I've been too busy to write about a couple of the shows I've attended over the past couple months, but I saw one in particular that I'd like to at least briefly document. Charlie King came to Webster University, and I happened to be quite involved in one of the groups that sponsored his appearance. King is a folksinger activist who has been active since the late 70s, and although folk's popular peak may have been years before he started performing, King has been working hard to keep it alive.
Artist: Charlie King
Venue: Winifred-Moore Auditorium, Webster University
Location: Webster Groves, Missouri
Date: 3 March 2009
I'm not familiar enough with Charlie's back catalog or the modern folk tradition to be able to provide a setlist, but I will at least try to discuss some of the themes that Charlie addressed during the evening. The most important part of folk songs are the words, since these are the actual media through which messages are shared, so I'm going to focus on the lyrical content instead of the actual tunes. Most of them weren't extremely complicated anyway, but that's fine. The words are more important. Just about every song King played covered a topical political theme; he went from the privilege of the rich to anti-war protests to environmentalism and beyond.
These themes aren't particularly surprising, but it is nonetheless a delight to hear someone sing their heart out quick candidly about their opinions on these subjects. Many were quite creative; for example, one of the songs early in the set focused on a baboon colony in which all the adult males had somehow died. As the next generation grew up, instead of using typical aggression and giving into standard hierarchical power structures, the baboons worked together and minimized their in-fighting to great success. King asked us why we can't do the same.
Charlie seemed mostly pleased with our newly elected president, but strongly encouraged us to keep him accountable for his campaign promises. King remembered when he had initially supported Bill Clinton, only to be disappointed by the "great compromise" of his "don't ask, don't tell" policy, which led into a storytelling song about the issue. King also lamented the urban renewal and class warfare occurring on Laramie Street in Denver, where the former businesses friendly to the homeless and lower-class were bulldozed in favor of an expensive shopping district.
King discussed his attempts to improve his fuel efficiency by refusing to drive over 60 miles per hour; he claimed that each 5 miles per hour that one drives is matched by a 10% increase in fuel efficiency, but his slow driving also earned him countless evil glares. He had a great line to the effect of, "Don't you know, we all have Prius envy," that sent the auditorium laughing. This led into a song about wanting a gentler car, but realizing that it's better to take the train, or better yet, a bike, or still better, to walk.
I felt a bit more mixed about the latter half of King's concert. I appreciated the songs about supporting unions and showing actual support for American troops through peaceful means. However, I do not agree with King's rant against video games. I prefer moderation over censorship, although I did find King's abstraction to his concerns about preparing children for the military to be valid. Worse, though, was a deeply anti-progressive song against technology and mechanization. I understand King's concern that this can lead to a loss of certain jobs (such as his father's), but I feel like King left out a large part of the story of modernization.
The last songs were a return to form; his closer was "Our Life Is More Than Our Work", a classic of his own that opened his first (commercially available) album, and for an encore he covered an antiwar song by Bobby Darin, much to the surprise of the audience.
King is in many ways a typical folkster, which is mostly a good thing even if he is imperfect. It is regrettable that there are not many other people with any degree of popularity carrying on the folk tradition. There is a younger generation of singer-songwriters with a strong folk bent that are a bit more modern and progressive, but King is one of the last old-style folksingers. He is legitimately concerned about the everyman and about peace and the environment. I'm glad that there are still people out there singing about these things. Even if I think King could take a few steps towards the future in some of his opinions, he mostly does a solid job bringing together the past and present.
In addition to performing about eighteen songs, King told plenty of stories and provided introductions for many of his pieces (and he always gave credit for the songs he didn't write). He kept the audience interested and involved, especially by inviting us to sing along with many of his songs. His choruses are usually well-suited for audience participation, and he successfully got us to take part. Regrettably, however, the audience was frightfully thin. There were only about thirty or forty people in attendance. For a fairly open-minded liberal arts college with a significant enough musical community in a city of a few million, where was everyone?
P.S. The only other review of this show that I'm aware of was written by a friend of mine for the school paper, and it can be found here. Coincidentally, I'm quoted in it.