Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Personal, Yet Universal: Guy Clark's Songs and Stories (Dualtone Records, 2011)

I have seen Guy Clark in concert a couple of times. Each time he has been accompanied by his friend and co-writer Verlon Thompson. There is a warmth and familiarity between these two men which spreads throughout the concert hall. Clark and Thompson standing at the mics, guitars in hand, singing their fine songs of life, love and liberty – there’s nothing like it. And they take requests. They also come out afterwards to sign CDs and chat to fans, if, they always say, people are interested! I’ve never heard anyone offer to come out to sign, and give the audience a choice before. His new Songs and Stories CD captures perfectly the feel of a Guy Clark concert.

It should. It was recorded live at the Belcourt Theatre in Nashville, Tennessee. The date isn’t given, but it could be yesterday. The recording is just as warm and intimate as a chat with an old friend after a long absence. The format is a bit different than I’m used to. The band is expanded to include, beyond Clark and Thompson, a bass player (Bryn Davies), a percussionist (Kenny Malone) and another guitarist/mandolinist/singer (Shawn Camp). And then Clark announces, during the introduction, that they will sit down to play. This is something new for Clark. Perhaps it worked so well during the guitar pulls and in the recording studio that they just decided to bring the format to the stage. It works a charm.

Things get started with one of Clark’s most well-known songs, “L.A. Freeway,”

Pack up all your dishes/
Make note of all good wishes/
Say goodbye to the landlord for me/
That son of a bitch has always bored me/
Throw out them LA papers /
And that moldy box of vanilla wafers/
Adios to all this concrete/
Gonna get me some dirt road back street…

Guy Clark
It’s the kind of song that Guy Clark writes: personal, yet universal. We’ve all moved somewhere, looking for something better. Cleaner air, less noise. In the middle of this version, he relates the truth of the song. It seems there was this grapefruit tree, from which he would pick his morning fruit. He enjoyed eating that sweet grapefruit until he came home one day and found the landlord cutting the tree down. The roots were cracking his cement patio! Who can’t relate to that?

Next up is a rendition of “Maybe I Can Paint Over That” which was the closer from his last album Somedays The Song Writes You. If only life was as easy as covering a mistake with a fresh coat of paint. This song was co-written with Thompson and Camp, and their support (along with that of Davies and Malone) is sensitive and beautiful. Clark pays tribute to his lost friend Townes Van Zandt with a rendition of Townes’ “If I Needed You.” He has been including a Van Zandt song on his albums for years. It’s a practice you have to admire, especially for a songwriter of Clark’s skill. Then they do a fine version of “The Cape,” which uses a wonderful superhero analogy for getting the most out of life, and “Homegrown Tomatoes,” introduced by Clark as “a love song.”

Verlon Thompson
Clark never hogs the stage, and even here he offers space for Camp and Thompson to feature their own tunes. Shawn Camp sings “Sis Draper” and “Magnolia Wind,” both of them co-written with Clark. Thompson presents “Darwetta’s Mandolin” (about his mother) and “Joe Walker’s Mare.” There is no let down having these two masters take the reins. When Clark returns to the front it’s with a song he wrote with Rodney Crowell, “Stuff That Works.” He finishes the night, I should say the CD, with “Out in the Parking Lot,” “The Randall Knife” and “Dublin Blues.” “Parking Lot” is a tale of playing in clubs, and was a hit for Brad Paisley. “The Randall Knife” is an autobiographical yarn about his father’s legacy and “Dublin Blues” is about...

I wish I was in Austin/
In the Chili Parlour Bar/
Drinkin' Mad Dog Margaritas/
And not carin' where you are

But here I sit in Dublin/
Just rollin' cigarettes/
Holdin' back and chokin' back/
The shakes with every breath.

…home when you’re far away. Like all Guy Clark’s songs, written with a collaborator or by himself, it’s about life.

First time I heard Guy Clark I wondered why people raved about him so much; or why he was so acclaimed as a songwriter because what he did seemed simple. Then I listened to him again, and found I couldn’t get some of these things out of my head. There was a depth there, a poetry that came from experience and memory. Each album has its highlights, but I can’t think of one song that has let me down. Songs and Stories is filled with these kind of highs.

David Kidney has reviewed for Green Man Review and Sleeping Hedgehog. He published the Rylander Quarterly (a Ry Cooder-based newsletter) for 8 years before turning it into a blog, at He works at McMaster University as Director of Learning Space Development and lives in Dundas with his wife.

1 comment:

  1. I wish I was in Austin/
    In the Chili Parlour Bar/
    Drinkin' Mad Dog Margaritas/

    I think I need to head down there tomorrow.....