Let’s just pretend today’s election never happened, and speak of better things.
Around the turn of the millennium, I worked at a small company in North London. We had a shared MP3 server: we all put some of our favourite songs on it, and we could all listen to each other’s. That’s how I discovered the brilliant singer-songwriter Dar Williams, who was the choice of my colleague Andrew Eland. In 2009, reading a review of one of Dar’s albums, I read on to the second half of that article which was about Richard Shindell’s album Reunion Hill. Based on the very positive review, I bought the album and loved it.
The opening song on that album is The Next Best Western, and it quickly became one of my favorite songs: so much so that when in 2011 I started playing and singing in folk clubs, it was the very first song I ever performed. So it’s particularly special to me.
Since I first heard Reunion Hill a decade ago I’ve wanted to see Shindell live, and last Tuesday (10th December) I finally did. He was playing a short UK tour, and I was able at the last minute to score a couple of tickets for a gig at Cove Village Hall, a crazily tiny and intimate venue for such a stellar songwriter and performer. I took Dan, my eldest son, and we got seats in the third row — two people in an audience of maybe 120.
Well, it was outstanding. I knew Shindell was a brilliantly insightful and intuitive songwriter, and a fine singer; what I didn’t know is that he’s also a superb guitarist. That facet of him gets rather lost on the studio recordings I’m used to, where his guitar is somewhat buried in the full-band arrangements that most songs get. To my surprise, I found I actually preferred the guitar-and-a-voice versions of the songs to the full-band studio recordings.
At one point he did The Kenworth of my Dreams, a cheerfully goofy story song about a man who thinks that buying and driving a truck is the secret to happiness, and discovers to everyone’s surprise that he is right. Since Richard had been taking plenty of requests from the audience, I chipped in at the end of this one and asked whether he’d do The Next Best Western, as I’d always thought of it as a sequel to the earlier song: the same man ten years later, with the sheen having worn off the trucking life, now just desperately weary and longing to reach a hotel for the night.
Richard: but the guy in The Next Best Western isn’t a trucker.
Me: he’s not?
Me: but this changes everything!
Richard: you see, the song says “whoever watches over all these truckers”. That means he’s not one of the truckers himself.
Mike: but why else is he crossing the Indiana line in the middle of the night, and still driving at 4am?
Richard: maybe he’s a touring folk singer.
His solution was to sing the song, then take a vote of the audience to determine whether of not the narrator of the song is a trucker.
So the good news was that he sang my favourite of his songs. The bad news was that in the subsequent vote, I was literally the only person to vote yes. Even my own son voted against me.
At the end of the show, Dan and I went to exchange a few words with Richard and get a photo together. Dan said to him “Until now, I mostly knew your songs from my Dad’s versions in folk clubs. It’s nice to know how they’re supposed to sound.” Et tu, Dan?
Anyway: sensational gig. I drove a total of seven hours there and back to be there, and it was worth every minute. I surely hope Shindell will be back touring the UK again soon, and I will definitely make sure I’m there.