Tuesday, September 25, 2018

Amilia K Spicer and John Gorka

Sometimes, the way I learn about new artists is through entering new artist pages on the Sputnik Music website. I've entered a bunch of local Long Island artist web pages there, and other pages as well. I  often tend to add pages for artists who perform in genres that are under-represented on the site. Metal music, in all of its manifestations tends, to be over-represented. (Just as the Inuit have many different words to describe different kinds of snowflakes, so do Sputnik Music users have many different words to describe the various sub-genres of metal.) '70s rock and progressive rock bands tend to be reasonably well represented, although once in awhile, a pretty well-known artist that you would think would be there isn't. So, for example, Loggins and Messina fell through the cracks, and I had to create a page for them. Now that their page is up, a number of people have begun to rate their various albums. But they couldn't before, because the page didn't exist.

By and large, '80s new-wave bands tend to be reasonably well represented (under the genre tag "post punk"). However, some of the more obscure bands seem to fall through the cracks. So, for example, I created the pages for Limahl (and I think for Kajagoo), Haircut 100 and Killer Pussy (among others). There also seem to be a lot more new wave bands that have pages but no reviews on the site than there are for 70s bands. I was the first to ever do Sputnik reviews for either Eurythmics or The Fixx, which is a little mind-boggling.

Then there are some genres that are extremely under-represented. Some of these are Celtic and Celtic Rock (they don't even have their own genre tags -- I have to use things like "folk" and "classical" to describe them; Country (which tends to have a page for some of the best-known artists, but be missing the secondary artists); and Folk, (which likewise has pages for artists like Joni Mitchell and Joan Baez, but not for artists like Dar Williams, Richard Shindell and Eliza Gilkyson. So sometimes, I'll add an artist, like Gilkyson, and links I find for her under "Similar Artists" on a site like Last.FM will lead me to other artists of similar stature. This is how I first discovered John Gorka.

Gorka is one of those artists who is known throughout folk circles, but largely unknown to the general population of music fans. I picked up his latest album, True in Time a few months ago, and it's mostly pretty good. (It's on my long-term list of albums to review, but that's a pretty long list.) Actually, a lot of the LP is very good, but ... well, I'll get into it when I get into it.

Anyway, a couple of months back, I was up on Gorka's website, and much to my surprise, I discovered he was playing on Long Island on September 23, and it was an early evening show. So I figured why not, and bought myself a ticket, even though I knew I'd be in the city for Gary Numan the night before. The show listed Amilia K Spicer as an opening act, so I researched her a little, and made a Sputnik page for her, too.

I was almost tardy for the show. After the late night and the show at Irving Plaza, my energy level was pretty low, and my back was screaming at me all day. For some reason, I had in my head that the Gorka show was a 6PM start. But at the last possible moment, I double-checked myself and saw it was starting at 5. So I got myself together quickly, and luckily enough, had a traffic-free ride to Stony Brook.

One of the things I learned from creating the longislandmusicscene list all those years back, and from forming the Long Island Music Coalition, is that there isn't really a Long Island music scene, there are a bunch of different little scenes. Sometimes they overlap, often they don't. And this particular show was put together by parts of the scene that I haven't really been in touch with in years, including The University of Stony Brook and the WUSB radio station, and the northern Suffolk County folk scene. It was actually part of a series of concerts that Charlie Backfish of WUSB has had running for years, "Sunday Street Concerts" (named after his long-running Sunday morning radio show on WUSB). The concert was being held in a room in the Long Island Musuem, where his daughter Emma is now the Public Programs Coordinator. I don't know Charlie, except from occasionally e-mailing with him when I had my own local music show on WUSB, but I remember Emma because for a very brief while, our shifts at the station overlapped. I even had the honor of helping her to set up for her first-ever show. (By this time, I had hit the big time with a midnight to 3AM shift, and she was taking over my old 3-6:30AM slot. I think I probably doubled my listening audience when I made that move, from five listeners to about ten!)

I've been typing for about eight paragraphs now, so I guess I ought to talk about the show soon, huh? After saying my hellos to Emma, Norm Prusslin (the former WUSB director LIMHoF Board member, and a truly terrific person) and Amy Tuttle (who I'd just run into a couple of weeks ago at the He-Bird, She-Bird show), I found myself a comfortable seat on the end of an aisle and settled in. (And the seats were comfortable, about ten times more so than those crippling almost-backless chairs at Irving Plaza from the night before.) The room, which looks like it holds about 70-75 people, was nearly sold out. The game plan that Mr. Backfish announced was that Spicer and Gorka would split the first set, then Gorka would come back after the break for a longer second set.

As promised, Amilia K Spicer was up first. She's a Los Angeles resident who grew up in rural Pennsylvania (who admitted that the way she deals with living in L.A. is by very rarely being home.) She did a short 5-song set, most of which featured material from her latest album, Wow and Flutter. I would have posted her setlist on Setlist.fm, but unfortunately they don't have her in the database for some reason. And it's easier to build a rocketship than it is to figure how to enter a new artist on that site.

