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This article was first published in May, 1999 when Cliff Eberhardt was about to appear at the Rosendale Cafe. Cliff is appearing there again on November 10, 2000.
An Upward Twist in the Road
Cliff Eberhardt steps up higher down in Rosendale
by Gary Alexander

Two outstanding theme albums issued at about the same time last month should push the responsible artists into a wider spread of recognition for their admirable songwriting capabilities. Neither are quite what you'd call a newcomer but both qualify to ride a surging wave of renaissance in the so-called "singer-songwriter" category of music which only the megacorporations seem thusfar to have failed to notice.

The Town Crier Cafe reports that singer-songwriters have become their largest draw and venues just starting to hit their stride, like the Rosendale Cafe, can tap into the best of what's happening on the scene by booking solo performers while major label executives scratch their collective head over the slump in rock, rap and alternative funk. The day before The New York Times' Neil Strauss noted a marked lack of excitement at the annual South by Southwest music convention in Austin (3-24-99) the indie label Red House issued Cliff Eberhardt's Borders album and Tom Russell's new cd The Man from God Knows Where began getting some well-deserved airplay.

The theme plied by Eberhardt, who appears at the Rosendale Cafe on April 10th, is stated in his title and Cliff finds his "borders" in place, thought and emotion, even edging into Russell's theme of the immigrant with the poignant "Land of the Free." It's a song which quietly notes Lady Liberty turning her back to the harbor, observing policy with a moan but without critical accusation. It's a theme handsomely treated by today's crop of songwriters, as witness Richard Shindell's "Fishing," Chuck Brodsky's "La MigraViene" or David Massengill's "My Name Joe," among others, but it's only one facet of Eberhardt's jewel.

Once upon a time it was Eberhardt's anonymous voice advising us to drink Coca Cola or Miller Beer and reminding us that Chevrolet is the "heartbeat of America" but now that voice has a congealing identity of its own. After releasing albums on the Windham Hill and Shanachie/Cachet labels Eberhardt self-produced 1997's 12 Songs of Good and Evil on Red House and sounded like he hadn't just left his former labels but Escaped them. (He met Red House label's owner at the wedding of his illustrious friend John Gorka, who also converted to their stall). Borders is a continuum of the direction taken with that step which, quite remarkably, compels a refocusing on the flavors of Good and Evil, extending and embellishing the voice he found in the effort and bestowing even greater depth and definition to the earlier album. ("Just what I was hoping to hear," he said when this was pointed out to him).
Cliff receives vocal support from John Gorka and Lucy Kaplansky at the Towne Crier cafe.

While the immediate impression is of an artist reinventing himself, Eberhardt, who can lay claim to being closer to the matter at hand, doesn't see it as quite that calculated a move; "I guess in a way it's deliberate but I don't consciously think about it, so it can't be as deliberate as it might seem," he laughs. "I don't know if it's ‘reinventing.' I think it's who I've always been. What it is finally I have a record label that's letting me be the artist that I want to be."

This is not to say that there weren't good songs on The Long Road (1990), Now you are My Home (1993) and Mona Lisa Cafe (1995); there surely were and he revisits one of the most haunting of them ("Your Face") on Borders. But his newer albums no longer convey the sense of being a "product" as much as a work of art. In fact, he uses the terminology of the visual artist in referring to the new work; "I had decided, after some unpleasant relationships with some record companies, that I didn't want to just keep putting out albums of just the 12 newest songs. I'd done it for 3 albums and it was boring. Also, I didn't find most of the stuff I was listening to to be very interesting, so I thought picking themes, especially important themes, would guide me into writing in a certain way, much like a lot of visual artists do things in ‘series.' I wanted to experiment with writing that way; to take writing these kinds of songs a step further."

This is dangerous turf simply because it's all too easy to milk a cow dry with one squirt. It takes reasonable depth and diversity to explore theme-linked angles and avoid lyrical or musical redundancy but, when you do it with enough versatility and imagination, you emerge with a whole that's so much more than its parts that you've brought it to another level.

Another danger in Eberhardt's approach, which he triumphed over magnificently in Borders, is the threat of "inbreeding" your sound by not only producing but playing so many of the instruments yourself in a home studio. He maintains the wisdom of recruiting just enough help from the likes of Seth Faber, Liz Queler, Doug Plavin, Lucy Kaplansky, Carol Sharer and Ray Mason on various tracks, to keep the dynamics and interplay perking like fresh morning coffee. What emerges unsmothered is the superb musicianship which makes him a popular fixture in the studio schemes of other musicians. On tracks like "Anna Lee," "Why Is the Road So Long" and others, we're treated to what has to be the sweetest and most expressive dobro in the land, an instrument that takes on a charged, expectant tone on "Everybody Knows."

In Tom Russell's immigrant song cycle, the author even enlists other artists (like Iris D'Ment- the female Hank Williams and the ever irrepressible Dave Van Ronk) for lead vocals. Van Ronk, who packed Rosendale Cafe a few weeks ago, has never sounded better than he does on Russell's brilliant song "The Outcast," really an instant classic.

I'd suggest arriving early for a good seat. It's a smokeless veggie cusine with a modest but interesting selection of exotic beers and there's no telling who'll show up. Ann Sternberg of WAMC's "Rock'n'Roots" program (Friday at 11 pm for a studied fix on roots music that puts 50 hours of work into a single hour of programming) was on hand last Friday to catch two true masters, Paul Geremia and John Herald, engaging the room with their unique stylings when, lo and behold, Garth Hudson suddenly made a rare appearance on stage with the pair of them, pushing his bearded chin into his chest behind the accordion as his peerless intuition pulled his accompaniment out of the soundwaves colliding between their guitars. There was a fine bone-deep feel of the "good old days" in the air past midnight in a desperately needed venue for the survival of "free'n'easy" music. Come on down.

Gary Alexander is an independent journalist and scholar whose focus of interests range through a variety of disciplines. Under various names, he has written (and ghost written) upon history and current event; science and technology, as well as music and the arts in books and for national periodicals. While particularly attentive to the subtle and complex impact upon cultural imagination and contemporary structures of presumption which activity in the above mentioned topics tend to have, Alexander treats his topics with a slightly more than occasional resort to humor.

Posted on October 23, 2000

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