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This article by Richard J. Skelly was published in U.S. 1 Newspaper on Wednesday, June 3, 1998. All rights reserved.
When Songwriters Take the Stage
At the beginning of the folk revival in the early 1960s, there were two types of folk singers: originals, like Buffy Sainte-Marie, Richie Havens, and Bob Dylan; and traditionalists, or as Dave Van Ronk half-jokingly called them in retrospect, "moldy figs," singers like Van Ronk, Odetta, and Joan Baez. It can be argued that Dylan and Baez, who started out as moldy figs and made the transition to become singer-songwriters, were in the vanguard of the singer-songwriter movement. After all, they gave inspiration to people like Loudon Wainwright and much later, Richard Shindell, both of whom are performing this weekend as part of a "Singer-Songwriter Weekend" sponsored by Philadelphia radio station WXPN at McCarter Theater.
Loudon Wainwright III, the son of the noted Life magazine journalist, was born in 1946 in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. The elder Wainwright was a big fan of Joan Baez long before the younger -- who grew up listening to rock 'n' roll -- knew a Martin from a Gibson. Wainwright III grew up in Westchester County and attended affluent suit-and-tie private schools before heading off to boarding school in Delaware. He studied acting and directing at Carnegie Tech, but dropped out for a year, heading to San Francisco in 1967 for the "Summer of Love." Later, back on the East Coast in Cambridge, Massachusetts, he borrowed a friend's guitar and composed his first song. Encouraged by the response he received at Boston-area coffee houses, Wainwright took his act to New York. At a Greenwich Village club called The Gaslight, he was `discovered' in 1968 by Milt Kramer, who eventually steered Wainwright to his first record deal with Atlantic Records. Since then, Wainwright has recorded more than 15 albums. His two most recent, "Grown Man" and "Little Ship" are for the Pointblank label of Virgin Records.
Today, Wainwright enjoys a well-deserved following for his ability to combine humor and solid showmanship skills, as does the younger, up-and-coming Cheryl Wheeler, who shares the bill with him at McCarter.
"My impulse to write songs has always been fueled primarily by my need to say something about myself," Wainwright explains. "Generally, it's always been autobiographical. I never really think about writing songs for the radio audience at large."
In performance, Wainwright expertly blends his often very personal songs with between song banter that keeps his audiences laughing. At a Wainwright show, you're likely to feel you're part of the show: he responds to requests from audience members with witty one-liners and fast come-backs, all the while building a feeling of community and rapport.
"When I get up in front of people to perform, after an initial state of nervousness," he says, "I get into a state of relaxation that is unparalleled in any other area of my life. I like being on stage and always have."
Richard Shindell is an up-and-coming singer-songwriter who's been getting rave reviews from the music press as well as paragons of the idiom, such as Joan Baez. Shindell's latest album, "Reunion Hill," released last September for Shanachie Records, is his third for the label. His other two releases include "Sparrow's Point" (1992), and "Blue Divide" (1994). But "Reunion Hill" has put him on the map like never before, as "Triple A" (adult alternative album) radio stations around the U.S. have latched on to the record and people like Joan Baez and Dar Williams have asked him to accompany him on their respective national tours.
Shindell, born in Lakehurst, New Jersey, raised on Long Island, attended Moravian College in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, and was part of John Gorka's Razzy Dazzy Spasm Band. Shindell transferred to Hobart College, where he majored in philosophy.
"I just can't get across how surprising it is to me to have come this far this quickly doing something I never really had any idea I could do," says Shindell, in an interview after his recent show at Outta Sights 'n' Sounds in Hightstown.
"The whole thing to me is out of the blue and kind of strange," he says, describing a decade-long rise to prominence as one of the nation's premier singer-songwriters. Shindell's lyrical artistry, rich with images from his own life, has been compared with the music of Leonard Cohen. "If you'd told me 12 or 13 years ago that this is what I'd be doing for a living, I would have said, `You're out of your mind. I can't write songs. What are you talking about?'"
Like Buffy Sainte-Marie in the early 1960s, Shindell -- by nature a quiet, introspective person -- somehow got up the nerve to go on stage and sing his own songs. He began playing guitar at age eight, he says, thanks to Bob Dylan. The turning point came for him in the 1980s at the Postcrypt Coffee House at Columbia University. Shindell, whose father works as a portfolio manager for T. Rowe Price and whose mother works as a librarian, was studying theology at Union Theological Seminary.
"I would write songs and take them to the Postcrypt," says Shindell. "They used to have these three-song slots for performers. I would write two songs and then throw in a cover tune, and eventually it got to the point where I could play for half an hour!" he says.
Shindell credits Gorka with motivating him to jump-start his own career. By 1988 and 1989, Gorka was touring the country, singing his own songs. "It was an eye-opener to see that he was making a living at it," says Shindell. "Then I realized, maybe I could do this for a living. I realized if anybody was going to hear my songs, I had to sing them myself."
Shindell's first two albums got him noticed by the music press and some radio stations, but it wasn't until recently that he's been able to tour nationally under his own name, thanks to the support of artists like Baez and Williams. (Baez sings three of Shindell's compositions on her most recent album, "Gone From Danger.")
Shindell says he still suffers from a bit of stage fright "It took me years to get through that and get comfortable up there," he explains. "First you find yourself as an opening act, then you find yourself sharing a double bill with other singer-songwriters, then you find you're `It'!" And this weekend, these singer-songwriters are it.
-- Richard J. Skelly
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