Friday, October 30, 2009

I Dreamed I Saw Phil Ochs... In Harlem

I was back in New York City a couple of weeks ago to be a contestant on a game show (I can't say how I did until after the episode airs in December) just one month after I moved away. After I did the taping I took the opportunity to go visit my best friends Joe and Megan along with their cute-as-a-button son Spencer who is the same age as, and betrothed to, my daughter.

After hanging at their place for a little bit, Joe and I went around the corner to a club called Shrine to have a beer. A great neighborhood joint in Harlem on Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Blvd by 134th St, Shrine has music just about every night and has a wide variety, though the focus seems to be on jazz, reggae, funk and soul. It is Harlem after all.

Joe and I were sitting there drinking our beers while a guy with a guitar was doing his sound check. I was immediately drawn in by the chords he was playing for his sound check and figured he might be playing something I would like. And boy did he!

As soon as he started his set I was hooked. Right away I could hear the influences of Phil Ochs, Woody Guthrie, Joe Strummer and Billy Bragg, but without being derivative. He certainly had his own style of guitar playing and singing.

Unfortunately there were few people outside Joe and me who seemed to really get how great this guy was. Most others in the bar were eating and gave only polite applause, at best. He was opening for a jazz band, so it wasn't really his crowd. And Joe and I were only there because of my last-minute call earlier that week to be on the game show.

At some point during his set he played a cover of Billy Bragg's Waiting For The Great Leap Forwards that was just fantastic. When he was done I went up to tell him how much I liked his set and his Billy Bragg cover. He came over to have a beer with us.

So this guy's name is Al Baker and he's from Manchester, UK. He was catching a flight to St. Louis the next morning because he had a gig at a college there, which is basically how he got himself over to the States and then he booked himself a bunch of other shows to do while he was over here. He had such a great attitude about it, saying he knew at a lot of the gigs he got he would be background music and maybe a couple of people would get into it (and on this night it was Joe and me).

We hung out with Al for a while longer on Joe's stoop before I went back to the hotel and Al went to catch his bus out to the Newark airport. We spent the night chatting about Billy Bragg and sketch comedy, among other things. Al and Joe also geeked out for a bit on comic books. I gushed a few more times over how much I liked Al's music (I had a few beers) and he slapped a couple of CD's on me. One was his album that came out about three years ago and the other was his newest collection of demos.

We said goodbye to Joe and then Al and I caught the subway to 42nd St, where I pointed Al in the direction of the Port Authority bus terminal and I went to crash at the hotel. Al was going to be playing a couple of shows in Chicago a few nights later and I told him I would try to make it to at least one of them.

I caught the train to Chicago the next morning. I started listening to Al's album shortly after the Pennsylvanian pulled out of Penn Station. About half way through the first track, a song called This Machine that expands on the motto written on Woody Guthrie's guitar, I had a gasping moment.

There are moments when I'm listening to a live show or an album when I have a gasping moment. It will be something so brilliant and beautiful that I literally gasp. I love a lot of different musicians, but these moments only happen for a few. I gasped the first time I ever saw Robyn Hitchcock play, the first time I listened to Billy Bragg as well as the the first time I ever saw Wilco and almost every time I see Jeff Tweedy play a solo show.

I think it is the realization that I'm not just seeing a great musician, of which there are many that I love, but listening to someone who has been touched with a gift that I can't even comprehend.

I listened to Al's CD pretty much anytime I wasn't chatting with someone on the trains (I was pretty much socializing between Harrisburg and Pittsburgh) during my trip home. I must have listened to it six or seven times. I couldn't believe I was listening to something made by a guy when he was 20.

I saw him again a few nights later at a club in Chicago. It was another gasping moment, watching him play an amazing set, again for a crowd of people mostly eating and talking before the main acts came on.

Al played a few of the songs I told him were my favorites from the disc, including All The News That's Fit To Sing, a tribute to Phil Ochs that takes its title from Ochs' first album and plays on lyrics from Billy Bragg's own Phil Ochs tribute song a generation earlier. It is a lovely tribute to a great singer-songwriter by a guy born about a decade after Ochs died, and he takes a little dig at Bob Dylan in the process.

Talking to Al after the set I really started to understand why he is such a good songwriter. It's because he is extremely smart and curious about the world. We were talking about music with a couple of girls ho ere also there for Al's set and one mentioned liking Cab Calloway. Al talked about how much better Paul Robeson was than Calloway, and even quoted some lines from Old Man River.

I am always amazed by how few Americans I talk to will know who Paul Robeson is, one of the most important figures in mid-twentieth century American history, and here is this 23-year-old kid from Manchester UK talking about him. And that's just one example of what I'm talking about.

Well-read, articulate, curious, outspoken, a knack for turning a phrase and great respect and knowledge of those great artists that came before him. A formula for great success as a singer-songwriter.

And I found my newest favorite artist. I'm really looking forward to following his career for years to come and seeing what great heights he climbs.

Because I happened to be in New York for a very short trip, for a game show of all things. Because Joe and I decided to go have a beer. Because Joe happens to live around the corner from a music club in Harlem. The randomness of it all makes it so much cooler that I came across this brilliant guy.

I would call it fate if I believed in such a thing.

This machine
is making folk a threat again
this machine
that I'm holding in my hands
this machine

is the best I've ever seen, because
this machine
kills silence
(kills madness)
(kills fascists)

Al's MySpace page