Lyonhart's "Accidental" Album

I'd risk repeating myself if I referred to songwriter Richard Shindell's echo of Gotthold Lessing's idea that "nothing under the sun is accidental" merely to recall the "happy accidents" which sometimes help form his tunes. Charles Lyonhart views his new CD as one of those happy accidents in that, as it was being recorded, he had no notion of creating an album. It is, perhaps as Paul Valéry noted "A poem is never finished; it's always an accident that puts an end to it- i.e. gives it to the public." And that's what happened here. Lyonhart inadvertently bootlegged himself and caught something worth keeping.

Clinton Heylin, in the introduction to his fascinating book on "bootleg" recordings argues that no record company can capture each and every (moment) worth preserving"; (they) "cannot lock music up in neat little boxes and say, 'This is what you may listen to'." In a way, the selection of Lyonhart's finer tunes which appeared on his last album (Leap of Faith) were exactly this- carefully wrapped songs, packaged in the varied textures of producers Larry Campbell, Joel Diamond, Lincoln Scheifer and Steve Raleigh. The result was an eclectic, lurching menu of fleshed out dishes with noncontiguous seasonings. Not necessarily a negative criticism, for what it is, but far from the natural organic flow we find on Exception To the Rule. We might recount our " accidental" theme here with Christopher Morley's line "I hate to see men overdressed; a man ought to look like he's put together by accident, not added up on purpose."

As attractively treated as the individual arrangements on Leap of Faith were, with its busload of fine contributing musicians, their very variance distracted from the essential point of that collection's progression, which should have been the strength of Lyonhart's lyrics and melodies, both of which have a habit of repeating themselves in your mind hours and days later. On Exception To the Rule, Lyonhart was merely recording a few of the live performances with guitarist Steve Raleigh at a regular repeating gig in Warwick, hoping to snatch a work tape to expand his New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania appearance turf. Only through later listenings did it dawn on him that he had an album here. More than that, it's a completely accessible and consistent progression which compliments the songs themselves with greater accuracy than preceding versions, giving an almost informal essence of them in living form which bears up to repeated listenings with more dynamic stability than the studio takes.

Steve Raleigh, a superb jazz-oriented artist, steps away from his own spotlight to become a lover of these lines. He dances them, weaves them, caresses them brilliantly even as he adds his spare, light vocal harmonies in just the right spots. Lyonhart acknowledged a motive to document his work with Raleigh and the special presence he brings to the songs, calling it "a strange marriage from the beginning"- a folk artist in the same tree with a climber whose roots are in Mingus and Miles. But the simple live blend, recorded direct to the board with only the slightest hint of crowd presence, relays the relaxed and natural shape of the tunes without studio tensions.

It kicks off winsomely with "Senorita Dance," an infectious veiled sarcasm meant to sway rounded hips that encloses an improvised, ever changing monologue as Raleigh's strings ring off of the fire-escapes in the slums of heaven and down the alley toward the golden boulevard where lines of harps can't quicken the pulse. Yes, Lyonhart repeats the song from the last album; repeats six songs among the fifteen tracks, in fact, not to mention one he also previously recorded on a compilation cd. He also covers The Beatles' "Blackbird" and the traditional "Motherless Child," which struck him anew with Van Morrison's revival of it, stirring old pangs of background, growing up on the streets as an exile from dysfunctional family life. With only six new songs, you might complain that there was room for some other, unrecorded favorites like "Wasted Thoughts of You," "Backrooms of Your Mind," "Holyman," "Hands of Time," "Damned Thing Called Love" or "Red Ron." But the repeats are here to be heard differently and what Lyonhart did with this release was play a game of Who Falls the Best.

Maybe they didn't do that in your neighborhood. One-by-one each kid charges the kid with a toy gun and dies a spectacular death. The one who falls most persuasively or dramatically gets to man the gun. In this case, the performances which fell the best made the record, regardless of repetition. We hear them again with a looser, less self-conscious and more secure voice; the product of seasoning and on-the-spot ambience.

If you consider Shindell's sold-out performance at the Unison Center last weekend, you'd have to note some ingredients of live performance and how they vary from artist to artist. Shindell's rich baritone is delivered with a precise, even overly deliberate and stilted tonality which you might expect to loosen up with more experience, as Lyonhart's has seemed to do. Shindell compensated by balancing the strength in the poignancy of many of his songs with abundant wit and humor between them and the outstanding accompaniment of light-touch guitarist Billy Masters and keyboard/accordionist supreme, Radovic Lorkovic (who'll return to our region in November with a Greg Brown tour). A fine show that went unrecorded, as did John Herald's recent rousing and memorable appearance at Kingston's Wall Cafe. On the other hand, microphones were evident at Joshua's last Friday night to capture singing songwriters Clayton Denwood and Paul McMahon in front of a full house for one of their repeating Friday night gigs, a scene well worth checking out. (Another one is Kurt Henry and Bernice Lewis at Unison on October 3rd. A one-time only opportunity.)

Lyonhart will be playing Tinker Street Cafe in a gig yet to be scheduled and will join Eric Andersen in concert at Orange Community College's Morrison Hall in Middletown, 3 p.m. Sunday, October 18th. (Tickets 342-0878). A CD release party is booked at the Bitter End in New York City on November 18th but the CD itself is already available at many local record shops or from P.O. Box 112, Florida, N.Y. 10923 (845-651-4822) and Creative Action, 865 Bellevue Road, Nashville, TN 37221 (605-646-8061) http://LWRProductions.com & http://netmusic.com/lyonhart or E-mail lyonhart@LWR Productions.com

The diligent will be rewarded with a collection of songs which appeal especially to acoustic fans with a replay button. It's not what topheavy metal enthusiast Howard Hampton was speaking of when he referred to Garth Brooks as "that unstoppable zombie" in Artforum magazine but neither is it clustered in the "narrow orbit" of folk that Harvard's Martha Bayles writes of in her meaty tome dismissing the worth of non-Afro-American music. Conversely, Dar Williams, in her liner notes to her forthcoming cd with Shindell and Lucy Kaplansky, sees the new folk music, "with its stories, off-the-beaten-path terrain, and excellent writing" as "a rich field of wildflowers" and Lyonhart has his own little patch of tunes and stories which bear repeating. Or did I already say that?

-Gary Alexander