It’s Sunday, Dec.6, and my wife and I grab a couple of barstools at Bang the Drum Brewery and settle in with a few microbrews to listen to one of our favorite performers, Jody Mulgrew, the peripatetic singer-songwriter who’s playing to a small but appreciative crowd in the intimate and homey venue.
- PHOTO BY GLEN STARKEY
- PERCUSSION : Mulgrew adds just a touch of percussion to a few tunes with a toe-tapped tambourine.
When we arrive, he’s performing Ben E. King’s “Stand by Me,” tapping his toe on a tambourine for percussion and raising his voice into a silvery and soaring falsetto as his sings, “If the sky that we look upon should tumble and fall or the mountain should crumble to the sea, I won’t cry. I won’t cry. No I won’t shed a tear just as long as you stand, stand by me.”
Mulgrew, who grew up in Morro Bay, learned a ton about vocal jazz and classic voice at Cuesta College, had a great band called The Johnny Starlings, released a 2011 solo album called Rocket Ship that won Album of the Year at the New Times Music Awards, had another great band called Jody Mulgrew & the Skeleton Crew who recorded another great album called Let Them Talk that won 2014 album of the year at the New Times Music Awards, moved to Nashville, recorded yet another great new album called As the Sun Reclaims the Sky, moved back to California, and now tours all over the place from his current home base in San Diego. I guess after all those formative years stuck in Morro Bay, he’s not one for being tied down.
He’s now telling the audience about the next song he’ll perform, which was co-written with Nashville singer-songwriter Bob Rea (pronounced Ray). Called “Darkest Night,” Rea got the idea from an NPR news report about what was to be the darkest night in 500 years.
“It was the darkest night in 500 years according to the radio, but all the darkness just disappears in the static of the neon glow,” Mulgrew sings. “Oh my darling, I’ve been missing you. Oh, oh my darling, it seems it’s all I ever do. There’s no promise of salvation. It’s just another load that we tow to an unknown destination down a long empty road.”
- PHOTO BY GLEN STARKEY
- INTIMACY: A small but appreciative crowd eats up Mulgrew’s every word and note during a recent Bang the Drum Brewery performance.
The song, and much of the new album, was recorded in Bob Rea’s bathroom in his house on the “historical” side of Nashville, meaning the un-gentrified side, which Mulgrew describes as mostly “shotgun shacks with angry dogs chained up in the front yards.”
Next Mulgrew is preparing to play his new album’s lead track, “On the Line,” which he explains was written for his girlfriend, who’s in the audience. I’d texted Mulgrew earlier to tell him I’d be showing up with my camera so he better look pretty.
“If I look pretty, I want to thank my girlfriend Erika, who let me borrow her hair products, and for whom this song is also written,” he says before singing along to a jangling chugging guitar, “It started with a heavy emotion, started with a heavy heart, started with a fearless devotion, tears couldn’t tear us apart. And the night would tear us apart lest we laid our hearts on the line. All you young lovers unite and lay your hearts on the line tonight.”
Mulgrew grew up on the likes of Sam Cooke and other soulful crooners, and he’s adopted their elastic vocal style that traverses octaves with ease. If you hear his recordings, it’s not always immediately clear if it’s a man or woman singing—it’s a voice that transcends gender and convention.
He next breaks into “Till My Peace Be Made,” a song he wrote during The Johnny Starlings years, and it sounds like it could have been written a hundred years ago in the Appalachians: “Till my peace be made and my sable soul be saved, I will wander these cold hills without you. Till the warm sun shines on this wary heart of mine, this path will ever wind till my peace be made.”
- PHOTO BY GLEN STARKEY
- CHARMER: Jody Mulgrew runs through a series of original songs spanning his five albums as well as a few select covers.
It’s a heartbreaker, and so is Jody Mulgrew, who writes songs so tender and beautiful they’ll leave you aching for more. He’ll return to the area next year to play two shows with fiddler John Nowel on Thursday, Jan. 21, at Luna Red (10 p.m. to midnight); and he’ll play his official album release party for As the Sun Reclaims the Sky on Saturday, Feb. 6, at Steynberg Gallery (7:30 p.m.; $15). In the meantime, pick up a copy of his CD at local record stores, online at mulgrewskeletoncrew.com, or the usual places such as itunes.apple.com and amazon.com.
Glen Starkey takes a beating and keeps on bleating. Keep up with him via twitter at twitter.com/glenstarkey, friend him at facebook.com/glenstarkey, or contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.