I would be arriving ahead of my wife who didn’t want to mess with an opening act as I cut a swath through the cool Sunday evening air. It was what passed for Spring these days so let’s be thankful for that. I could tell I was approaching the Diana Wortham theater due to the migratory patterns of old, grizzled dudes converging on Pack Square in downtown Asheville. I entered the building and spied the merch. Martin Belmont’s book on the recording of “Sparks.” The acoustic version and CD/LP remaster of the same. And copies of “Cloud Symbols” in LP and CD. I was on a low budget tonight. I had already bought “Cloud Symbols” on Friday so I was already wading in as deep as I was going to go.
One of the gents I was walking behind on the way in was inspecting the merch. I took the initiative of recommending the new album, “Cloud Symbols.” “On first listen it’s deceptively upbeat, the soul album he’d been threatening to make since covering Sam Cooke thirty years ago. But once you start paying attention to the lyrics, it’s acerbic as ever!” The gent laughed out loud in his approval.
I moved on to the will call window and got one of the two tickets and made my way to the seats. The Diana Wortham is an elegant Arts + Crafts black box theater that probably seats 400 comfortably. Once in my seat I could hear that many of the other guests might not be natives of my city. Well, all warm bodies are welcome when Graham Parker makes his first visit to Western North Carolina in 18 years.
The pre-show music was all soul music [lots of Al Green] so I had read Parker’s motives correctly on the new album. At 7:30 sharp Al faded down to present Adam Ezra. Fate had conspired to deliver another earnest folk singer to open for Parker once more [see last May’s Parker review]. Ezra was a burly barefoot guy in a man bun who specialized in an overbearing take on the singer/songwriter as defined by maybe Bruce Springsteen or Eddie Vedder. My wife was making exactly the right moves. Mr. Ezra was at his least objectionable when soft peddling on the volume levels. When not bellowing like a bear in a trap one could almost sit through his colorless claptrap. Unfortunately, he closed the set as he had opened it; in full bellow. Ensuring that I would have the same taste in my mouth that had accompanied my first impression of him. Parker could not play too soon.
After the set break I waited for my wife and we got her ticket as Parker had already started. I could hear the strains of “New York Shuffle” from “Stick To Me.” That album was my entrée to Parker fandom, and a song also in his last set. I had wondered whether seeing GP just 11 months after the last show would see any serious overlap in the set lists, he seems committed to keeping the tours fresh. This evening there would only be eight songs overlapping in his set. And most importantly, there were a quartet of offerings from his new album, “Cloud Symbols,” which I endeavored to buy last week in advance of the show. Of course, the album’s soul vibe via the laid back New Orleans horn section would be tempered by his solo acoustic status, but the fact is that it’s the acerbic songwriting [as well as his unfiltered personality] that makes seeing GP such a treat.
I really appreciated hearing the ebullient “Girl In Need” early in the set and even without the horns, it was a glimpse of GP in an upbeat moment. “I also loved the biographical slices of the tune “Brushes” which looks back in wonder at how Parker barely escaped the tedium of a 9-5 life [late in the game, it must be remembered] as filtered through his enjoyment of brushed drums and oysters. As with the bivalves, it’s been the grains of irritant that had often provided GP with the pearls of his songbook.
Since this year is the 40th anniversary of “Squeezing Out Sparks,” that album is getting a heavy playback in concert as well. Released concurrently with this tour is a solo acoustic recording of that album plus “Mercury Poisoning” that has just been released. We picked that up at the merch table afterward. About half of that album also got the nod this evening’s set. Parker would set up intros by saying things like “side one, track one” before digging into “Discovering Japan.” That’s not too surprising, given how that album seems to be GP’s calling card in America. While it was his commercial breakthrough, it’s not as if he’s been trying to live up to it ever since, with handfuls of albums that I enjoy as much or more in the years since. But at least in his case, if he leans on his best known US album my eyes won’t be rolling back in my head [see: Simple Minds]. I may like some of his albums more than others. “The Real Macaw” was as close to a wash that I’ve ever heard from GP, but even it offers “Life Get’s Better.” A random stab at his discography would probably yield as sturdy as setlist as we were experiencing this evening.
As always, Parker’s banter between songs was second to none with a witty line in stage patter that cuts to the heart of much of his appeal. He also brought out his kazoo rack for a few of the horn-laden songs from “Cloud Symbols” and his setup for the kazoo was the only banter of the evening that had been reused from his last tour, when he previewed that album’s “Dreamin’.” There was also lively exchanges between the artiste and his audience this evening, and in a new wrinkle, GP led the group in the occasional sing-along. One of these was for a song I didn’t recognize so that threw me a curve with the vast majority but not all GP albums in the Record Cell. One great song I didn’t recognize was “Stick To The Plan” from 2007’s “Waiting For Columbus.” One of the harder to find Bloodshot Records albums.
As with the last show, the set was split between acoustic and electric halves, with the acoustic getting the nod for the encore. While I wouldn’t just see any favorite artist acoustically, one has to admit that there is little peril in such a setup getting the sort of “bass fracking” that causes us to leave a show. Lats year I had expressed that I hoped that it would not be another generation before we was Parker again and I was impressed that we got a show in town, and at such an elegant venue besides. Afterward, my wife opined that the Diana Wortham should have a bigger line in the sort of show that we had seen this evening. While it is a small-to-medium sized PAC, there are probably many good tours which would hit the sweet spot here. If you are ready for GP to hit your sweet spot, you’re in luck. His US tour is at the halfway point with many more dates to go.
Graham Parker | “Cloud Symbols” USA Tour | 2019
01 | Tin Pan | Richmond, VA
02 | City Winery | Washington D.C.
03 | Rams Head Onstage | Annapolis, MD
04 | Sellersville Theater | Sellersville, PA
07 | City Winery | New York, NY
09 | The Greenwich Odeum | East Greenwich, RI
11 | City Winery | Boston, MA
15 | South Orange Performing Arts Center | South Orange, NJ
16 | Iron Horse | Northampton, MA
17 | Towne Crier | Beacon, NY
18 | My Father’s Place | The Roslyn Hotel, Roslyn, NY
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