Gifted Gorka mixes songs about war, vulnerability

By Robert Reid

KITCHENER (Apr 28, 2007)

If you're annoyed with the unseasonably cool weather we're getting, blame John Gorka. Just kidding. His On Stage debut at Centre in the Square last night certainly had nothing to do with the weather -- good, bad or otherwise. Nonetheless, whenever the Minnesota-based singer/songwriter performs in this part of Canada, he encounters nasty weather.

Gorka was welcomed by a snowstorm when he appeared at the University of Guelph in 1994, a repeat of the inclement welcome he received a year earlier when he visited Maryhill's Commercial Tavern.

Torrential rains forced him off the main stage into a tent in 1999 when he debuted at the Hillside Festival. As if inhospitable weather wasn't enough, moments before he went on stage, festival organizers confirmed rumours of a teenager drowning in the bay adjacent to the festival.Fortunately for us, such experiences haven't soured him on the country. "I'm very glad to be in Canada," the affable artist noted early in the concert. "I've always enjoyed coming here." Happily, all was warm, dry and comfy when Gorka demonstrated why he is regarded as one of the best singer/songwriters in the United States, if not in all of North America.

The intimate, cabaret style setting provide the ideal atmosphere in which to a hear a gifted songwriter with a baritone as thick, rich and supple as hot toffee. His easy manner and wry, self-deprecating sense of humour informed song introductions, which often contrasted with lyrics that expressed feelings of vulnerability when the heart yearns for what it cannot find in moments of doubt, uncertainty and loneliness.

Gorka's strengths as a songwriter were evident in the fact that he drew material from his 10 studio albums, the earliest released in 1987, without compromising integrity, honesty or artistry. With the eyes of both America and Canada fixed on war in the Middle East, he responded with four songs about soldiers in harm's way -- Let Them In, Temporary Road and Road of Good Intentions, in addition to the title track from his most recent album, Writing in the Margins.

Gorka didn't have a set list and he continually honoured requests (many in the audience were familiar with his work), once pulling a lyric sheet out of a carrying case. He played acoustic guitar for most of the 24 songs he offered over two 50-minute sets and encore.

However, it was a special treat when he sat at the Centre's new Steinway grand piano for a trio of songs including Let Them In, Houses in the Fields and The Water Is Wide, a traditional song he recorded on the Pete Seeger tribute album, Where Have All the Flowers Gone. Gorka readily admitted to having a number of musical heroes. He paid tribute to Stan Rogers by covering The Lockkeeper (included on Writing in the Margins). He ended the concert with That's How Legends Are Made, a song of deep respect he wrote following Rogers' death.

He also introduced When You Sing, from the new album. It's a song tribute to Mavis Staples. When he met Staples at a festival in New Jersey a couple of years ago, he told her that "when you sing, you make the world a better place."

The same thing can be said of the New Jersey bred John Gorka.


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