From the December, 2015 issue
Peter Mulvey is a pretty good guitar player, and that's a wild understatement. Here's another: Peter Mulvey has a way with words. He's also not a half-bad bicyclist.
In early September, Mulvey rode his bike, pulling his guitar in a special rig behind him, to a dock in his adopted home town of Milwaukee, took the ferry across Lake Michigan to Muskegon, then biked eighty miles to Remus to play in the annual Wheatland Music Festival. When he comes to the Ark on December 4, he will likely travel more conventionally, since the ferry stopped running on November 1. But that may be the only thing conventional about his show.
Mulvey is a monster guitarist, able to coax supple, intricate, highly ornamented melodies and lush harmonies out of his acoustic six-string. He's equally adept at slashing and pounding out rapid, rhythmic riffs and percussive, danceable grooves that make you crane your neck to see where he's hidden the bass player and drummer. His guitar does not so much accompany his singing as dialogue with it.
Now, about that way of his with words: Mulvey's lyrics sparkle with striking similes ("The girl across the street, she is as light on her feet / As sunlight bouncing off chrome"), hilarious one-liners ("Once I got plastered at my best friend's Bar Mitzvah"), and lines that perfectly illustrate Archibald MacLeish's dictum, "A poem should not mean, but be" ("They say a kiss is just a flower that a bee might return from / And do his little dance at the hive"). His songs are crowded with more words per minute than most rap recordings. In many of them he uses a stream of consciousness that gives them an improvisatory feel but with an underlying coherence and order. Even when you don't catch every word, you can trust something meaningful is happening.
Then there is his well-worn voice, with a lived-in quality that further lends believability to his lyrics and stories. In his forty-minute set
at Wheatland, he sang only six songs. The rest of his time he filled with introductions and tales--tall, long, and short--that were informative, interesting, engaging, rambling, quixotic, and thoroughly entertaining. We were with him every second of the way, no matter where his way led.
In a highlight-filled set, he reached the apex with a song he wrote this past June, just days after the killings of nine black people at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina. "Take Down Your Flag" powerfully expresses rage and sadness while also poignantly honoring the dead. It's worth seeing him in concert just to hear him sing that song and tell what it has inspired in the extended songwriters' community.
[Originally published in December, 2015.]
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