be relied upon to cheer anti-Bush songs and chuckle appreciatively at political jokes of any kind. We've been to at least a half-dozen shows there over the years, sitting in folding chairs, buying a homemade, donated brownie for a dollar and mingling with the folkies.

Beyond that, of course, was the performance. Despite arriving late with no time for a sound check, Shindell was fantastic. He opened with "Kenworth of My Dreams," a song about a guy whose family and friends don't understand why he gives up everything to buy a big rig and be trucker, hauling "bourbon up to Buffalo and frozen food to Maine." That was followed by Pete Seeger's "Waist Deep in the Big Muddy." There's been a lot of talk about ol' Pete lately, what with the new Bruce album and the profile in last week's New Yorker, and this song is a perfect example of why all the reverence is deserved. Written in the Vietnam era, it feels like it could have been composed last week.

In any case, Shindell played for about 90 minutes, maybe a little more, even getting in a cover of "Born in the USA," a great song that he said has been "co-opted by the forces of evil," along with a bunch of his own gorgeous, affecting compositions. I've complained in the past (can't find the link at the moment) about performers who feel the need to write ham-handed songs expressing their politics in blatant ways; that's never the case with Shindell, whose political leanings are obvious but whose lyrics never are. (For proof, check out "Fishing," an amazing song about an immigration official, or my all-time favorite, "Transit.")

The bambina kicked all the way through the show and we drove home on the wet interstate, happy that we'd gotten off the couch. My only regret is that we don't live closer to NJ, where my parents spent last night at one of Springsteen's pre-tour rehearsal shows; they were in the pit, about 15 feet from the stage, and spent the evening cheering for Bruce and for Pete Seeger. I just caught a minute of Bruce and his crew on Good Morning America, doing "Climbing Jacob's Ladder," and it was excellent. I suspect The Seeger Sessions is going to be a mainstay of the bambina's first summer.