Singer-songwriter Richard Shindell will perform April 6 at the next Café Veritas concert in Rochester
Listening to a Richard Shindell album is like reading a short story anthology by a master storyteller — each song presented vividly painted characters, setting and mood in what's often a narrative progression.
A wary meeting between a woman clean and sober for just a month and her father. A relationship ending on Halloween, its emotional debris witnessed by uncomprehending trick or treaters. A narrator thinking of a faraway love while observing a ragged balloon seller precariously making his way to the park. ("And you're so far away/on the other side of the world/I just thought you should know/that balloon man lives in it too.")
Contemporary folk musician Shindell appreciates the comparison. "There is a quality to short stories, an economy to short stories that is something that appeals to me and what I try to get in my songs," he said Monday in a Front-Row Seat interview. A short story is just enough space for the writer to provide enough details for versimillitude so the characters are real and concrete, he said. And while the form is obviously different — a three- or four-minute song as opposed to a 12- or 15-page story — "I try to work that care and detail within the songs, and also to develop the characters."
Local audiences will get to hear the stories for themselves on Saturday, April 6, when Shindell performs for the Café Veritas concert series at First Unitarian Church of Rochester, 220 S. Winton Road, Rochester, starting at 7:30 p.m. Opening for Shindell will be Irish-born singer-songwriter Zoë Mullan-Stout.
Run by volunteers, Café Veritas brings local and national singer-songwriters to its stage at the church. The stage has hosted the likes of John Gorka, Peter Yarrow (from Peter, Paul and Mary), Christine Lavin, Tracy Grammer, The Kennedys and a frequent Shindell musical partner, Lucy Kaplansky.
Shindell, who lives in Beunos Aires, Argentina, with his wife these days, is no stranger to New York state nor to its western region: He grew up on Long Island, graduated from Hobart in 1983 with a philosophy degree, and calls Beacon (Dutchess County) his base of operations when he's in the States. "I'm a New Yorker through and through," he said.
He's not sure whether New York or Argentina have necessarily played a significant influence on his music — except that he learned to speak and to think and to play guitar in New York; and that moving to Argentina gave him an enhanced experience of being an outsider (a sense he's always had to some degree or other). That's even though Buenos Aires is a lot like New York City demographically, he said — a lot of Italians and Jewish people — though everyone speaks Spanish and there's not as much money.
Occasionally performing with fellow singer-songwriters Lucy Kaplansky and Dar Williams as Cry Cry Cry — including a tour last year when they released their first new single in two decades, "Cathedrals" — Shindell is completely solo on this tour, and stripped down: all-acoustic, primarily playing two Martin guitars (a D-18 and 00-18, both circa 1952) and a Stefan Sobell mandola. He's performing selections from throughout a discography that dates back to "Sparrows Point" in 1992 and extends through the 2016 release "Careless." He's using a single microphone, an Ear Trumpets Labs "Edwina."
Years of playing in a band context with other musicians taught him a lot, he said — "it taught me to open on stage, to connect in real-time with people who may not be doing what I expected. ... It was an eye-opening and learning experience, and one which I'm now trying to take into my solo performances."
Shindell is justly celebrated for his lyrics, their concept and execution, their narrative structure and ammassing of details. Consider these lines from that Halloween-breakup song, "Are You Happy Now?":
"I smashed your pumpkin on the floor
The candle flickered at my feet
As goblins flew across the room
The children peered into the room
A cowboy shivered on the porch
As Cinderella checked her watch
An angel whispered, trick-or-treat
But what was I supposed to do
But to sit there in the dark?
I was amazed to think that you
Could take the candy with you too ..."
That said, while Shindell has always paid close attention to his songs as pieces of writing, with the musical arrangements as the vehicle to get the lyrics, the story across — these days he's paying more attention to the musical element: The music serves the story, yes, but it's not subordinate to it.
"I'm kind of giving more of a nod to just the music as music, the guitar playing as guitar playing," he said. "Always trying to represent the story and how it comes across — but whenever possible, to experiment a little bit. I was a guitar player before I was a songwriter. I'm having a lot of fun with it."
Shindell had in fact been playing since the age of 8, and was primarily a guitarist until his mid 20s — "but I was always fascinated by how much could be done in a little three-minute song, how much of a connection you could make with a listener with a few broad strokes and a chord progression." He studied poetry, and had, as he puts it, a relationship with words and a relationship with the guitar, but "for many years they never seemed to meet in a way that was compelling to me — until one day, it did.
"Once it did," he added, "I was hooked."
Tickets are $18 general admission, $10 students with ID, and free for ages 12 and younger. For more information, email firstname.lastname@example.org or visit www.cafeveritas.org.