In 1969, after listening to my first Eric Andersen album, Avalanche, I remember thinking that Bob Dylan, Phil Ochs, and Eric Andersen were all any 20-something needed to understand the language and passion of the anti-war, civil rights, and free speech scenes.
To hear how mesmerizing and evocative Eric Andersen was in the heyday of Greenwich Village folk music, listen to his heart-wrenching song, “For What Was Gained For What Was Lost” on YouTube.
Today, his ethereal voice is deeper and raspier, but the lyrics are still hauntingly truthful and his voice is just as easy on the ears. Since the ’60s, despite a few derailments, Andersen has been touring, performing, and recording steadily. His first appearance in Duluth last month, accompanied by Scarlet Rivera (of Rolling Thunder Tour fame), was a monumental achievement by the Armory Arts and Music Center Board, led by Nelson French.
Photo by Michael K. Anderson
Scarlet Rivera (right) backs up Eric Andersen (left) on Bob Dylan’s “John Brown.”
Emceed by KUMD host John Bushey, who warmed up the crowd with two of his favorite magic tricks (the rope trick is a show stopper!), the concert made exquisite use of the acoustics in UMD’s Weber Music Hall.
The evening began with Lonnie Knight and his long-time bass player Reid Papke, performing seven pieces highlighted by the late Merle Haggard’s “Kern River,” a mournful paean to lost love.
After the first intermission, Scarlet Rivera took the stage with Celtic reels, bluegrass favorites, a couple of Dylan standards (“Oh, Sister” and “Every Grain of Sand”), and a few original compositions, including one by local vocalist Amy Grillo.
Supported by virtuoso Canadian percussionist Cheryl Prashker, Twin Cities favorite Gene LaFond, Knight and Papke, Rivera wowed with her precision, range, and soulfulness, adding some vocal numbers she confessed to being uncertain about.
One of her most memorable was “Sacred Wheel,” a “relationship song” she co-wrote with a member of her Los Angeles band, Voices of Van Gogh. “Something I know a little about,” she said, as the group launched into the self-help-style tune, which boasts an impressive final crescendo.
There was a palpable atmospheric shift when Andersen took the stage. Wearing all black and looking 20 years younger than he is, the songwriter played two long sets, rarely speaking more than dry, clipped one-liners. Artfully backed by Rivera, Prashker, and renowned producer and musician Steve Addabbo, Andersen took us through an enchanting tour of five decades of his songwriting.
The first, a solo rendition of “I Shall Go Unbounded” from his 1966 album ‘Bout Changes & Things, features ’60s-style harmonica bridges and classic love poetry.
In a slow, atmospheric rendition of Dylan’s “Disease of Conceit,” Andersen muscled meaning from the lyrics, which are often taken for granted, but in Andersen’s version, implicate the less-than-savory political climate.
From his 1998 album, Memory of the Future, he played “Foghorn.” The Duluth audience seemed to want to crawl inside this song about “an echo that the rain forgot to place,” “harbor horns” that “blow in the night mist,” and “open hearts and gratitude.”
Much credit for the quality of the concert was due to sound technicians Don Schraufnagel of UMD’s Music Department and Pat McCarthy, who was Rivera’s soundman on the road after her stint with Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Tour in 1975. “It’s not an audience I see regularly,” says Schraufnagel. “Having good sound is a process. We started working days ahead of the concert to get it right.”
Duluth was very fortunate to have such history mingled with such artistry. If all these magicians can be coaxed into a return engagement, we will be even luckier.