Feature: Mark Erelli

Mark Erelli Memorial Hall Recordings(note – at this point, Kelp on Kape has been discontinued, but they still let the old boy write an occasional feature)

Is Mark Erelli the New Elvis of folk music? Or is that just a spiffy way to begin an article about him?

I know it sounds unlikely, but it’s not entirely a moot point. Recently, no less an authority than the New York Times rhapsodized about him being a “gravelly-voiced heartthrob who has a way with a smirk”, and who can even think of the word “smirk” without thinking of the King? Sure, he was a rocker, and Mark’s a folkie -or, perhaps, a semi-folkie. (Hell, he performs solo with an acoustic guitar, what would you call him?)

What is undeniable is that Erelli has a sincere and natural way of getting all the way inside a song that is most gratifying, plus actual pipes and even pizazz, as you may yourself notice at the First Encounter Coffeehouse in Eastham this Saturday, June 28^th when he makes his third appearance there.

Critics have also compared his latest album, “The Memorial Hall Recordings” (Signature Sound Recording), to the Band -again, a wonderful and intriguing group to be compared to, whether it’s true or not. If I were a singer, and I got compared to the Band and to Elvis, I would quit right there -it’s just not going to get too much better than that.

Mark is still a little green, and a little too easy-going to live up to all that, but he does somehow put you in mind of some great folks. He has a certain rasp to his voice that reminds many of Steve Forbert and John Prine, but he’s a better, less mannered singer than either one – and he writes good songs, too!

Plus, he’s modest. Cheerful, too (and probably thrifty, ’cause show folk usually are; not sure about his obedience.) Very unassuming about communicating -he just does it, and you don’t see him setting up his stuff or anything! Basically, he throws a slider.

Here’s what’s great about the modest part: he just put out an album he wrote only four songs on, which is entirely unheard of in modern folk. In an era when people dependably put out whole albums of nothing but their own compositions, whether they’re saying anything worth saying or not, Erelli actually does lots of other people’s songs, all songs you’ve never heard of, all well-chosen.

Which makes him a good interpreter, which is refreshing; but the fact that his four songs stand out so well in this company also makes him a very promising songwriter. Two of them -the western swinging “What’s Changed”, and the lovely instrumental (he wrote an instrumental! I love this guy!) “Little Torch” -are the best things on here.

The album is also interesting for the method with which it was recorded. To this end, Erelli and his band took up residency in a Civil War-era Memorial Hall in the small town of Monson in central Massachusetts, where “THE MEMORIAL HALL RECORDINGS was made in only three and a half days, with a minimum of overdubs. Mark says that during the recordings, the Hall itself became like another member of the band – “the fifth Beatle” -and the vibe is very real, woody, and, eventually, ingratiating.

I say eventually, because the album comes on pretty unassuming at first, and, in general, it’s not aiming to be a world-beater. That’s what’s great about it: he’s not trying to knock you over, he’s just sidling up next to you. There’s a trilogy of Civil War songs in the middle, moody and spare, and a couple of the others that are also dour and haunting, but the depressing stuff is leavened with joy and humor (“it’s a fine time of year to watch you disappear.”)

The band is great, too, always spare and melodic, especially Kevin Barry (the Boston guitarist who seems to be everywhere lately) and accordionist Joe Barbato. There’s a lot more accordion on here than you’d figure, and it’s not that chordal, tejano stuff, but something much sparser, tuneful, and old-fashioned.

A person could miss a band like this, playing solo, but something tells me you won’t. Erelli just loves singing: “Even when I was in middle school, y’ know, and it was junior high when it wasn’t really cool to like music class… we used to sing Joni Mitchell songs, and people would sing “Both Sides Now” kind of rolling their eyes, and I’d be sitting there going, ‘god, I kind of like this… what’s wrong with me?’”

He remembered his earlier appearances at the First Encounter fondly, musing that he thought it was one of those rooms that actually sounds great empty, but that he thought trying to get people to leave might be the wrong way to go in the long run. We both thought that those uncomfortable pews might polish a few of them off, but Mark said that that was just a normal part of “the puritanical sado-masochistic kind of experience” so sought after in today’s modern folk music environment.

Could be a new kind of Elvis in the building.

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