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Blue River Runs Though It
October 1, 2012

Eric Andersen with Brian Hollander at the Rosendale Café October 6

The late, legendary ‘Blacklisted Journalist’ and longtime Bearsville resident, Al Aronowitz, once told me that the moment of Eric Andersen’s breakthrough came when Judy Collins sandwiched his song “Thirsty Boots” with three fresh Bob Dylan songs on her celebrated “Fifth Album” before Eric himself had recorded it. We were discussing the golden singer-songwriter era emerging in the 1960s which still shines a beacon more than four decades later and in which Andersen rose with the cream of Greenwich Village singing songwriters who were dominating the national folk scene at that time.

The tides of American music were shifting from a rock & roll invasion of the popular charts in the previous decade and the hootnanny folk wave of the early ‘60s toward a legacy sparked by cognizant lyric-driven songs of Woody Guthrie, Hank Williams and a blend of other performing composers revived in the inspiration of that period’s concerts and festivals. Bob Dylan, Phil Ochs, Tom Paxton and Eric Andersen were prominent contributors to the forging of a new singer-songwriter genre and Andersen, who appears at the Rosendale Café this weekend with Brian Hollander, has been active in a current renewal of recognition of the lasting quality of the music of that era.

Revisiting songs of that unique period, as Andersen has done in a pair of vibrant CDs in recent years, “The Street Was Always There” and “Waves,” with a third part of the trilogy currently in the works, is only a part a stirring public ear which yearns to turn back toward an elegance of melodic form when so much of today’s broadcast music has descended to commercial dreck and drivel and staccato assaults upon the very concept of melody. Honoring others floating in that 60s serving of Village cream who were contributing to the community mystique of a distinct and developing statement of musical identity, competitors and compatriots driving each other to excellence as if following an almost mystical guidance toward an involving and meaningful culture, seems a poignant goal for a musician who was, himself, so much a part of the historic scene.

The folk-rock kettle on the stove in the Village, which would write the cookbook for the counterculture of the later 60s and evolve organically through singer-songwriter hit chart presence in the 70s, could not have been more graphically forecast than in Andersen’s reissuing the same titles on his “‘Bout Changes & Things” acoustic album in a “plugged-in” version; the tides of the day recaptured in flight without departing the timeless essence of the lyric-driven and melody-anchored message that was the fabric of a socially engaged subculture. It was an instinctive stride after Eric’s debut album “Today Is the Highway” and an appearance on a “New Folks” album generated the favorable notice which Judy Collins’ recognition built into keen anticipation for his next release, as observed by Arnowitz who, after all, had introduced the Beatles to Bob Dylan.

Born in Pittsburgh and raised near Buffalo, the young Andersen had hitch-hiked with his muse to the Beat Poetry scene in San Francisco (which he would write about in “The Rolling Stone Book of the Beats” in 1999 and “Naked Lunch @ 50" in 2009) and encountered Tom Paxton, who urged him to check out the Village scene. After some eventful years there, Eric joined a northward migration to settle in the Woodstock musical community for a decade along with other leading lights of the Bleecker & MacDougal crowd... Fred Neil, John Sebastian, Bob Dylan, John Herald, Patrick Sky, Tim Hardin, a shy lady with a cobweb-in-moonlight voice, Karen Dalton, and a number of others. Even Dave Van Ronk, the “Mayor of MacDougal Street,” once confided to me that he had “damn near” moved to Saugerties.

Brian Hollander had arrived in the Village as the scene was winding down to play some of those same fabled clubs and moved to Woodstock in 1974. Here, before striking out on his own, Brian teamed for a while with banjo picker Ralph Santinelli (who later moved west to become a regular on the Tony Danza TV show). Hollander formed the Saturday Night Bluegrass Band eight years ago (which, perhaps appropriately for Woodstock, performs regularly in town each Thursday night) with the famed banjo-wielding Bill Keith, “Fooch” Fischetti, Tim Kapeluck and Geoff Hardin. Becoming a preferred accompanist to many a savvy musician at countless gigs and befriending Andersen along the way led to calls to embellish the sound at performances at The Town Crier, the Unison Center or wherever else Eric might be appearing on one of his not infrequent returns to visit stateside friends and gig out since moving to Norway in the 1980s. Unlike Dylan, who, in his (current issue)
interview for “Rolling Stone,” is trying more than ever to sound like Salvador Dali, Andersen, speaking from his current home in Amsterdam, stayed on point when asked about his years in Woodstock and his work and adventures since then. His voice, deeper and more textured than in days of yore, weathered by the magnetic fields of far-flung microphones, (or “aged in an oaken cask” as Hollander suggests, noting that Eric had sent charts of new chords to accommodate tonal variations in the songs they will perform) ranges a bit lower; the new kid on the Bleecker block has become a seasoned master of the world stage. Enthusing about the avid receptions he had enjoyed at concerts in Japan just days before, Andersen credited a special feeling to playing in this upstate area filled with so many old friends and memories for him.

