John Gorka, Bozeman, May 5, 2007

May 10, 2007

The most surprising thing about the Gallatin County Fairgrounds Sales Barn is that is doesn’t smell at all like farmyard animals. There are nods to its usual use, most notably the big sign thanking contributors to the Carcass Competition (frankly, I dread to think), but otherwise it’s the kind of quirky, intimate venue that intelligent singer-songwriters ought to thrive in. Seating probably 200 people on uncomfortable wooden slats, it’s hard not to find a good seat.

The opening act is Aaron Espe, apparently one of folk music’s rising stars. He has a nice enough voice and a lovely guitar style, but seemed to have little else to distinguish him from any number of other emo kids with guitars. There was just something, to my ears, missing from his songs; many of them felt like they started as one song, then became another before the first was properly finished, and wound up with two half-songs. His bassist was more entertaining, a big bald guy who nodded enthusiastically in time and seemed to be enjoying himself immensely.

As soon as John Gorka takes the stage, the promoter’s beautiful labrador, who had slept miserably through Espe’s set, is on its feet, tail wagging. Most of the crowd feels the same; Gorka, on the other hand, is suffering. He does his best, repeatedly mopping his brow and blowing his nose on a red spotted handkerchief and coughing once in a while (considerately, away from the microphone). He complains about the combined effects of cold medication and altitude; his voice is surprisingly uncroaky, but he does look more than a little out of it.

He’s a funny-looking man. A little short, bearded, wearing a suit that looks tailored but not for him and an incongruous red T-shirt. He changes this latter for the second half, and immediately looks more comfortable. He’s self-consciously old-fashioned, with a folder full of his songs which he describes as his laptop; he indirectly tells off someone who has failed to switch off their phone with “They’re calling in requests now… you can also text,” but it seems like cell phones and texting are things he’s heard about, not things he’s ever done.

Of all the singer-songwriters in my bookmarks file, I like to think Gorka is the one I’m most similar to. Strong melodies, clever lyrics and the occasional awful pun (Prom Night in Pigtown alone contains two). He also forgets the lyrics from time to time and
smiles nervously at the crowd whenever he jokes between songs, which is most of the time. His banter is almost as critical to his set as his songs; he makes a big show of being nervous, disorganised and forgetful. He invites requests, nodding as they come in, before saying “I recognise so many of those.” Like all good jokes, it’s based in reality — he spends the intermission learning the ones he’s not familiar with, rather than putting a towel over his head and breathing over a basin of hot water, which is clearly what he wants to do. He takes huge tangents — because People My Age mentions scrapple (“Spam, without the nutritional benefits”), he describes his visit to the Spam museum is Minnesota in admiring detail.

He plays guitar beautifully when he needs to, while being capable of a simple strum when the occasion calls (Like My Watch is a typically self-deprecating example) and a bit of keyboard too. Before Love is Our Cross To Bear, he tries and fails to work the guitar stand, eventually giving up and placing it on the floor.

He mixes up the serious with the silly, all the time trying to insist that it not be taken too seriously. Land of the Bottom Line is a pretty heart-felt objection to working for a living (“I’ll take the money / You take the time / Down to the land of the bottom line”), yet he introduces it as a song from “a miserable time in [his] life when [he] had a job” and notes that there are no happy songs on that album.

It’s a gutsy performance — I for one wouldn’t have played if I’d been feeling so sick — and the crowd is almost reluctant to ask him back for an encore. He comes back anyway (after wandering off to the side for a moment — “Thanks for clapping until I got back, it wouldn’t have looked good otherwise”) and plays I Saw A Stranger With Your Hair before bowing and presumably leaving for a hot bath and a lemsip.

Recommended:
John Gorka – Writing in the Margins. He refers to this as “The new thing. There are more recent records, but not by me.”
John Gorka – Land of the Bottom Line. Contains Love is our Cross to Bear and Land of the Bottom Line, obviously.
John Gorka – I Know. Contains Like My Watch and BB King was Wrong.

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