John Gorka is touring behind his two-DVD set "The Gypsy Life," which features interviews and videos from concerts. (Red House Records)
John Gorka may be the preeminent male singer-songwriter of the new folk movement (at least that's what Rolling Stone said in 1991), but he'd hate for fans to see him as "this really ultra-serious guy."
Enter "The Gypsy Life," an ambitious new two-DVD package built around 19 of Gorka's best songs culled from his 10 albums.
The two-disc set includes an audio DVD and a two-sided video DVD with interviews, stories behind the songs, a photo gallery and videos from concerts. The project's goal was to give fans "a fuller picture of what I am as an artist, as opposed to what people might take away from hearing the records," Gorka, 49, says from his home in Minnesota.
What fans get in abundance is Gorka's warm, easy-on-the ears baritone, supple melodic sensibility and deft guitar work. His songs, including favorites "I'm From New Jersey," "Love Is Our Cross to Bear" and "Road of Good Intentions," are notable for sharply etched character studies combining the humorous and the serious, as well as passionate social critiques.
Gorka and several of his musical pals, including singer-songwriter Susan Werner, who opens for him, filmed and recorded a two-hour performance concert in high-definition for the project in a Los Angeles theater -- without an audience, because Gorka is not a fan of traditional live albums. He thinks that recording the music, without the usual live-album audience banter, ensures that it "can be viewed or listened to more than once."
Having the musical chops to make such decisions is a world away from a time when Gorka, as a college student at Moravian College in Pennsylvania, doubted that music "was any kind of possibility in terms of making a living."
It was during his freshman year that a friend dragged the history and philosophy major to Godfrey Daniels, a then-new coffeehouse and listening room that's one of the most respected acoustic venues on the East Coast (think a cross between the Birchmere and Jammin' Java).
"I started going as much as I could, to the open mikes, and to shows when I could," Gorka recalls. "If somebody looked interesting, I would go halfway through the show, when they lowered the price." Soon, he was living in the club's basement, working as its sound man and emcee, and developing friendships and mentorships with the headliners. Having written tunes since high school in New Jersey, Gorka began to sing his own songs, moving from open mike to opening act.
When he graduated from Moravian in 1979, his five-year goal was to be "traveling around the country, selling my records out of the trunk of my car."
He came close. Five years on, Gorka won the prestigious Kerrville Folk Festival's New Folk Competition and became a strong touring act "as people I opened shows for at Godfrey's opened doors for me in other parts of the country." His first album, "I Know," didn't arrive until 1987 -- in stores rather than in his trunk. Since then there have been nine more, including 2006's widely praised "Writing in the Margins."
Gorka says he's happy with the scope of "The Gypsy Life," but after touring he will begin work on his 11th album. His goal was: "Write songs in '07 and make something in '08 for '09. Now I have to gather and sort the songs and get them all ready to go." The Gypsy Life goes on, apparently.
Gorka Appearing Saturday at the Birchmere, 3701 Mount Vernon Ave., Alexandria,
with Susan Werner. Show starts at 7:30. Tickets: $25; 202-397-7328, http://www.ticketmaster.com
or at the box office.