For those of us attending the free Arts in the Park show at the Norvell Band Shell, Friday night was ballad night. The performer was Wichita (or McPherson) singer and songwriter Aaron Lee Martin.
And I know, I know. Holding the attention of the series’ transient and mixed audience in the open space of City Park is asking a lot of a nominally acoustic single. If the performer does almost all slow tempo, sad, sad songs for the whole of his two hours, that just makes things more difficult.
So here was bearded, cap (and flannel shirt!) wearing Martin, playing an acoustic guitar, a five-string banjo, and a “banjomer,” playing a broad harmonica in a neck rack, and patting out accents with his right foot on a tambourine. His original material was 95% ballads and the rest heart-rending gospel bits.
It isn’t that slow songs are especially suited to folk acts. But it does seem as if some of the more current of the folk-influenced performers we’ve heard recently do seem to favor slow and depressed music. Would you expect to hear an unbroken run of ballads played by Bob Walkenhorst?
Judy Collins was here last December, and while she sang Leonard Coen’s “Suzanne,” she got more reaction with the tuneful and upbeat “Someday Soon” of Ian (of Ian and Sylvia) Tyson. That McCain concert was a couple of months after we heard Emmylou Harris gleefully chortling about how sad almost all of her material was.
It does seem to be a thing for the successors to Fred Neil and Dave Van Ronk to play unhappy music. Introspective Martin is in that tradition.
On the other hand, he has a fine voice, tuneful and yet gravelly when pressed and capable of slipping into falsetto apparently without effort. His instrumental work was strong with rhythms. Occasionally he would finger pick a bit. And if he perhaps talked to the audience and apologized, his modest manner made him almost impossible to dislike. He used dynamics to effect.
And he played us 20 songs. He began with “The Beast,” a hard-strummed number about evil within the speaker. It was an odd start to a show played in front of strangers. But it was also a fair warning about the subject matter to come.
His second song, with a repeated reference to Do-Dah, insisted that we will, in the future, be happy. Apparently we’re not now. His third number, “Concrete Jungle,” insisted that he had been “running from the devil since the day I was born.” So much for Steve Martin’s notion that the banjo is a happy instrument.
The singer told of folks “lying dead in the streets,” insisted that he was “tired of feeling abandoned,” and sang that “our hearts were made for breaking.” And that was all in the first set.
Playing his Banjomer, an instrument with a round cardboard top and a plywood back, required him to sit down for a number in each set. The instrument’s mic failed for a brief time during a second set song. The performance included a little echo here and there on the vocals.
Martin had a story about taking a songwriting class from John McCutcheon, who can be as abstract and personal in his songwriting as is Martin. And the singer told us about songs written about his stepdaughter and his son, and about one written on the basis of an interview.
He used a capo to play “New Day’s Dawn,” perhaps his most obviously successful composition. The lyrics, which seemed to progress by association, gave him the freedom to sing.
And then he apologized for liking honey.
The evening capper, another ballad, was also dynamic and well-rehearsed.
In general, then, Aaron Lee Martin made an impression with his voice, and worked diligently under some obvious hardships to express himself. But he made one of the hardships himself by consistently playing ballads.
Ninety-five degrees on a band shell in City Park may not be right for musical introspection.