MARK LAWRENCE live at Googie’s Lounge, NYC, October 1st 2008

On an almost daily basis, I wonder how up-and-coming singer-songwriters manage to do it these days.  You can release your own CD, upload your tracks to the internet, then get in a car with as few people as possible and hit the road, I suppose.  Can you be a one-man business in this modern world, selling your own T-shirts and booking your own gigs and driving yourself from town to town?  I guess.  I’ve often dreamed of getting a CDL and becoming a self-contained trucking & entertainment industry myself, performing my favorite Marty Robbins tunes at truck stops ’round the country after dispatching giant cords of lumber, a pot-bellied pig named Porky my only traveling companion.  Joe Six-Packs and Hockey Moms nationwide could band together and order my 8-Track hits comps from K-Tel!  Well, a former beauty queen from The Last Frontier can dream, can’t she?  Oh, nevermind…

The thing is, all these thoughts just wash right out of my mind when I witness an actual performance by a great singer-songwriter, if only because the magic of a great performance tends to sweep me up into a world where the technical aspect of being a performer no longer matters.  Who cares how the magician does the trick, if the illusion is breathtaking enough, right?  Well this is how I felt last Wednesday night when I caught a set by Mark Lawrence at Googie’s Lounge, a small cabaret perched above The Living Room on Ludlow Street in lower Manhattan.

Though Mark and his music need no introduction to me, he’s a virtual unknown to most everyone else on this planet.  Now, there’s a part of me that’s bothered by this;  this gentleman clearly deserves a very wide audience, which he may one day gain.  But on the other hand, there’s such a gorgeous, private pleasure in having that one artist or that one album that’s so intimate and special to you that you just can’t bear to share it with anyone else.  I have the feeling that no matter how popular Mark Lawrence’s music could get, his songs will always give you that special intimate sensation.  He’s just that kinda guy.

Earlier this year, when Mark released his very long-awaited debut CD, Swirl, I mentioned to him and several others that, after just one listen, I could tell it was going to be one of my favorite records of 2008.  Now that the year is drawing rapidly to a close, and with many more listens under my belt (and, Momofuku notwithstanding, few other titles of note), I’ve come to the conclusion that this is my #1 favorite release of the year, hands-down.  You can hear (and buy) it for yourself, and read a short review by yours truly, here.

See what I mean?  This is some seriously well-written stuff;  gorgeous melodies that draw you in, with spectacular guitar playing and lush, warm arrangements.  All capped, of course, by Mark’s rich tenor and falsetto, part Glenn Tilbrook, part Chris Bell, all his own;  an instrument of which I’ve been in awe for some 20 years and counting.

Opening Wednesday night’s set by dedicating Swirl‘s “American Beauty Queen” to GOP hopeful Sarah Palin, Mark and his partner-in-sound, Swirl‘s co-producer Allen M. Law, reduced the album’s sound to a two-guitar attack that forfeited none of its lushness.  In fact, the simpler arrangements brought out more power in the material, accentuating the bossa nova groove of “All Over My Wall,” and exposing the true melancholy behind the lamenting “Supermarket Girl.”  By reproducing piano and string parts with electric guitar and reverb, Law provided the perfect bed of atmosphere for Lawrence’s acoustic guitar and voice.  No digital backing tracks required.  “Play it for me, guitarist,” Mark intoned to Allen away from the mic before a solo, evoking Alex Chilton on Big Star’s Third.  I smiled knowingly.  And tellingly.  And then it all hit me.

While sharing a few short anecdotes between songs, Mark confessed his awareness of how others read his material.  He told a story of how someone came up to him once after a show and said, “Y’know, you’re really good, but your songs are so earnest.”  It struck me at that point that the very simple honesty and earnestness in Mark’s songs is what really makes them special.  I had been wondering how today’s singer-songwriters do it.  I was trying to put my finger on it, and he did it for me, right from the stage.  No matter how much labor is involved, no matter how many flats one must change or how many truck stops, late-night diners and empty coffeehouses one must endure, when the music is great and the lyrics hit home, it’s all worthwhile.  And when the songs take on a life of their own and stay with you, all that work seems like a piece of cake.  It’s the intimacy and the honesty that gets you there.  And I think anyone who hears Mark Lawrence’s music, on record or in person, will agree.