I’ve been posting Richard Shindell songs on-and-off for the past year or so, and was delighted to have the opportunity to see him perform live last night at Twickfolk, just a short distance from where I live. It was a terrific, inspiring gig. This was Shindell’s third appearance at the venue and, given the enthusiastic audience response, he’s clearly built a solid following around these parts. Deservedly so: Shindell is, I firmly believe, one of the best folk singer/songwriters of all-time, and his extraordinary compositions stilll deserve to be much more widely known.
Shindell was accompanied by Marc Shulman on electric guitar for this tour. He explained that they’ve only been performing together for a few months but that Shulman is now “indispensable.” Their palpable rapport bore out that assessment, with Shulman’s excellent contributions adding fresh, dramatic textures to Shindell’s more familiar material. Two men, two guitars but the room was soon full of other presences: the Civil War widow and soldiers in “Reunion Hill,” the INS officer and Mexican immigrant in “Fishing,” the under-pressure power-broker in “Confession,” the cab driver surveying post 9/11 New York in “The Last Fare of the Day,” the family man regretting a lost love in “A Summer Wind, A Cotton Dress,” the Confederate drummer-boy in “Arrowhead,” even a depressed Argentinean cow in “Stray Cow Blues.”
The excellent set-list thus spanned the range of Shindell’s output, up to a fascinating new song “Satellites” - which starts out as a depiction of a stand-off between police and protestors in Buenos Aires and then “goes orbital,” in Shindell’s terms. Cover versions of Dylan’s “She Belongs to Me” and Sam Cooke’s “A Change is Gonna Come” were well judged, but it was Shindell's own material that shone the brightest. In great voice, Shindell brought tension and suspense to his narratives, effortlessly drawing the listener into the lives and dilemmas of his protagonists. His longest songs "Transit" and "There Goes Mavis" were particularly sublime, while "Wisteria" was haunting in its loveliness.
Like the best folk artists, Shindell sublimates his personality into the stories of his varied characters, and yet he’s a subtly charismatic performer, with a wry sense of humour and an easy-going charm between songs. (His love of language shone through as he discussed the vagaries of British pronunciation and his preferred English words and expressions; “Bob’s your uncle” is his favourite.) He's a literary song-writer in the best sense, a composer in whose work every single word and detail counts, and who knows when a more direct approach proves as effective as an oblique metaphor. “I’m clearly made happy by miserable dirges,” he quipped at one point. Few would apply such a reductive description to Shindell's amazing work. But it's true that his songs - evocative, complex, poignant and spell-binding - certainly made this audience very, very happy indeed.