Only one thing matters more to singer/songwriter Luke Elliot than writing or performing: knowing that he has moved his audience. “What I want people to take away from my music is a sense of connection, a sense of satisfaction,” Elliot says.
So it is no surprise that Elliot is psyched about his Sunday, April 27, gig at the Communiversity Festival of the Arts in Princeton, a town where his connections run deep. “I like playing at events where I’ve grown up. This area is a special spot for me,” says Elliot who now lives in Jersey City but hails from Lawrence Township.
Now in his late 20s, Elliot has performed at several area venues including Triumph Brewing Company and the Arts Council of Princeton, and also worked for Princess Road-based Community News Service (U.S. 1’s parent company) in advertising sales for three years.
At Communiversity, his band — Elliot on keyboard and vocals, Jim McGee on guitar, Dan Peck on drums, and Ed Barber on bass — will perform original songs from his new extended play (EP) recording, “Provisions,” set for release this May, and his earlier EP, “Death of a Widow,” released in 2010. And he promises a few surprises.
Elliot’s music — labeled as rock, Americana, and folk — is often compared to Nick Cave, Bob Dylan, Tom Waits, Rufus Wainwright, and Leonard Cohen. The Deli magazine describes his music as “raw and bluesy influenced compositions [that] have the thoughtfulness of an old soul, the stubborn energy of those who never give up, and the character of somebody who’s learned a lot of lessons in life.”
Those in the Communiversity audience will be treated to at least two songs from Provisions: “Virginia” and “Benny’s a Bum.”
“Benny’s a Bum” is the title song Elliot wrote for the movie “Benny the Bum,” winner of the 2012 Philadelphia Independent Film Festival award for best local feature. The film follows a fighter’s quest to start a new life after being released from prison. He soon learns his brother has become engaged to his ex-girlfriend, a creditor is after him for a past gambling debt, and his new romance with a girl named Stella is creating problems of its own.
“Benny would take two steps forward and one step back. I can’t say that I’ve related to his [specific] hardships,” Elliot said “but I know what it’s like to feel a cloud hanging over me. I can relate to his sadness.”
“Virginia” is more about a state of mind than a location on a map. It’s a symbol of a peaceful place, Elliot says. “It’s what I imagine it to be.” Videographer Steve Tucker is working on the final phase of a video based on “Virginia.” “He’s someone I couldn’t do without,” says Elliot. Tucker also directed Elliot’s earlier electronic press kit, “Let it rain on me.”
The album’s title, “Provisions,” comes from one of its songs, “Ballad of a Priest,” based on the 1940 Graham Greene novel “The Power and the Glory.” The plot, set in Mexico in the 1930s, involves a priest who is being hunted by a lieutenant during a period when the country’s government was attempting to suppress the Catholic Church.
Even as “Provisions” is set for its May release, Elliot is already working on a new album. The album’s producer, John Agnello, has worked on more than 150 recordings over the past several years with artists such as Bob Dylan, Alice Cooper, Dinosaur Jr, and Sonic Youth.
Elliot has been performing music since he was a child. He started playing piano when he was eight years old, taught himself to play guitar as a teenager, and began writing music when he was 14. His four siblings, Nick, Jesse, Christian, and Sophie, were involved in the arts. Today Sophie is a visual artist, and his younger brother Jesse is a songwriter who has performed with Luke at John & Peter’s in New Hope. His older brother, Christian, also a performer, died three years ago. “It was a real tragedy. His role in my upbringing was invaluable. He would’ve liked to have been a part of all this,” says Elliot.
“Both of my parents are talented writers,” Elliot says. His father, Norbert Elliot, is the author of several books and academic papers on writing and education. He is also an English professor at New Jersey Institute of Technology, where he is known for his webcast, “The End of the Essay.” Adds Elliot: “My mother Lorna Silver is a poet and wrote the novella, ‘Notes on Hunger.’”
Elliot was influenced by several musicians growing up, including Elvis Costello, Bob Dylan, Woody Guthrie, Big Joe Turner, Tom Waits, and PJ Harvey. He especially related to Dylan’s “Blood on the Tracks” and says, “I don’t know what I would have done without some of these artists.”
After high school Elliot studied at Mercer County Community College and later moved to Connecticut to be with his girlfriend, who had been accepted at Harvard Divinity School. Living with someone who was studying religion has influenced his writing, which includes religious overtones in several of his songs, Elliot says.
After their relationship broke up, Elliot moved back to New Jersey and began working for Community News Service in 2011.
In 2013 Elliot became a client of Christa Shaub, founder of New York-based Shaub Entertainment. He left CNS in 2014 to pursue his music career full-time. Recently Elliot has played at John & Peters in New Hope, several venues in New York including Rockwood Music Hall, the Bowery Electric, and the M1-5 Lounge. In June Elliot will perform a series of shows in New Orleans.
Not willing to take sole credit for his success, Elliot refers to Shaub and his band members as his heroes, saying he couldn’t do it without them. Elliot insists his success can’t be separated from the contributions of his band members. “These guys are my lifeline. They’re brilliant, and I could not do any of this without them,” Elliot says.
Communiversity, Festival of the Arts, Washington and Nassau Streets, Princeton. Sunday, April 27, at 1 to 6 p.m. Rain or shine. Free. Visit artscouncilofprinceton.org for the complete schedule of events. Elliot performs at 3 p.m.
Listen to Elliot’s music and keep track of his upcoming shows at LukeElliot.com.
In addition to the music of Luke Elliot, Communiversity 2014 will have the heart of downtown Princeton beating in rhythm to musical genres from rock to Philadelphia funk, and from blues and blue grass to family-friendly pop.
The event — boasting 50 performances, six stages, and more than 200 booths — features cultural dance troupes, circus-inspired performances, and street level pop-up performers that include a cappella groups, flash performances, musicians, and actors.
Musical highlights include hometown rockers Wayside Shrines (featuring Pulitzer Prize-winning poet and rock lyricist Paul Muldoon), Big Wake, Swift Technique, Stolen Rhodes, Matt Trowbridge, The Shaxe, Avi Wisnia, Sarah Donner, and Sheltered Turtle.
The event, now in its 43rd year, is a joint effort of the Arts Council of Princeton, Princeton University, and several business sponsors.
For more information, visit artscouncilofprinceton.org.