Shaw Enough

It was a tad like being in a cartoon. You know the one where Wiley Coyote goes racing off the edge of the mesa, walking on air until realization strikes and his ears go up. He looks at the "camera" an animator's illusion puts us behind and then, with dawning dread, he turns his eyes downward and gravity has him. Zip! He crashes to the canyon floor below.

Christopher Shaw, playing The Wall Cafe in Kingston saturday night, had us in that same spot. We never saw it coming, us sophisticates indulging this backwoods folkster, chuckling at the friendly folk warmth and offhand folk wisdom of his discourse. It wasn't a monologue or a contrived soliloquy; Shaw was merely conversationally relating a story and he had us rapt and wrapped. We strolled right with him across those big green lilly pads as he chatted, never noticing or suspecting the grip he had on that beechnut limb overhead or how far from the shore we had wandered until...oops.

I'd have to wager that most of the folks in that huge dark room under the Fair Street Reformed Church weren't quite sure what to expect from this northwoods folkie. They may have heard cuts on the radio and might have known him by his rich baritone, fine songcrafting abilities and polished guitarwork, or by his work on PBS or NPR or even by word of his guitar workshops but they didn't know the half of it. He hadn't played this area before, Shaw told me, except in the studio while recording albums at Scott Petito's legend-in-the-making NRS Studio in West Hurley with the likes of Artie Traum, this year's Grammy-award winning Cindy Cashdollar, Garth Hudson, Jay Unger, Tony Trischka, Rory Block and other Woodstock-familiar names. Even Steve Riley and the Mamou Playboys sit in on his "Songs From the Big Front Porch" CD with Bridget Ball.

After Shaw opened with the title song from his "Been To Town & Back Again" album on the Twining Tree label (distributed by Alliance Entertainment), it soon became evident that he brought a lot more to the table than expected. Shaw is obviously a man who relishes extended and delicious spans of foreplay. Looking at first, from the back of the room, just a bit like Robert Culp playing a clerk in red suspenders, Shaw launched us in a verbal canoe fashioned with good will, chummy personality, folk humor and spellbinding lore of the north country. He'd remember to toss in a prime tune like "Cold River Waltz" (which has been entered in the Library of Congress Folk Archives) here and there with an 'oh, yeah, I should play one now' recognition but, overall, audience and performer became so involved flycasting, porcupines, teachers and whatnot, the fabric of yarns spun that buffered or packaged the songs, that we kept losing track of what we were doing there. We were too entertained to realize we were being entertained.

The New England folk tradition is as strong as any in the nation and the western end of its noble fleet is anchored in the Adirondacks by a grand variety of acoustic artists, including some who have played this two-year-old venue at The Wall in the past...Peggy Eyres, Michael Jerling, Bernice Lewis, Camille West and Shaw's mate, Bridget Ball, who delievered a sibling to their three-year-old son, "Tinker," on March 6th at 9:11 am. (For the record, Silas Henry Shaw came in at 9 lbs, 2 oz and 20" long.) Christopher Shaw has floated his own unique position in the northeastern folk convoy with 7 albums since 1987, including one, "Fireside", of his most popular and hilarious tales.

You might expect such tall tales to be more potbelly stove and crackerbarrel than fireside, as I did, but Shaw is too slick a weaver for that and his roots in the lore go back to the arrival of his family in the Lake George region in 1763 (or 1753, if you count the gunnery crew at Fort William Henry, around which Shaw opened the second half of the show with a dramatic a cappella song of legend.) He soaked in the songs and traditions of the north country on Flat Rock Road in a town so backwoods "you could fall asleep on the double line in the middle of the run on Labor Day night and freeze to death before you were hit by a car."

"I grew up listening to (traditional music) in the Odd Fellows Halls and Masonic Lodges up there," Shaw explained. "Wherever there's a saturday dance; mostly older guys playing, so I heard that kind of music. I think (the folk tradition) is just one of those things that just never really goes away. It's always there and kind of rises in public consciousness and then sinks down like a Bell Curve kind of deal. You can go up into the mountains on saturday nights and hear the same traditional songs played night after night by players that'll probably never play more than about 15 miles away from there. And I'm sure it's true in places up in the Appalachians and elsewhere. There's an urban tradition starting up, too, on street corners here and there." Shaw tempered his style with contemporary leanings gleaned from jaunts into Greenwich Village while attending Fairleigh Dickinson University and his own coffeehouse beginings in the early 70's. His performances evolved into one-man shows with an intermission rather than a string of sets during the 1980's.

A delightful key feature of the scenario is the Uncle Walt mythos of tall tales. Based on a character you'd have to think was invented, they're the real thing passed down by family and friends and revolve around Walt Blair, an uncle who drove a snow plow for Warren County for 43 years.

"I keep remembering these stories," Shaw said during the break. "My wife gets me to just talk about him in the car and all of a sudden all these other ones come back to me and she'll record them for me so I can remember them. Other members of the family recall bits and pieces of other stories and you try to reconstruct ones that are lost. When you're a kid, you sit there listening to these things but you don't really pay that much attention. You're amused by them but you're not trying to remember them, so it's an ongoing process to dig them out." And that is the core of Tradition.

Musical highlights included the keen mountain picking on his own "Adirondack Morning," a beguiling bloodthirsty ballad about an encounter with a bear, a traditional logging tune that must have been a must when he was artist-in-residence at the Adrirondack Museum on its namesake "Blue Mountain Lake" and a crown jewel of a song which John Sebastian and Vassar Clements played on and Shaw had a modest "hit" with, called "$10 Christmas." A tune so poignant it'd make the hardest soul, a guy in touch with his inner child killer, bleary-eyed, Shaw introduced it by Billboard position "one spot behind Natalie Cole and one space ahead of Barry Manilow," punching a 'gotcha, Barry' nuggy into the air.

Two things from saturday night's experience for the memo pad; The once-a-month venue at The Wall Cafe is one you should keep an eye peeled for- on April 18th, for instance, when piano-playing satirist and Philo recording artist John Forster comes in. Also, a lot of solo performers serve up a line of songs to leave you with a small tinge that perhaps you haven't been entertained quite enough. Not so Shaw. Christopher Shaw is a consummate and surprising folk entertainer with fully rounded corners.

-Gary Alexander