Review: Craig Bickhardt:: Live at Sellersville Theater
Part 1 of 2 on award winning singer/songwriter Craig Bickhardt
At last week’s conference, one of the panelists shared a story. Early in his career he had been a radio DJ, responsible for choosing the songs that were played. “Used to be, we’d get so many records sent to us, we’d just pick ‘em by their covers. Eighty-five percent of the time we’d be right.”
Using the same methodology for a home-based trial, I was far less accurate. From a desktop littered with shrink wrapped sound, I picked up Craig’s album, looked at the cover, then put it back down.
That was a mistake that I have now corrected on more than one occasion.
An award winning writer, Craig Bickhardt shares his original songs from the center microphone on Live at Sellersville Theater, offering a vocal performance that is both genuine and expressive. There is a gruffness to his voice and a subtle emotion in the delivery that breathe a convincing reality into each of the twelve songs on this disc. Of these, eleven were written or co-written by Mr. Bickhardt. Several were featured on earlier studio albums (Brother to the Wind, Easy Fires), but two of the songs, “Men and Rivers” and “Crazy Nightingale” are new, previously unrecorded originals.
The collection is very different from the country pop music that is currently in vogue in Nashville. These songs were never intended for radio; there are no repetitive hooks, no cliched references to pickup trucks, barbeque, or honky tonks. These are folk songs, some with country and some with pop leanings, but each with a distinctive sound and lyrical focus. While everyday themes of love, loss and regret can be found here, the approach is delightfully different, offering a unique slant on the common events and emotions that bind us.
Two of the songs stand out; “This Old House” is a wistful story of regret told from the perspective of the house when the longtime owners place a “For Sale” sign in the front yard. “Take another look before you lock my door, where your shoes have worn the finish from my floor” and “If this old house were built on memories, I would stand a thousand years.” There is a natural flow to the song; the words and melody work in a comfortable synergy and the vocals are infused with a gentle melancholy. Reminiscent of Miranda Lambert’s “The House That Built Me”, this song predated the current mega hit, offering the same high quality songwriting, but with an original twist on the connection between home and owner.
“Crazy Nightingale” is an ode to artists gone too soon, their fragile cores ruined by excess and isolation. Amy Winehouse comes immediately to mind, but the song was written about another musician, as Mr. Bickhardt explained in a recent communication.
“I’ve always loved the poetry of Dylan Thomas. He was the ‘Crazy Nightingale’ at the center of the lyric. As you probably know, he drank himself to death in NYC surrounded by admirers who would buy him endless pints of ale to get him to recite and sing. He had a beautiful speaking and singing voice, hence the nightingale symbol. It’s a song about the kind of self-torment that destroys some artists who struggle with fame, pressure, declining output, and who I think secretly feel a lot of despair about their flawed work. The second verse makes reference to the Chinese poet Li Po, who drank wine by the gallon and spoke to the moon. He would have been right at home with Thomas so I put them in the song together. Sometimes artists fall off a very high pedestal in front of the whole world and it’s really tragic.”
Like all live recordings, there are minor imperfections here; the vocals fade when Craig briefly turns away from the microphone to the audience, for example. Happily, the production flaws are few and far exceeded by the quality of the songs and the vocal/acoustic performance. At a time when music is often analogous to fast food, easily consumed and readily disposable, Live at Sellersville Theater offers the ultimate in fine dining. These are songs and performances built to last.
For more on singer/songwriter Craig Bickhardt, including discography, album sales and tour schedule, go here.
Coming soon: In Part 2 of this series, Mr. Bickhardt discusses songwriting and Nashville, then and now.