While the Eagles-Cowboys rivalry played itself out to exhaustion in an over-lit sportsplex a few miles to the north of Philadelphia’s Fishtown neighborhood, Richard Buckner treated his audience to the polar opposite of that corporate-sponsored mega-spectacle: an intimate, quietly soul-stirring evening of folksong and storytelling.
The evening’s warm, congenial tone was set by the John Train duo, with local slide guitar master Mike “Slo-Mo” Brenner complementing guitarist Jon Houlon’s quirky original tunes, including the title song for the group’s third album, “Sugar Ditch,” a euphemism in the South for a sewage run-off area. Their cover of Peter Case’s “Two Angels” was particularly stirring, with Brenner providing beautifully swelling, undulating accents.
Buckner took the stage casually in braided pigtails, a scraggly beard, work boots, a blue pocket tee and plaid western shirt — the visual antithesis of the telegenically high-gloss celebrities broadcasting from that gigantic football stadium up the road. Buckner’s homely “broadcasting” style involved his cinematically describing, in episodic fashion between songs, curious scenes from his current tour. As he drove west from his home in Kingston, New York earlier in the week, he explained, “It felt so good, talking to myself in my car.” The monologue continued on stage as he described discovering an offbeat family-owned hotel off the turnpike in North Lima, Ohio. He had checked out their Facebook page from the road and was drawn by its interesting history and homely videos: one of their relentlessly friendly desk clerk, and another of a couple of local characters playing acoustic guitar and drunkenly singing a song about the hotel. “So I booked it,” Buckner concluded with a wink.
Having tentatively tickled the audience’s funny bone, he then launched into a deadly serious tune, made all the more powerful and haunting by the amiable banter that preceded it.
“It was a drive-up beer store… with rooms attached,” he said of the hotel, abruptly resuming the running monologue about his tour adventures two songs later. This was followed by an uber-dark, Appalachian style ballad about poison eidleberry featuring the haunting refrain, “So take a little sip / and dream again.”
Buckner continued to weave his dark musical meditations with deft, between-song banter and tall tales throughout the evening. At one point he relayed a long, funny story about his luthier calling to report that Buckner’s 12-string lay in pieces in his workshop — which explained, Buckner stated, why didn’t have it with him for the current performance. “But don’t worry,” he offered, “you’re still getting your money’s worth.” When an audience member interjected, “If I had known I could’ve brought you one!” Buckner responded in a dead-serious tone: “So, can you run home… and get it for me?”
His comedic timing was perfect: the man clearly knows how to work a crowd.
His instruments of choice for the evening were a pair of dark sunburst, vintage Silvertone and Kalamazoo guitars with crooked, add-on pickups that looked force-fit into their sound holes, the guitars’ tops scored by time and intensive use. He apologized at one point that his effects pedals weren’t working but no one was disappointed, as the barebones guitar accompaniment made his songs all the more intimate and affecting.
Like his stories, Buckner’s songs are typically left unresolved, lyrically and harmonically suspended in a tentative, questioning thought-space. He deploys a heavy-thumb fingerpicking style in lieu of a pick, and his songs stick to simple, mostly minor chords punctuated by sweet, short runs and hammered-on accents. His dark tenor voice is close in tone at times to that of former Lemonheads frontman Evan Dando, at other times approaching a languid and more melodic Neil Young.
Another song, and Buckner abruptly resumed his tale: “So I sat in my car, and I thought, ‘Oh, I’ve gotta go in.'” While waiting in the hotel’s lobby to check in, another occupant walked in with a wet towel she had found left on her bed. “Oh, sorry about that,” the desk attendant breezily responded, offering her a free beer in compensation. Minutes later an
“old miner-49er type guy” came in and asked for a room. “But what about the other night, with the police and everything?” the desk attendant asked skeptically.
To allay Buckner’s presumed apprehension (which was mostly just bemusement), the attendant gave Buckner an end room and offered him a free beer from a prominently- located refrigerator in the lobby. Apparently free beer for every guest was one of the hotel’s unadvertised perks.
