If other bands have frustrated me recently by being too cool or too serious of purpose to fully experience their own artistic possibilities, I'm relieved to find Gregory Stovetop bursting onto the Ann Arbor scene. Affable, earthy, and explosive, this solo singer-songwriter — protected only by his acoustic guitar — throws himself into his songs and performances.
To borrow my mother's lament on how quickly I used to go through a pair of shoes, I'd have to say Stovetop "wears his guitar hard." His energetic strumming, often overlaid with fancy, melodic finger work, squeezes every bit of volume and verve from his instrument. At a recent performance, he started out with a borrowed guitar after breaking a string on his own during the sound check . . . and then broke another string early in his set.
Endless gusto can be a bit much in a show if there's no counterpoint of quieter numbers. At times Stovetop is a little, well, over the top. Even so, many of his tunes adopt a bolero style that starts quiet and slow and gradually rises in intensity and speed, finishing with repetitive, driving rhythmic lines. And his sheer enthusiasm for his developing craft begs indulgence. Add to this his boyish pink cheeks and mop of unruly hair, and you'll find it easy to root for Stovetop as a Tom Sawyer- meets-Richie Havens character.
His vocal style is equally earnest. The first thing you'll likely notice is a tendency to bleat out notes, rather like a lamb or gurgling brook. I'm not talking vibrato here, just a singing style that seems to bubble forth uncontrollably. He can also draw out a single vowel, changing its shape several times on his way to whisper-singing the end of the word.
By alternating vocal lines with complicated guitar refrains — and the occasional pregnant pause of surprising silence — he creates a well-balanced sound for a solo performer. He also looks comfortable with himself all alone on stage. But he does have a tendency to sing with his head thrown back too often, as if howling at the moon.
That might not be an inappropriate impression, given the lyrical content of many of his compositions. At least five of the numbers on his six-song self-titled CD draw from themes of nature to express love, awe, and gratitude. It's easy to sound clichéd when writing about the moon, sky, and stars, but Stovetop avoids this danger with clever phrasing and captivating imagery. "All your dreams are stars inside of me," he offers in one love song, along with these lines: "Our hearts light up the sky / the opening of the eyes / a girl and a guy / rain or shine / hello and good-bye / give up or try."
Let's hope Stovetop doesn't give up, and doesn't let the inevitably subtler stylings of maturity dampen the fire in his belly. He's at the Crazy Wisdom Tea Room on Friday, December 26.