When describing a singer-songwriter, the term “troubadour” is typically misused to the most ridiculous extent possible. Most of the culprits are part of the corporate publicity machine, or those who still kiss up to it, probably because they’ve been kissing up to it for so long that they’ve forgotten that it has nothing left for them. But that’s another story.
In the Middle Ages, the troubadours – a French word – were the CNN of Europe. Making their way precariously from town to town, through thickets of bandits – with whom they undoubtedly shared more than we’ll ever know – they carried news, and rumors, and often outright falsehoods about what was going on in the wider world. For some mead and a meal and a bed, they’d keep the night going with drinking songs and sex songs, and maybe there’d be a jam session at the end. Relics of this ancient ritual persist in bars around the world.
The obvious conclusion is that in the age of CNN, there’s hardly a need for troubadours. But in an era when so much news is no more reliable than the apocryphal tales spread by well-traveled, hardworking guys picking up bits and pieces of information here and there and weaving them into a semi-plausible whole, maybe we need to rethink that conclusion. That’s where somebody like Joshua Garcia comes in.
Garcia sings in a strong, confident baritone that harks back to the more purposeful folk voices of the 1950s folk revival: in other words, he isn’t trying to be Dylan or, for that matter, John Mayer. Likewise, his guitar picking is steady, and fluid, and fluent in several bluesy styles. He writes in images: rather than telling you what’s going on, he gives you an audio movie to figure out. He’s got a deadpan sense of humor that can be very grim, which makes sense considering who’s in the Oval Office right now.
At his show at the American Folk Art Museum a couple of weeks ago, you could have heard a pin drop. “I’m not used to playing for so many of you,” he grinned, but that will change. His songs are topical, but in the style of a Spike Lee movie rather than a news program. The best one was That’s the Way You Drop a Bomb, a matter-of-fact, picturesque account of what the crew of the Enola Gay were told to expect on their way to and back from killing hundreds of thousands of innocent Japanese civilians. An old story, no question, but one with immense relevance when fire and fury drip from greedy lips at White House news conferences.
Garcia opened his set with an aphoristic catalog of things that he was going to buy. Some were concrete, many of them were grandiose, and eventually he came to the point where he’d mention a few of the things he wasn’t going to buy. Those, he’d leave to you. Guess what they were.
He also played a couple of brooding narratives about immigrant life. The first and more allusive one looked at the dismal daily routine of his Mexican-American immigrant grandmother, a California factory worker in the 1950s. The more harrowing one, a chronicle of spousal abuse was unselfconsciously tender and dedicated to his mom. Obviously, domestic violence is hardly the exclusive domain of immigrants or working people, but there’s no question that societies where prosperity is not monopolized by a robber baron class have lower rates of violent crime. Garcia didn’t say any of that outright: he let his song speak for itself. He closed the set a-cappella, a brave move that worked like a charm on the crowd.
His next gig is a short set at 7 PM on Sept 2 at Caffe Vivaldi followed eventually at 8 by Jeremy Aaron, a good acoustic guitarist who writes socially aware topical songs, and then clever, playful swing/oldtimey Americana accordionist-singer Erica Mancini at 8:30.
And the weekly Free Music Fridays series at the American Folk Art Museum – Manhattan’s best and arguably most popular listening room for pretty much all styles of acoustic music – resumes on September 22 at 6 PM with acoustic Americana tunesmith Rodrigo Aranjuelo. and gothic Americana duo Thoughtdream