“I’m happy you all are here, even if you were brought here against your will. I believe it’s important to build an audience, by force if necessary.”
John Gorka is a perennial favorite at CSPS Hall, with good reason. As the above quote shows, he has a sense of humor about himself as a performer that makes it easy to like him even before he begins singing one of his wonderful songs. He has a faithful following in eastern Iowa, and his songs and style of performing are perfectly suited for CSPS Hall’s intimate, classic surroundings . Along with opener Antje Duvekot, the audience gathered on Thursday, April 25, 2014 was treated to a delightful combination of insightful songs and outrageous humor.
Antje opened solo with a few songs, then was joined by John before a short intermission. I had never heard Antje before, but assumed she would offer songs that would mesh with John’s style. She’s very down to earth: her opening jokes were about how she had bought her first pair of shoes with heels, instead of her usual sneakers, and so it took longer for her to make it out on stage than usual.
Her singing style reminded me of similar artists such as Pieta Brown or Martha Scanlan. By similar I mean a the same sort of breathy, almost fragile voice that makes her songs feel more like she’s sharing an event in her life with a friend over coffee rather than a concert performance. Her singing style is a bit disarming considering the depth of her lyrics.
Good songwriters tend to make the world all about them, without it sounding like the world is all about them. It’s an ego trip that only works when the songwriter realizes her talent isn’t about her, but about what she sees around her, and doesn’t make herself to be more important than the song and the listener.
Antje certainly fits that bill. For instance, her intro to the song “Merry Go Round” had people laughing out loud as she told about not liking the song until she was paid enough money to buy a new car for use of the song in an ad, but she had to change the word “breasts”. She quipped that she changed it to “knockers” but they didn’t like that either. Then she launched into a song that offered a torrent of lyrics evoking a series of mental images like some rapid fire photo montage. Humorous intro, but a serious song.
Her entire set was like that: she introduced her songs rather haltingly, as though this was one of her first concerts, but then presented a powerful, mature song with lyrics that made you realize you needed to listen to it a few times to really appreciate what it says. As I have given some of her songs second and third listens, I can see why she has won some of the awards she’s received.
Antje was a perfect intro to John Gorka. He took the stage and immediately began banter that made me think of both Woody Allen stand up and Stephen Bishop. It was as though he had so many thoughts going on at once he just decided to let them come out in whatever order happened. The result was that any of the self-importance some folk singers carry like a messenger bag went right out the window.
John’s seemingly scatterbrained banter belies what happens when he sings. His songs range from powerful (“Land of the Bottom Line”) to preposterous (A song about his uncle having eleven toes) to hilariously self-deprecating (“I’m From New Jersey”), but they all reveal the heart of someone who really looks at the world and sees, and accepts, how other people think, feel and act.
John obviously loves people, and music, and this was demonstrated most by his openness to many suggestions from the audience. (He said he didn’t really have a song list anyway) “This next song is by request…about two years ago. It’s important to get around to such things.” he said as he began a song called out by someone in the audience before intermission.
It’s an odd contrast, what with John’s sense of humor and seemingly random ramblings introducing songs of profound insight and heartfelt emotion. It’s fascinating to find someone who can have the audience in stitches as he talks about the signs of growing old and still perform a song like “Love Is Our Cross to Bear”. It was a delightful performance that ended way too soon.
John’s and Antje’s down to earth manner are not just stage acts. During intermission, and after the show, they greeted people and signed autographs with exactly the same openness and amicable nature they showed on stage. It’s always a pleasure to meet performers who are “real people”.