Folk musicians hope to make ..............By: Michael Neary March 09. 2006
connection in Monroe
John Gorka, hailed for his place in the New Folk Movement in the 1990s, and Mustard's Retreat will perform at Monroe County Community College Saturday night.













Photo: John Gorka live at Cafe Lena 2006-
photo made by Bobsowa


One song that John Gorka says receives some strong reaction is "Always," a track that tends to tug at an audience from opposite angles by combining a cheery beat with somber lyrics. "I introduce it as a jaunty song of sorrows," he said.

Mr. Gorka says the song's not autobiographical, at least in any literal sense. Punctuated by the line "I will always be lonely," the song doesn't really apply to Mr. Gorka, who's married with children.

"I don't feel I lack for company," he said with a chuckle during a telephone interview. But he says the line gets at something more nebulous that his music - or any music - seeks to address.

"There's a truth in there that there are places in the human psyche, or heart, that other people can't reach," he said. "It's a place that music and art can reach, but it's not always accessible to other people."

Mr. Gorka will perform Saturday night at Monroe Community College. The Ann Arbor folk due Mustard's Retreat will open the concert. Mr. Gorka's music swings from the sort of straightforward declaration found in "Always" to the odder imagery of a song such as "I Don't Feel Like a Train," where he envisions himself as a pair of train tracks. His baritone voice, accompanying his guitar, and his easy stage presence also have won him acclaim over the years.

Mr. Gorka returns to this notion of connection - to both his audience and to other artists - like a well-honed refrain when he talks about his music. His career took off in the 1990s, a time when musicians loosely characterized as folk artists were writing and singing their ways into popular culture. Artists like Suzanne Vega, Tracy Chapman, Shawn Colvin and Michelle Shocked were all popular in the '90s.

"I think their success opened doors for a lot of people," said Mr. Gorka, named in the 1990s by "Rolling Stone" as the "pre-eminent male singer/songwriter of the New Folk Movement." Although he acknowledged that folk artists today don't get the big-label backing they were getting in then, he said it was not for lack of talent. He said he'd recently attended a conference in Austin, Texas, with Folk Alliance, a folk music and dance organization, and found the gathering brimming with strong musicians.

"The business side is not doing as well as the music side," he said. David Tamulevich, Mr. Gorka's manager since 1990 and one of the musicians in Mustard's Retreat, agreed the folk scene wasn't receiving the high billing it once enjoyed, but he said the need for folk singers was as prominent now as it's ever been. "Bad times are always good for folk music," he said, noting that Mustard Retreat's music treats issues in the news - or that might have been in the news - but in a way that emphasizes connection rather than dissonance.

He said he wanted to find "a common ground that's beyond partisanship" and mentioned a song called "Ours Is a Simple Faith," which appeared in the Pete-Seger-founded "Sing Out Magazine," as illustrating that credo. "As we travel around we are a real connection between communities," he said. "… It's about common good, it's not about beating (the audience) over the head.

For Mr. Gorka, connection also involves - at least sometimes - fusing his words with other people's. In two songs, he obtained permission to use lines from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the novelist and folklorist Zora Neale Hurston. The line he used from Ms. Hurston came from the novel "Their Eyes Were Watching God": "I work all day for money and I fight all night for love." Mr. Gorka completed it this way, in the song "Talk About Love": "I'm somewhere between what I've got/And baby what I'm dreaming of."

"The ultimate goal is to write songs that transcend my personal experience because I don't think my little life is all that interesting," he said. "The strength of what I do comes from what I have in common with people rather than what's different." Mustard's Retreat also looks outward in many of its songs, avoiding, the duo says, the grim confessional slant.

"Michael tends to write these sprawling historical stories," said Mr. Tamulevich, speaking of his partner in the duo, Michael Hough. Mr. Tamulevich mentioned a song called "Pontiac's Rebellion," about a time when "Pontiac and the Indians almost pushed the white people back across the Alleghenies." But he also mentioned more fanciful songs such as "Mallon's Bridge," which harbors a love-stricken man wandering aimlessly on a bridge late at night.

Some of Mustard's Retreat's songs revolve around a close-knit community that developed as the two, who met as short-order cooks, began playing at a music-rich Ann Arbor club called The Ark more than 30 years ago. After the two had played together for several years, they began to compose their songs together as well, according to Mr. Tamulevich. That meant, he said, melding starkly different styles. "He tends to write epics, I tend to write phone messages," said Mr. Tamulevich. One song that emerged from the collaboration was actually called "Phone Messages," a song that fuses everyday answering-machine phrases weightier themes: "Thunder rolls in the Summer's night.

Bird songs welcome the morning light. May all your troubles turn out right. I'll call you back if you need me." But the note that keeps emerging, whether on their Web site or in the observations of the people who watch them, is audience. "They're really warm," said Janelle Carroll, a night manager, office worker and volunteer at The Ark. "…They have that way of bringing in the audience and getting them to sing along." She said the guitar, the bass guitar, the mandolin and the dulcimer were all instruments that either Mr. Hough or Mr. Tamulevich - or both - can play.

Ms. Carroll, who said "churches are pretty much the only places left" where communal singing occurs, praised the duo's effort to bring the audience into the performance. "When you have a group that can get the audience to come together," she said, "it's a wonderful thing to see." A keen sensitivity to audience appears to be one note that Mr. Hough, Mr. Tamulevich and Mr. Gorka all share.

copyright: 2006