This was our first visit to SubCulture. We walked downstairs to find a theater space, throughly and professionally lit and set up for pristine sound. It appeared to sit around 150 people comfortably, with seating in the back rising for easy viewing. Seats have cup holders built into the arm rests. There is a bar on the rear left.
In the March 11 2014 issue of The New Yorker Magazine (Classical Music | Sublime Sounds), Russell Platt wrote: “SubCulture, another underground venue on Bleecker Street, has recently emerged as a complement to Le Poisson Rouge, if not a corrective to it. The young founders, Marc and Steven Kaplan, who are brothers, announce their intentions silently: the walls of the opening corridor are lined with reproductions of newspaper clippings, handbills, and photos that conjure up an Olde New York that stretches from the heyday of the Yiddish theatre to that of CBGB … SubCulture’s over-all atmosphere is living-room convivial, not nightclub crush. “We’ve been compared to Le Poisson Rouge because of our common diversity of artists, but Steven and I come out of a concert-going background, not a club background, and our business models are very different,” says Marc Kaplan. “We’re focussed above all on providing a great acoustic environment for music that will limit distractions.”
The room was comfortably full, as expected, for one of America’s best singer/songwriters. This was a typically inspiring John Gorka performance. Some years ago, failing to produce enough good songs to see myself as a singer/songwriter, I thought I could still have fun doing nothing but John Gorka covers in a coffee bar somewhere.
John began his set wryly stating, waiter-style, “I’m John. I’ll be your singer tonight.” The evening was full of loopy Gorka -isms, as we’ve come to expect. His first song was the leadoff track from his new album, Bright Side of Down, “Holed up in Mason City.” He explained afterward that he’d written the song after deciding against flying out of Mason City, Iowa, during a snowstorm. It was the same airport that Buddy Holly, The Big Bopper (J.P. Richardson), and Richie Valens had flown out of before that infamous fatal crash.
While there were a significant number of songs from the new album, there were many from previous releases sprinkled throughout the set. John said, “I always write a set list… but not until after [the show] …”
He sang “Where No Monuments Stand,” from the album So Dark You See, based on a poem by William Stafford, a conscientious objector during WWII, which contained the line, The only thing heroic is the sky.
John asked how many had seen him live before, and noting that a number of hands were going up in the front, but not many toward the back, quipped, “Those more experienced are keeping their distance.”
For ones who weren’t as familiar with him, he sang his iconic “I’m From New Jersey.” The opening strains of the familiar song drew applause from long-time fans and this reoccured throughout the night.
Requests were shouted out and John met them with humor, saying, “I think I know that one,” or “I recognize that from one of my albums” (or something to that effect). There would be a break in the middle of the show and John facetiously said it would give him time to re-learn one of the requests.
One audience member, whose request was granted immediately, self-congratulated, yelling, “Winner!”
The request, “Night is a Woman, was done at a grand piano. John did four or five songs at the piano during the evening, taking advantage of its beautiful sound.
John spoke of the Razzy Dazzy Spasm band that he was in with two other students at Moravian College in Bethlehem Pa. There was no knowing applause as might be expected. Few, if any knew that the revered Richard Shindell had joined later, on lead guitar. John said that he didn’t know if he could make it in music, so he majored in something that would give him “a more secure future: philosophy.” With this degree in hand, after graduation, he worked as a part-time delivery man for a florist. Offered a the job full-time, he took it, writing afterward, the next song in the set, “Land of the Bottom Line.” He wasn’t sure if he’d ever get to follow his dream of performing, if he had to take a straight 9-to-5 job. I need the money, they’ll take the time… trading the maybe for the sure … We know now, how that has turned out.
Upon hearing a request for “Houses in the Field, once again, he acquiesced immediately, saying, “Do you want to hear that now?” He went to the piano again. I’d heard John use an electric piano before, but the songs on keyboard this particular evening seemed more effective, given the quality of the instrument. The song’s sad theme of farms being lost to housing tracts was especially poignant. He said, “I wanted to do it at this point in the set because you needed cheering up.”
He digressed into chatting about partial capos. He pulled one out of his jacket pocket and talked about how the capos help to play minor chords. In an attempt to demonstrate, he then flubbed an e-minor chord, saying “Other people do it better.” With a pained expression, he said, “Not all my shows run this smooth.” Of the other capos clipped to the guitar headstock, antenna-like, he said, they “help with the reception.”