Buckner’s room, it turned out, was situated next to “a place where hoboes go to fight,” he said, prompting chuckles from the audience. “But the room was CLEAN,” he concluded, launching right into his next song, which began ominously: “Let’s waste the night / Pay the price and get out of here.” The audience stood, rapt and swaying in the intimate, trusting space Buckner had created with his off-kilter stories and comfortable, confiding presence.
You can see why Bon Iver cited Buckner as a major influence. Buckner’s songs evoke the dead of a winter’s night; it’s easy to imagine him singing against the backdrop of a crackling warm fireplace. Occasionally his lyrics strike one as impossibly unmusical, yet he makes them work quite expressively. “Hand me one of them little wallet pictures,” he intoned during one song; “Speak your lines when you talk that way,” he sang in another one. And in another: “It takes so many lives / One of them was mine.”
After a couple more songs Buckner continued his shaggy narrative, describing his last- minute pilgrimage to the home of the poet Kenneth Patchen in Warren, Ohio. “I look like a milkman on LSD when I drive into these little towns,” he confessed. “‘Wow, you look like a wild man today,’” the caretaker at the Patchen house said on greeting him, in fact. “Well, I FEEL wild,” Buckner responded with a crazed look — or so he claimed.
The song that followed contained a seeming comment on that scene: “What’s the name for people like us?”
Buckner prefaced the next installment of his side-trip narrative with a warning that it involved “a long story about a hot dog store and an angry librarian”(!). It ended unexpectedly with his description of a TV report about a guy who opened his car door
after not having driven the car for some time: “And about 50 pounds of pine cones came out.” Upon which Rhoda (from the hotel) mordantly observed: ‘Squirrels — gotta love ‘em.”
Buckner presented the night’s final song with a hushed, trance-like delivery that left the audience floored. “Well, he did all our favorite songs,” I overhead one concert-goer say to his companion as the lights flicked on and the house music started up. I’m pretty sure I heard, among the twenty or so songs Buckner played (whose titles he never relayed), “22” and “Bloomed” from his early album Bloomed, “Lil Wallet Picture,” “Song of 27” and “Ed’s Song” from Devotion, “10-Day Room” and “Ariel Ramirez” from Since, “Oscar Hummel” from his album of musical renditions of E.A. Robinson’s Spoon River Anthology, “Witness” and “Hindsight” from Our Blood, and “Beautiful Question,” “Foundation” and “Go” from 2013’s Surrounded. It was a stirring and compelling set, for sure.
So much so, in fact, the audience wasn’t quite ready to leave when the show ended. A fair number of attendees hung around afterwards, preferring to bathe in the afterglow of a sweetly intimate Sunday evening of song as Alejandro Escovedo’s latest record, The Crossing, quietly played through the P.A. [For our review of this album see here: REVIEW: Alejandro Escovedo’s “The Crossing” is One of the Finest Albums of the Year
Eventually Buckner came out to check on his gear, chat with the sound guys, and casually greet his fans. His off-stage demeanor was as humble, good-natured and sincere as his on-stage persona, though a bit less intense.
Driving home past the still-packed, brightly lit football stadium — which from the elevated freeway looked like an establishing shot from an alien invasion movie — I thought of Buckner’s gracious, warmly funny, and disarmingly genuine persona and sighed. It was the complete antithesis of the stereotypical mega rock-star (say, Freddy Mercury), and the contrast between the hyper-event happening in that stadium and the stirring, intimate evening of folksong and yarn-spinning I’d just witnessed could not have been more stark. A society that prefers empty, overblown spectacles to such simple human acts of communion, I thought — resuming my own internal monologue — is clearly a sick one.
Upcoming tour dates, a partial discography, a few random recordings of covers (e.g., of The Car’s “Candy-O”) and video footage are available at richardbuckner.com Read our earlier review of some of Mike Brenner (from the John Train duo) here: REVIEW: Solo Sounds Label Releases Nine Beautiful Clear Christmas Albums: One Instrument Apiece