Andersen spoke of his current agreeable surroundings in Europe, rewarding museum visits, a book of fiction he has been five years in the writing of (thusfar), a documentary about him in the works, the first showing of his own photography scheduled in Cologne and how, in his view, the most vital element of a song is its memorability.  Ah, yes. That’s surely the formula he used for the brilliant selection of timeless tunes he exquisitely resurrected to tribute his fellow song-writing friends, many of them familiar names in the Woodstock music community as well as in Village Paul Siebel (who last performed in this area at private memorial for guitarist and tour companion Peter McKeel a few years ago, traveling up from Maryland and musical retirement to do so) and Happy Traum, selecting one of Happy’s songs from the first of two extraordinary albums he recorded for Capital with his late brother, Artie--both of which should be reissued). Other artists whose songs are featured on Andersen’s remarkable celebration CDs left us far too soon...Phil Ochs, Tim Hardin, Peter LaFarge, Tim Buckley, David Blue, Richard Farina. Memorable? Heck, for those who know the songs, the opening chords are like turning on the light in a darkened room and touching places you almost forgot were there. For those new to these unbound classics, it is an enviable voyage of indelible discovery. The same can be said for Eric’s own tunes here, from the “Thirsty Boots,” drawn from the spiritual periphery of the civil rights movement and the aimless wanderlust of troubadours, to the yet-to-be heard new songs written for the next volume of this tribute series.

As for new songs issued from the “post-Woodstock Andersen,” there are many of special note in the numerous albums issued since his departure. None as close to home, perhaps, as Tom Pacheco’s “Hills of Woodstock” (written while Tom was spending a decade in Dublin), but with heavy with intriguing and luring “Hills of Tuscany” from his “Memory of the Future” album; “Belgian Bar,” “Spanish Steps,” “Trouble In Paris” and “Irish Lace” from his “Ghosts Upon the Road”
album; “The Great Pyramid” from his “Beat Avenue” album; “Girls of Denmark” (which sounds somehow more romantic than “Girls of Hoboken”) from his “Exile” album, which also contains music from the soundtrack he composed for Marc Didden’s 1985 Belgian movie “Istanbul” (which features a riveting lead performance by another Woodstock-familiar name, Brad Dourif). Spain, Italy, Egypt. The man must wear thirsty boots.

We cannot pass over the acclaimed trio recordings Andersen did with our ol’ buddy, the late Rick Danko and Norwegian songster, Jonas Fjeld or the esteemed Italian Premio Tenco songwriting award he received in 2003, joining the ranks of contemporaries like Leonard Cohen, Joni Mitchell, Tom Waits, Randy Newman and other masters of the art.  Let’s also mention his appearance in the raucous, spellbinding “Festival Express” movie along with Janis Joplin (yep, another Woodstocker but, sorry, folks, Jimi, who lived in Olive, does not appear in this fabulous cross-Canadian romp. And that is NOT the film that’s blurred in Rick Danko’s hilarious scene with Janis, it’s Rick himself). A DVD of last year’s acclaimed webcast from Chris (no relation) Andersen’s Nevessa Studio in Woodstock (with John Sebastian, Happy Traum, Joe Flood and Eric’s harmonizing wife, Inge) is in the pondering stage.

As an example of how time has left Eric’s songwriting talents undiminished, witness “Eyes of the Immigrant” on his “You Can’t Relive the Past” album, a personal favorite which addresses the current controversies about legal or illegal immigrants by graciously pointing out that, except for a select number of native tribes, we all descend from immigrants. Or, as the Firesign Theater comedy troupe once put it; We’re All Bozos On This Bus.

A prime focus of the show in Rosendale will be the 40th anniversary of Andersen’s largest selling album, “Blue River,” which he recorded for Columbia after a pair of vastly underrated albums for Warner Brothers didn’t chart nearly as high as they deserved. Despite great sales, Eric left the Columbia label when they misplaced the tapes for his follow-up to “Blue River” for an astonishing 19 years. (It was finally located in a vault and issued by the company in 1991 as “Stages-The Lost Album.”) Can anyone blame Eric for leaving the label?

Not me.

The show begins at 8 p.m.

- Gary Alexander

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