MUSIC SCENE: John Gorka goes back to the beginning HIDE CAPTION John Gorka
Earlier this year Gorka released "Before Beginning: The Unreleased 'I Know'" which is mostly the songs from his 1987 debut album, "I Know." But this is a previous version, recorded in Nashville in 1985.

By Jay N. Miller/For The Patriot Ledger
Friday Posted Nov 4, 2016 at 5:30 AM

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A storytelling lyrical style has made John Gorka one of the most compelling songwriters in folk music over the course of 13 outstanding albums, but his latest release tells part of his own story.

Earlier this year Gorka released “Before Beginning: The Unreleased ‘I Know’” which is mostly the songs from his 1987 debut album, “I Know,” which vaulted him to national stardom. But this is a previous version, recorded in Nashville in 1985 with producer Jim Rooney at Cowboy Jack Clements’ wonderfully named Cowboy Arms Hotel and Recording Spa, with a topflight band and a couple of backup singers named Shawn Colvin and Lucy Kaplansky. Gorka didn’t think the final product was what he wanted, and so the tapes had remained in storage and publicly unheard.

Gorka returns to the South Shore Folk Music Club’s series at The Beal House in Kingston on Saturday night. He’s on a New England swing that has him at the Stone Mountain Arts Center in Brownfield, Maine tonight, and at the Iron Horse in Northampton on Sunday night.

Eventually those original multi-track tapes found their way to Gorka a couple years ago, and he brought them to a friend’s studio to listen to them. Rob Genadek at The Brewhouse Recording Studio in Minneapolis got the tapes to play, and when Gorka liked what he heard, Genadek “baked” the tapes with a hair dryer to help preserve them while he transferred them to digital.

The songs are some of Gorka’s most beloved tunes, like the title cut, the rollicking “Blues Palace,” the stark “Down in the Milltown,” and the poignant “Love Is Our Cross To Bear.” The tight little band delivers them with energy and a bit of twang. As Gorka mentions on the liner notes, Stuart Duncan’s fiddle and mandolin work is exceptional throughout, those backup vocals are lovely, yet the central focus of every song is Gorka’s deep and warm, world-weary baritone vocals.

But Gorka had decided to just sit on this session when it was done, in a week, in 1985.

“I guess I didn’t know what I was looking for,” Gorka admitted, from his Minneapolis-area home this week. “I felt like those sessions turned out good, but I didn’t know if it was the right kind of good. I might not have always known what I wanted, but I knew what wasn’t right for me. It was another couple years (and two more recording sessions) before I hit upon what I wanted.”

“The final version of ‘I Know’ that was released just had the tempos and feels I wanted,” Gorka added. “For me, I just thought I knew better than they do what works for my music, for repeated listening. When you play live like that, with other players in the same room, there is obviously a lot more energy. I think now, looking at it, ‘Before Beginning’ has a more optimistic tone than ‘I Know.’ But I think the record I ended up releasing in ‘87 had a little bit more intimacy. There are things I like better on ‘Before Beginning,’ but overall I felt like the music would hold up better over repeated listening the way it came out on ‘I Know.’ By the time ‘I Know’ came out in the fall of ‘87, I had probably worked on that final version for about a year.”

While most of ‘Before Beginning’ sounds like classic Gorka with just a bit more twang, it isn’t exactly country music by any stretch. Although the breezy ballad “Out of My Mind” does have a certain country-pop flavor, that one is the exception to the rule.

“Out of my Mind’ was my take on trying to write a Frank Sinatra song,” Gorka, 58, chuckled. “I think some things may have turned out more countrified than what turned up on ‘I Know,’ but the bassist and drummer had played mostly with country and country-blues acts, so that’s understandable.”

Longtime fans know that Gorka’s albums through the years almost always feature superb studio musicians, so they are essentially band records. But he almost always tours solo, which presents the songs in a more intimate, but more demanding format for the singer.

“Live shows are a different medium than the recording world,” said Gorka. “My records seem to have a more complete musical arrangement, so the sound is different. But playing in concert, just vocals and a guitar can fill the room, whereas a recording has to work in a variety of situations.”

“It was fun to hear these old recordings,” Gorka noted, “the way my voice was, and the interaction with the other players. I think I sound like a different person, at 27. I always thought these songs were bigger than any one version, and it’s not like there are any really definitive versions of them out there. I look at my songs like they’re Play-Doh; you can have many valid interpretations and they don’t have to be in any one style.”

Still there are aspects to ‘Before Beginning’ that have Gorka pondering alternatives he might’ve chosen.

“I always thought there were parts of these ‘Before Beginning’ sessions that didn’t make it onto ‘I Know’ that were pretty interesting,” Gorka said. “I like the horns for instance, and the synthesizer part on “I Saw A Stranger With Your Hair” was really good, a different thing entirely. I would’ve liked to have kept some of those things for a different session.”

Of course, unearthing this artifact from his early days presents a little quandary for Gorka. With 13 albums since these sessions to draw on, does he need to re-acquaint himself with these tunes?

“Someone recently requested “Out of My Mind” and I hadn’t played it for a long time, so I needed to go back and look at it,” Gorka said. “I do have 13 albums out, but I don’t have to remember all the songs on them. Sometimes if I’ve been stumped, I can retrieve a song during intermission. The last time I counted, I was able to retrieve 70 songs or so, but I have well over 100 on record. Some of them come back to you right away. Sometimes a reference in a song makes people remember it, and so some tunes come in and out of my sets.”

“I don’t have a setlist for any show,” Gorka added. “I have a couple of songs I will do as an introductory segment. I always ask if people in the audience have ever seen me live before, and if not, that first couple songs is like an introduction for them. Then I usually just do a mixture of songs people request, or songs that occur to me as the night goes on.”

Since some of the songs on ‘Before Beginning’ are among his best and most popular, Gorka has probably been performing them through the years anyway. But do those 1985 versions influence how he approaches them now?

“It’s probably not a real conscious thing, but I suppose they do,” said Gorka. “Re-listening to ‘Downtown Tonight,’ for example, I noticed that its middle section on ‘Before Beginning’ has a real half-time feel, while on ‘I Know’ it is a straight-four beat. I can understand how a drummer would feel it, and interpret it like Kenny Malone did on ‘Before Beginning.’ The funny thing is that my guitar part is the same on both versions.”

Gorka has been playing the Beal House since he arrived on the folk scene in the mid-1980s, and he’s always happy to return. With his last album before this being 2014’s “The Bright Side of Down,” he’s also starting to prepare for his next new record.

“The Beal House has endured, as so many other venues have come and gone; it’s almost a surprise sometimes what stays the same, but I’m glad to see it,” Gorka noted. “If people are there to listen, I’m in the right place.”

“I have some new things recorded, and have written some others,” he added. “I feel like ‘bright Side of Down’ was the end of a long cycle for me. Whatever I do next, I’m thinking of in terms of a new beginning. I think listening to ‘Before Beginning’ again might influence my approach to recording also; having everybody on a record playing in the same room can be a really fun thing, and I think I’d really like to do it that way again.”.

JOHN GORKA Presented by the South Shore Folk Music Club.

8 p.m. Saturday at
The Beal House,
222 Main St., Kingston.
$23 members, $25 nonmembers.

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