John Gorka Pleases in Piermont
I had the pleasure of seeing John Gorka at the Turning Point Café in Piermont, New York, on Saturday night, January 17th. With the temperature outside hovering near freezing, it seemed downright Spring-like compared to our recent weather. It’s ironic that the Minnesota-based Gorka’s arrival coincided with a welcomed thaw. His excellent performance in the intimate Turning Point setting added to the evening’s warmth.
Right from the beginning, Gorka connected with the crowd by playing an old song, “Like My Watch” (I Know – 1987), a fun tune in which the singer plaintively describes his flaws. “Like my watch, I’m a little slow, and I don’t always go when I’m s’posed to,” Gorka sang, later pointing out that he wrote the song at the tender age of nineteen, and that it has become truer over the years. Throughout the night, the theme of aging “less that gracefully” was repeated, resonating well with many of the gray and graying audience members.
Gorka played alone, with an acoustic guitar and an occasional foray behind the synthesized piano keyboard, showcasing his impressive songwriting and vocal skills. Standout performances included several from his most recent Red House Records release, “Old Futures Gone,” including “Always” (“a jaunty song of sorrow”), “Dogs and Thunder,” (a dark look at doomed relationships) and the album’s title track. Gorka took audience requests (both mental and verbal!), delivering excellent renditions of the dark and menacing “Raven in the Storm” (Land of the Bottom Line - 1990), and “Houses in the Fields” (Jack’s Crows – 1991), a song lamenting the loss of American farms to suburban homebuilding.
With his trademark affected and absentminded stage persona in full form, Gorka provided ongoing comic relief throughout the show. During “People My Age” (The Company You Keep – 2001), a hilarious description of how people get “gross” when they get old, he explained to the audience that he has to “concentrate real hard not to make eye contact during this song.” He also described scrapple, a breakfast staple from his time in Bethlehem, PA, as “Spam without the health benefits.” Near the end of the show, while introducing an inspiring version of Curtis Mayfield’s “People Get Ready,” Gorka encouraged the audience to sing along. He pointed out that there had already been several sing-alongs that night, but he had forgotten to tell us.
Two of the night’s high points contrasted with the comic banter. “Let Them In” (The Company You Keep – 2001), sets to music a beautiful and moving poem written by a military nurse in WWII, asking St. Peter to let the soldiers who died into heaven so they can enjoy all the things they missed on earth. Likewise, Gorka’s sole encore was “Soldier After All” (Old Futures Gone – 2003), a song about having to fight for what is right. It was dedicated to the late Minnesota Senator Paul Wellstone and his wife.
It’s always refreshing to see a performer who enjoys his or her work. Unlike many artists who tour primarily as a vehicle to promote record releases, John Gorka seems to thrive on the tour and audience dynamic. Audiences recognize this and the result is an informal and comfortable experience, almost as if the artist was hanging around your living room, playing songs for you and your friends. Gorka has scaled back his touring schedule in recent years, allowing him to spend more time with his wife and young children in Minnesota. He is scheduled to be back in our area in March, at the Berrie Performing Arts Center in Mahwah, NJ, and will also appear at the annual Falcon Ridge Folk Festival in Hillsdale, NY in July.