Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Fred Gillen Jr.: Live in Peekskill and On Disc

by Patrick J. Walsh

Imagine a room -- a shop -- with business going on, customers ordering coffee, the kids at the counter taking food orders... and all the while, a capacity crowd enveloped in a joyful expectant hush, wrapped entirely in the music of a singular performer.

Arranged across the shiny wooden surface or cushioned upholstery of every available seat, the members of the audience listen for every familiar word of the songs they’ve heard scores of times, and raptly anticipate each new song, waiting on each new note and every new line of lyric like a long established congregation awaiting some previously unheard revelation.

That’s kind of what it’s like to see Fred Gillen Jr. in a coffee house setting.

The Peekskill Coffee House (101 S. Division St., Peekskill, New York; www.peekskillcoffee.com) is a fine example of a classic coffee house environment, and a fitting venue for a performer capable of communicating with an audience as though he were addressing a close friend.

Located in a historic building a street-width away from Peekskill’s treasured Paramount Theater, the Peekskill Coffee House maintains the ambiance of its lineage while also establishing a legitimately stylish foothold in the hard-to-find nightlife of New York’s northern suburbs.

Burlap sacks long emptied of their coffee beans hang high on the wall, their colorful insignia testament to their journey from the countries and growers of their origin to the spot of honor they each now occupy along the smooth, clean surface overhead.

There is a casual warmth in the unrefinished wooden floor, a sandy beige in the more lightly worn spots alternating with gray in the most beaten down patches, and here and there, little irregular islands of the original brown finish shine through like the areas of calm on a meteorologist’s map of the weather.

And, in a tiny alcove near the second exit and the restrooms, there are three bulletin boards, each covered utterly with flyers and posters and business cards, together attesting to the signs of a secret life burgeoning beneath the quiet of the suburban streets beyond the window.

Hearing Fred play in that kind of environment -- in particular, at a recent show celebrating the release of his new CD, “Live in the Heartland of America,” (www.cdbaby.com/cd/fredgillenjrwithcatherin) I wondered anew at the adaptability of his voice and performing ability to the wide array of venues in which he has played over the years.

As a singer and performer, Fred is one of those rare individuals who can carry an entire performance with just his voice and guitar; and yet, his unique qualities as a performing artist are not overwhelmed by the augmentation of additional voices or instrumentalists.

In this particular instance, he was joined by the sweet-voiced Catherine Miles (the new live CD is a document of their recent tour together through the midwest), and by Eric Puente on drums and Jeff Eyrich on bass.

In the full band milieu -- augmented at one point by a dream chorus of other local musicians from the audience who joined with Fred at the mic for a song or two -- Fred’s singing voice is the definitive lead in a fashion not unlike that of the wind instrument in a small ensemble: it guides as much as leads.

It is not entirely easy to describe the particular qualities that make his voice such a remarkable, interesting instrument; there is the folk holla element, but that alone would make his style simply another echo in the spectrum of that particular stereotype; and there is the earnestness of the timbre -- the ideal vehicle for his thoughtful lyrics -- but that description is also too limited to capture the essence of what makes him special as a singer.

In that hushed crowd, listening carefully, it struck me that it is probably the command that characterizes his approach -- that elusive quality that so few performers possess organically and unaltered -- that distinguishes Fred’s vocal style, and that allows him to adapt so fluently to such a wide array of performing opportunities.

I have seen him carefully prepare for a show, and I have seen him adapt on the fly to a given acoustic setting and crowd; but most impressively, I have also seen him flip open his instrument case, slip the strap of his guitar over his shoulder, and simply start singing -- and still perform at a level equivalent to the most polished set of the most veteran artist.

I guess in the final analysis, it is that ability to sing with command, and to communicate with conviction, even at the most unexpected opportunity (or even, when the situation calls for it, at the most flagrant provocation), that makes Fred’s live shows special. It is an experience well worth seeking out, and the new live disc is a fitting document of its versatility and power.

© 2011 Patrick J. Walsh

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