The first time I heard John Gorka was at the Michigan Theater sometime in the early Nineties, when he was the opening act for someone I don’t remember. That says something about my memory but probably more about Gorka. (My better half, who came to that concert with me, does remember the headliner, but she also recalls Gorka’s as the more memorable set.) That night, Gorka made a small joke while he plugged in his acoustic guitar, and the theater began shrinking to living room dimensions. The warmth, ease, intelligence, and humor emanating from the stage were palpable even from the cheap seats. Not to mention the musicianship.

There was nothing flashy or flamboyant about any single aspect of Gorka’s performance. It was the complete package that was so coherent and startling. His guitar playing is clean, pleasing, and an ideal backdrop to his warm, mellow voice, which practically every reviewer describes as a “soulful baritone.” His stage presence is comfortable, and his between-song patter is genuine and often very funny. But it’s his songs that make you sit up and lean forward. The tunes are eminently hum-along-able (humming and wordless vocalizing are devices he uses frequently and effectively), while his lyrics range from the mysterious to the hilarious. “That beautiful broken place that gave you a curtained freedom / Your bane and your saving grace” all the way to “People my age have started looking gross.” (Gorka is fifty-seven.)

There is the tongue-in-cheeky “B.B. King Was Wrong” and the ironic and sardonic “I’m from New Jersey” (“it’s like Ohio, but even more so”). He’s got heartfelt love songs that work just as well to an audience as to a lover. “It’s from me, it’s to you, for your eyes / It’s a weight, a wonder that is wise / I am here, you are there / Love is our cross to bear.” And by no means is he only about, in his words, “happy rhymes.” Try and hold back your tears when you listen to “Let Them In.” Every phrase in every song is burnished smooth, but with the wildness still breathing inside.

His sound combines a hint of country, a bit of blues, and a lot of just plain Gorka. Of course he uses the same notes and chords that every other songwriter can access, but he manages to combine them in ways that make the songs instantly identifiable as his.

Gorka has been a folk favorite since 1984, when he won a New Folk Award at the Kerrville Folk Festival. His songs have been sung and recorded by Nanci Griffith, Mary Chapin Carpenter, David Wilcox, and Maura O’Connell, among many others. If you’ve seen Gorka before, you need no convincing. If you haven’t, you can introduce yourself to someone really worth hearing when he returns to the Ark on Sunday, January 24 (see Nightspots).