Playing the title track of the new CD, he explained that he’d been staying with New Hampshire based singer/songwriter and self-taught artist Tom Pirozzoli, who’d painted this album cover as well as the one for So Dark You See. He told Tom how easily his down jacket compressed into his luggage during travel. The painter responded, “Yeah, that’s the bright side of down.” Voila … one song/album title, thank you.
John finished the first set with “Morningside” from The Company You Keep. He said that he realized the preciousness of time after his son was born. “I used to have a long intro to this song, but I cut it down.”
He encouraged the audience to patronize the club during the intermission, saying self-deprecatingly (how else?), “You should drink alcohol. It makes the show go better.”
When the second set began, John had removed his jacket, as if to say, “Now, let’s really get down to work.” The first song “More Than One,” was from the new album. Full tank, light load / clear sky, dry road …There are more right ways than wrong. He then sat down for “a song from my youth,” “Italian Girls.”
It has veiled references to adolescent urges and he said, “I have to sit down for this one because of the subject matter.” It was more likely because he was using an amplified stomp board foot drum to provide a very effective percussive rhythm.
Introducing “Thirstier Wind,” from the new album, he said, “Spring is a big deal in Minnesota. There’s some spring in this song.” Every spring is a victory / when the winter is this long.
For the next introduction he quipped, “I’ve done 12 CDs. This is from one of them.” Reaching again into The Company You Keep, he sang “What Was That.” Prime time to forgive / Prime time to forget / What was it that I just said / What was it that I just said. He returned to the piano for “Let Them In,” about soldiers who never made it home. As before, Its melancholy air was made more emphatic by the resonance of the full grand.
Saying, “I’d like to play a little guitar,” he pulled out something only slightly larger than a ukulele, a “G-sharp” guitar, so named because of the shorter fretboard and its higher starting tone.
Saying he’d been living in the Godfrey Daniels basement in Bethlehem, Pa. at age 23, he realized that he’d become “an old bluesman.” One of the inventive names he had explored for himself, plucked from a country road sign, was “Slow Blind Driveway.” Using the G-sharp, he played a song unfamiliar to me, “Baby Blues,” How long has it been / since you’ve gone? He segued into an earlier request, “Where the Bottles Break.” The amplified G-sharp had a solid, chunky sound, appropriate to blues numbers.
Using his by now, long-familiar, faltering speech, he said, “When I was a teenager, I was really shy and socially awkward. I know that must be hard to believe now.”
From So Dark You See, he played “a song about unearned advantage,” “Ignorance and Privilege.”
On “Really Spring,” from Bright Side of Down he demonstrated some very deft fingerstyle guitar licks, going up the frets. If this were really spring
On “The Gypsy Life,” he sang, in the chorus, People love you when they know you’re leaving’ soon.
You might like the Gypsy life / Get your compass and your sharpest knife. I didn’t see this song anywhere in my Gorka collection. An internet search showed this to be a part of a greatest hits collection, with the same title, presented over the course of two DVDs and an audio CD. As described, it features in a live setting, Susan Werner, Amelia K. Spicer, Russ Rentler and Michael Manring. Gorka and his all-star band … sit in a half-circle in a recording studio somewhere. On DVD one, they play their way through a handful of songs, including “Mercy of the Wheels,” “I’m From New Jersey,” and “Stranger With Your Hair.” There are interviews on the second DVD and, of course, the audio CD.
I plan on acquiring this set asap.
He ended the concert there, but, to sustained applause, quickly came out for an encore. He began by telling a story about meeting Pops Staples at an American music festival in England in 1992. The night before the festival, he couldn’t sleep and went down to the hotel bar for a nightcap. Pops sat down next to him and, flabbergasted, John asked if it was him, checking to be sure. Pops had released his first solo record, apart from The Staples Singers. John just happened to have it with him on that trip and ran up to his room to get it. He brought it down for Pops to sign. At breakfast the next day, Pops sat down next to him and said if he had any contemporary gospel songs to send them along. “I’ll cut you a good deal,” he said. Some time later, John sent him Out of the Valley which contained “Good Noise,” which he played next, sitting again at the piano. “Good Noise” would have been perfect for Pops, but, according to John, he never recorded it. I was hoping for “Furniture,” from that album, but didn’t get it. Perhaps it wouldn’t have been as effective without Michael Manring’s fretless bass, used on the studio recording.
John finished the evening with “The Water is Wide,” including a new verse written by the late Pete Seeger. Encouraged to sing along, we did. That said, using a non-Gorka-penned folk music staple, with an addition by an icon of the genre, proved to be a suitable ending.