Lou's Reviews

Music commentary by Lou Wigdor

Richard Shindell at the Iron Horse
Iron Horse Music Hall, Northampton, Mass., November 20, 2009

Richard ShindellRichard Shindell has it made in the sun. One of the folk world’s most gifted songsmiths, his absence of glitz allows him to move about with near anonymity. On a Saturday morning at Woodstar Café in Northampton—the day after his stunning late November performance at the Iron Horse—nobody seemed to recognize him. Even odder, for his sold-out performance at the Horse, he slipped past much of the audience undetected on his way to the green room before the concert.

Accompanied by Sara Milonovich on violin, Greg Anderson on electric guitar, and Lincoln Schlieffer on bass, Shindell opened with Transit, his modern-day New Jersey Turnpike pilgrimage that ends with a baptism of motor vehicles and their drivers in the Delaware River. With the audience primed for deliverance, he turned to three songs from his current cd, Not Far Now (Signature Sounds). Released last spring and his first new collection in five years, the disc reveals Shindell at the top of his narrative and melodic game.

Juggler out in Traffic—one of Shindell’s most riveting songs—captured the unrequited longing of a street juggler for a motorist/femme fatale, who habitually responded by rolling up her window and driving off— “Red goes green; She goes by.” Through musical handoffs to alternating choruses, including deftly layered instrumental-vocal hybrids, the song built up exceptional intensity. It was also subversive. Your first encounter with the street performer began at an emotional distance. By the song’s end, your absorption in his predicament evoked your own (and your species’) high aptitude for dashed romantic aspirations.

Unlike the juggler, the ragged, rickety street hawker in Balloon Man remained emotionally distant. But in Balloon Man, Shindell reminded both (his wife?), who lives half a world away, and us that the balloon man lives in it too. We don’t have to bond with balloon man or embrace his interior life, but assigning him to oblivion demeans us.

How many songs can you name that honor members of the fairer sex named Clara? If the name were a species, it would be endangered. That didn’t stop Shindell from celebrating his one and only Clara, vivaciously portrayed as smart, sharp, and cute. Following weightier songs, Get up Clara, which swung with Djangoesque brio, offered fresh ventilation. Did I mention that Clara was a mule?

Apart from the new material, Shindell reached generously into his deep reservoir
of song. Reunion Hill, Are You Happy Now?, Fishing, Arrowhead, Transit, and Che Guevara T Shirt have all become fixtures in his repertoire. All deploy rich storytelling in imparting his eclectic, passionate concerns. Shindell’s messages emerge not through preaching but organically through narrative. One song that is bound for classic status—There Goes Mavis—recounts a seven-year old girl’s willful triumph in releasing her pet canary into the wild. For this concert-goer, Mavis evoked reflections about misplaced altruism; about hazards of the untrammeled will; and about innocence (not necessarily confined to the young) with all its natural beauty, optimism, and folly.

Not Far Now is Richard Shindell's latest release

Shindell’s fellow players offered exceptional ensemble playing. Orbiting around his own graceful guitar work, Sara Milonovich (violin) and Greg Anderson (electric guitar) consistently generated nuanced dialog, with the two sometimes completing one another’s musical thoughts. A decade ago, Shindell received extraordinary support from multi-instrumentalist Larry Campbell. He was more virtuosic than anyone in Shindell’s current outfit, but the current quartet exemplifies the spirit and polished spontaneity of top-notch chamber music. That suits Shindell’s own writing and disposition just fine.

At the show’s end, Shindell returned for an encore. Dismissing requests from the audience, he explained that a song favored by his mother, who was in the room, trumped all others. Shindell once told me in an interview that the song, Out Beyond the Iron Gate, was a meditation on death. So who’s to question a mother’s authority—especially in domestic or eschatological matters?

2009 by Lou Wigdor

Hosted by Pioneer Valley Folklore Society