The Troubadour Comes To Town: Graham Parker At The Dakota

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Graham Parker has a nest here.  There’s a connection to the folks at Brits Pub.  And the likes of Terry Walsh and The Belfast Cowboys.  So it’s a guaranteed good time when he comes to town.  Been going on for years so it got me heading down this rabbit hole wondering what “a successful outcome” looks like for the artist who’s spent his life making music.

But before we rip the lid off that thought, a couple of sidebars.

This was my first trip back to The Dakota since they re-opened.  They’ve been busy.  The changes are subtle but substantive.  I’ve always been a really big fan of the venue.  Always thought the sound system was just fine.  There might have been a couple spots that weren’t prime simply due to the configuration of the room.  Now listeners are bathed in dynamite acoustics.  How nice is it to be in a room where the volume is loud enough (Loud Is Good) and you can comfortably wallow in it?  Nice job, Dakota! 

The stage was also modified.  Just a bit bigger with a back wall and neon logo as opposed to former theater curtains.  It will be interesting to see how it will accommodate larger bands.  For sure, it’s going to provide a primo photo op for some aspiring photog chasing the master of a genre.  Tonight’s show was sold out and that’s a good thing.  Places like The Dakota are an urban treasure.  When we head out for a great meal it’s the kind of support which gets paid directly back into the music community.

Terry Walsh opened up the evening at 7 straight up.  The dude was cool!  He’s been around the scene for well over 30 years in any number of bands.  Best known for the aforementioned Belfast Cowboys and also St Dominic’s Trio (which is allowed to have up to 8 members because if it goes to 9, it reverts to the Belfast Cowboys).  He’s toured as a bass player, (while never learning to play bass) with former Replacement Slim Dunlap.

It isn’t about the look, the technique, the voice that makes it work.  It’s the relatability.  It’s a kind of authenticity that only comes when it’s hard to separate the man from his environment.  Where it’s more nurture than nature.  Armed with that simple gift, Walsh provided a delightful reflection on who we are here in Minnesota.  When he sings Stupid Vikings, you just smile and tell yourself Randy Newman would be envious.

And that’s when Parker hit the stage and I started entertaining big esoteric questions like:  What does the career arc of a really successful musician look like?  I think for many of us we immediately snap to images of Jagger, Richards, McCartney, Bonno.  But really?  That’s so far from reality it’s like winning a pregnant Power Ball.

There are those artists who shall remain nameless that continue to make a living robotically cranking out the oldies.  And sure as hell don’t change ’em up because that’s not what the ticket buyer paid to hear!  I mean, there’s grace and there’s hangin’ around until the last round is cleared from the table.

I would contend that what I saw tonight was the arc of a career that others should envy.  Here’s the deal.  Graham Parker has done the world and back again.  He’s been making music and entertaining fans in venues large and small for nearly five decades.  He’s achieved the rank of septuagenarian and wears it lightly.  He heads out into the world year after year playing in clubs of his choosing.  Reconnecting with long time friends along the road.  As long as somebody manages the pace, that sounds like a really fine existence for someone born to play.

Graham Parker doesn’t strike me as the kind of bloke who needs the work.  He does strike me as Troubadour born and bred.  This is a special breed because it’s all these folks were really meant to do.  Don’t confuse them with your pop star singer songwriter.  More like a poet with a telecaster and kazoo who can’t help but express his views on the human condition through the medium of song.  Some folks don’t play because they want to.  They play because they have to.  Parker seems that kind of guy.

There’s a lack of pretense and an authenticity in the great troubadours.  They can stand on a stage with just a guitar and hold an audience in their hand.  Often these aren’t the great voices or those with sneaky good instrumental chops.  The common denominator is that they craft stories that trigger a full range of our emotions.  They seem so true to the words they sing and passions they vent, it makes it easy to relate.  To trust what they’re saying.  

Think of the list of these kind of artists.  It’s short.  Just on the male side, Springsteen solo can do it (and boy do I hear so many commonalities between the two).  Dave Alvin comes to mind.  Or Neal Young, Mike Scott, Woody Guthrie.  You can take it all the way to Bob Dylan.  The characters they create and the stories that they tell are meant for us.  They can move us off the sidelines.  Some is protest, some is personal.  Often historical and nearly always allegorical.  They’re like tent preachers and they can hold you all night long with nothing but six strings and a piece of wood.

Parker is more than mature rock star.  He’s a professional entertainer.  You get the self deprecating repartee, an unrelenting need to stir the pot and racy jokes, along with the music.  It’s a bit of vaudeville.  It’s a bit of stand up.  It’s about building a frame around some razor sharp, often desperate and always intelligent songs. 

He struck me as embodying a kind of grace.  Certainly not in his role of rogue and raconteur!  The man has run the gamut, seems comfortable in his own skin.  And he’s happy to tell you about the ride in the songs he sings.

I heard the line “I have a predilection for the truth.”  It immediately struck me that’s what makes guys like Graham Parker so valuable.  They’re not a reflection of those days when a mullet was called a Prince Valiant cut.  Or MTV ruled the planet’s youth.  Poster boys of a time and place.  They’re artists who’ve never grown weary of creating songs.  Or pulling out old ones to make somebody smile or because what goes around, comes around.  When something moves them, they write a song.  When something pisses them off, they sing about it.  People listen as much to the words as the music because we know they headed into the hinterlands and returned unchanged.  Pretty rare stuff.  It’s easy to believe the troubadour.

When the troubadour doesn’t hit the road, I think we used to call them the village elders.  Some are venerated and some are best tracked down at the pub.  That’s where I’d seek out Parker. Seems to me that there was a time when there were a lot more of these types around.  Maybe we just need people to stop into the pub and stay long enough to actually listen to them.

The song Blue Highways seemed to sum it up.  You travel the two lane highways, making music in small towns across the world and you learn about people.  The ugliness and the inspiration.  If you’re a troubadour with a predilection for the truth, folks will come out to hear what you have to say.  They’ll appreciate the fact that you’re satisfied with your $7 sunglasses and $15 fedora because that’s the way we live, too.  They’ll listen to your sometimes angry voice as it calls us all to account for being idiots; for ignoring or tip toeing around the truth.  It might come across as scolding. Then again, it beats some angry voice calling us to the ramparts instead. 

Bruce Cockburn wrote a song titled Maybe The Poet.  There’s a lyric that says:

Male female slave or free
Peaceful or disorderly
Maybe you and he will not agree
But you need him to show you new ways to see
 
Sounds a bit like the Graham Parker I caught tonight.
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