Songwriters are a pleasant and accommodating bunch. You don't believe me, and that’s because you’re mixing them up with speed metal drummers, or violin virtuosos. There are temperamental musicians out there, and in an industry that rewards impertinence (showbiz), their occasional bad behavior is salutary. But by and large, they aren’t the ones who are writing the songs. Songwriting humbles a practitioner in a completely different way than hours of scales and finger exercises do. An instrumentalist or a pure singer soon bangs up against limitations imposed on him by his own body. A songwriter reaches limitations imposed only by his imagination, or his will, or his experience, or, in many cases, his morality. Songwriters quickly realize they’re handling dangerous stuff – fissile stuff. They proceed with care.
Photo Gallery: Jeff Muench from the Feb. 27, 2018 Wine and Song Event
This helps explain why songwriters gather in circles. Circles are protective. Sometimes it’s the audience that needs sheltering, and sometimes it’s the writers. Brendan Hartnett laid down guidelines for the participants at Wine & Song at the Pet Shop Underground on Tuesday – three songs apiece, two originals and one a cover, on the broad theme of a keepsake or an item meant to preserve a memory – and the songwriters he gathered into his circle followed his rules pretty scrupulously. Nobody played two, or four, or casually disregarded the writing prompt: they all had something to say on Hartnett’s subject. Whenever they strayed from the assignment, they apologized – half to the crowd, and half to the host. The performers, including Harnett, were more than a little apologetic for the emotional tone of the material, too. These were sad songs, mainly: about sick relatives and fractured relationships and fights with friends. As the veteran Montclair musician Michael Reitman pointed out, most of the listeners in the Pet Shop basement were songwriters, too. They all had blood to let and ink to scrawl. They could count on their peers to understand the struggle, and what had motivated them to take to their guitars, and to microphones in basement spaces.
That urgency bled over into the choice of covers. Most of the songs picked by the musicians at Wine & Song were emotionally fraught. Hartnett picked one of Bob Dylan’s saddest early songs to play – “Boots of Spanish Leather”, a painful tale of misunderstanding and disillusionment between lovers, one that frames the keepsake as a kind of disappointing romantic compromise. Hartnett, who likes to wrap his supple voice around rueful, whiskey-soaked, 3 a.m. material, was right at home here; better still, he worked out a pleasantly doleful acoustic guitar arrangement that showcased his skill without ever getting too flashy about it. Jonathan Andrew, a Red Bank artist who is currently best known as a member of Christina Alessi and the Toll Collectors, but who has long been an intelligent and literate songwriter in his own right, picked Elliott Smith’s emotionally brutal “Waltz #2”. Andrew often sings in a hushed, gentle voice reminiscent of Ben Gibbard, but here, he laid Smith’s acid verses bare, and did nothing to cushion the hammer-blow of the chorus.
As renditions of Smith’s material go – and there are a lot of them – this one was illuminating. It was a version that could only have been done by a writer: somebody who had given a lot of thought to notes and chords and melodies, and had tried to figure out how words, and the sentiment they contain, might fit in to the compositional architecture of a song. Unsurprisingly from a circle of songwriters, the Wine & Song participants picked covers from masters – Bayonne’s Michael Rodgers, for instance, tried his hand at a solo electric guitar rendering of “Bennie And The Jets”. (He read the lyrics off his phone and scrolled while the crowd sang along; nobody minded.) But they were also careful to select songs that framed their own compositions, and put their writing into perspective. This was true of Hartnett, who allowed the shadow of “Spanish Leather” to fall over a Dylanesque song of his about a favorite keepsake (an ivory owl, if I got that right); it was true for the silver-voiced Gina Tolentino, who closed her mini-set on a cautious but optimistic note with a version of Hurray For The Riff Raff’s “Look Out Mama”; and it was equally true for Reitman, who foregrounded his traditionalism right away with “Hesitation Blues”, a classic associated with Hot Tuna, but which has roots going all the way back to W.C. Handy.
Tuesday’s show was promoted and co-presented by Mike Kuzan of The Latest Noise: this very website. Though Kuzan has been one of the busiest guys around Hudson County lately, it’s apparent he’s not an empire-builder. Instead, he’s a fellow musician who is genuinely fascinated by what his peers are doing. Like Hartnett, he leads with his affability. Most impresarios strain to be larger than life; this one keeps things on a human scale. He opened the evening with a Jack White number that imparted some of its nervy attitude – though none of its aggression – to his two following originals, including a plainspoken baseball-themed tribute and memorial to an uncle with a brain tumor. Those who attended the most recent Latest Noise showcase at White Eagle might recall that Kuzan dedicated the night to that same sick uncle. That's twice now that Kuzan's music made me cross my fingers, hard, for somebody I didn't know. Songs: they're powerful.
Wine & Song drew from the same pool of rootsy, friendly musicians who made Kuzan’s night at White Eagle a popular success. This is a coherent community, and it has a straightforward stortytelling aesthetic and a relaxed, unpretentious ethos. Yet some of the performers at Wine & Song exhibited compositional daring that I didn’t see at White Eagle Hall. That stands to reason: if you get a turn on the biggest stage in town, you’re probably going to foreground your most crowd-pleasing material. Still, I reckon that Catie Friel would come across as unusual in any context. The Ridgewood singer and guitarist was, for me at least, the revelation of the night. She covered a song entirely in Greek, and then played an Irish folk song of her own invention – which struck me as an audacious thing to do, but I’m an obnoxious rocker, and I respond to audacity. Her last song was a yarn-ball of blues, unraveled note-by-note, and pulled apart to maximum tautness. Somehow it reminded me of Jane Siberry and early Talking Heads, though I’m pretty sure she intended neither. Friel has ideas to burn, and ideas are the most important currency to any songwriter, but it’s also apparent that she’s working with a wide scope. The most persistent knock made against singer-songwriters is that they can’t see past their mirror. Friel has her window open, and she’s looking out.
Friel’s songs were ambitious; those of Kristen Erin were downright idiosyncratic. While everybody else brought a guitar, Erin sat at a piano; while her peers drew mostly from folk traditions, she clearly has an ear for far-off-Broadway theater. Her sense of harmony and time was hers and hers alone, which is something I always like to encounter: music, I think, is at its best when it’s a conduit for personality, and the most interesting personalities are the ones that don’t conform to expectations. A distinguishing characteristic of this musical community, Jonathan Andrew told me between sets, is its gender balance. I believe him. I’m not sure Friel or Erin would have been properly appreciated in those Guyville pop-rock scenes we both remember from Hudson County in the ‘90s and early ‘00s. Times have changed, and definitely for the better.
Alas, Kirsten Erin was, quite literally, self-effacing: she played in front of an enormous stand covered with sheet music. It was hard to see her lips move as she told her stories, and I’m not sure there’s a campfire in North America where that sort of thing would work. I do understand – these artists are writers first, and they’d like the songs to speak for themselves. Quite often they did. Wine & Song is meant to be a relaxed event – a low-key conversation in which everybody is welcome to join. Yet the sentiment in the songs was neither simple or blithe, and I often found myself wishing that a few of the performers would do more to underscore the drama of their storytelling. Just as I did at White Eagle Hall, I came away from the evening with the sense that many of these performers believe that showmanship gets in the way of the intimacy they’re hoping to cultivate. It doesn’t. It’s an essential part of the pop-rock experience, and it was used to great effect by the artists they appreciate most. My guess is that we’ll see more demonstrations of charisma from these musicians as they get more comfortable in front of audiences – and once they start to discover how well it works. Yes, even for songwriters.