John Gorka embraces with wit and ballads
Favorites delivered in distinctive baritone

10:26 AM CST on Sunday, December 3, 2006
By MICHAEL GRANBERRY / The Dallas Morning News


Photo: Josh MishellPhoto: Josh Mishell

John Gorka opened his show Friday night at Uncle Calvin's Coffeehouse by crooning one of his upbeat favorites, "When She Kisses Me." And then it was time to throw a curveball, which in Mr. Gorka's case means interacting with the audience. "I like to mislead people into believing that I do happy, upbeat love songs, but really, that is the only one," he said.

At 48, Mr. Gorka has settled comfortably into himself, and his adoring audience loves him as much as they do a favorite old shoe. Speaking of shoes, he gets kudos there too. He came out wearing thick black ones with red laces - to match his shirt, of course. As for those witty asides, Mr. Gorka is not unlike Jackson Browne, whose wry one-liners often leave newcomers to his shows wondering how a man who crafts such sad ballads could be so, well, funny. "I moved to Minnesota," Mr. Gorka said, "because I couldn't take the Pennsylvania winters."

His husky baritone, as pure and distinctive as a fine coffee, delivers its own rare power to such songs as "I Saw a Stranger With Your Hair" and the piano-driven "Let Them In," as stirring an anti-war anthem as any ever written. "There's more fiction out of Washington than out of Hollywood," he sang in "The Road of Good Intentions."

He wrote "Vinnie Charles Is Free" after overhearing a phone conversation in a bar. A young woman was calling her uncle, who was getting out of jail. "He kicked the cocaine in the can," writes Mr. Gorka, who sang of this tired parolee, "most of the weight he gained was in his eyes."

For two hours, he blessed the audience with 23 songs, few as moving as "Night is a Woman," as in, "Night Is a woman who embraces me." He was helped by a winning warm-up act in the person of Amilia K. Spicer, who also provided terrific backup vocals on some of his best ballads.

His ultimate may be "Love Is Our Cross to Bear," which came early in a repertoire that now spans 10 records. Uh, make that 11. Mr. Gorka says he was surprised to learn that a record company, which now has the rights to his earlier recordings, was putting out an 11th, titled Pure John Gorka.

Thus, he said, it's full of "purities," which audience members kept demanding he play. Memory apparently fails to serve, however, even when it comes to his own classics. "I don't know that one," he replied to one request. "I know of it." And, he didn't play it - but no one seemed to mind. Because everything he did play felt like a night that left his listeners feeling embraced.