Spicer has a good voice, and is a clever songwriter. I'd classify her as mostly a folk singer, with some pop and country leanings. She did the first three songs on guitar, then moved over to the piano for the last two. (Her guitar playing was good, but pretty basic. Her piano playing is a little more sophisticated.) I learned over the course of the evening that she's something of a protegee of the late folk legend Bill Morrissey. Her material was strong throughout, but my favorite number of those she performed tonight was the sultry title track of an older album of hers, "Like an Engine." I'd have happily listened to a set twice as long from her, although at least she promised she'd be back later to sing with Gorka on some of his songs. I hope she works her way back to the area sometime. I'd like to see her perform more. (I picked up her Like an Engine album between sets.)

As promised, John Gorka was up next. He turned out to be tremendously entertaining in both his music and his stage patter. His first (half-) set included my two favorite tracks off of his latest LP, the title track "True in Time", and an excellent number called "Tattoed". This last one contains my favorite lyric line of the entire album: "Losing hurts worse/Than winning feels good." (I think that's the story of my life.) He also did a funny autobiographical song early in the set, to "introduce" himself to new listeners, called "I''m From New Jersey". (Which he is. Apparently he was born in and grew up in Jersey, lived for a couple of decades in Pennsylvania, and eventually wound up in St. Paul, Minnesota, because, as he explained, he "couldn't take the brutal Pennsylvania winters anymore".) Towards the end of the set, he performed another of my favorites from the True in Time album, "Nazarean Guitar", before inviting Spicer to join him for the last song, "Branching Out".

After a short break that gave me a chance to do some schmoozing, it was time for the second set. This time, Mr. Gorka played a 13-song set (not the 11-song set indicated in my notes, because I liked the numbers "7" and "8" so much that I used them twice.) Highlights of this one included an amusing, but bittersweet, song about the voluptuous, big-haired girls that kept him eternally in the friend zone throughout his teens and young adulthood, "Italian Girls"; a tense, dark number about the gentrification he saw going on around him in PA, "Where the Bottles Break"; and another pair of strong songs from the new album, called "Arroyo Seco" and "Mennonite Girl".

On the downside, the set also (sort of) included my least favorite John Gorka song. Gorka declared it was time to do a "ridiculous" song, and even before he could throw out the two possibilities he was considering, someone did the unthinkable and screamed out, "Do the 'Body Song'!" And before I could yell, "Don't do it, it's a trap!" it was too late.

Now this is a song that Mr. Gorka explained he'd played around with for years, and never thought he'd record. I wish he'd followed his instinct. What he told us was that to him, when you have a song in you, you have to get it out. It's like songwriting goes through a long thin tube, and if you don't finish a song, even if it's a bad one, it could get stuck in the tube, and block all the good ones you have left inside from ever breaking free. I sympathize with the sentiment, but as he began playing this one, I wanted to run. (Mind you, it could just be me. While he sang this ditty, a number of people were laughing and enjoying themselves, so maybe it's a great song, and I just don't get it. ... Nah!)

Anyway, the dreaded number began, "I like my feet/They're very neat/None can compete/With the meat/In my feet". "Noooooooo! Make it stop! Make it stop!" I screamed (in my head). He continued: "I like my toes/We're very close/I should compose/Epic prose/For my toes."

But sometime shortly after the part where his legs help him to shop for eggs, something amazing happened -- my negative vibes blanketed the stage! All of a sudden, when he got to the verse about his thighs, he flubbed a line. Then he flubbed it a second, then a third time. I concentrated harder ... "These aren't the droids you're looking for," I whispered. "These aren't the droids we're looking for," he repeated back. He laughed, and started the song again. (He seems like a very nice, and self-effacing, guy. I really hated having to use my Jedi mind power on him.) "I like my feet," he sang. But this time, he couldn't even get past his toes before he started forgetting the words. Finally, he just gave up. Somewhere, a Death Star exploded. Ewoks rejoiced. He announced that he was going to do his other ridiculous song instead. I was triumphant! (Hmm. Maybe losing doesn't actually hurt worse than winning feels good.)

Anyway, he replaced "The Body Parts Medley" with a really good song (and one that I sadly relate to all too much), called "People My Age". This one is about how bad people his (our) age are looking these days. In between verses, he assured us all that any eye contact he made during the song was purely accidental. But I swear, he was looking directly at me.

Near the end of the set, Ms. Spicer joined him again, for a Gospel-like anthem called "Good Noise" and a love song named "Love Is Our Cross to Bear". Then Spicer scooted off the stage, and after a good bit of applause, Gorka did a one-number encore about some of the folk singers he met at Godfrey Daniels, the Bethlehem, PA coffeehouse where he got his start, entitled "That's How Legends Are Made".

It was actually a great show, in spite of the mean things I said about that one song. ('Cause let's face it ... mean is who I am. It's what I do.) I promised myself to make it back to support this series in the future. (Kate Campbell, another of the artists I recently added to the Sputnik database, is going to be there in a couple of weeks, and I understand it's the first time she's ever played in the area. I'm hoping to make it to that one.) Anyway, nice job by Gorka, Spicer, and all of the people who worked the show and helped to put it together.

(Gorka's setlist for the night can be found at setlist.fm. Spicer's setlist was: 1. Train Wreck; 2. This Town; 3. Shotgun; 4. Like an Engine; 5. Windchill.