On My Way To Hooterville
And Now, Hooterville is Pleased to Present . . . Christiiiiiiine Lavin!
by Ira Mayer
If you are already familiar with Christine Lavin, you probably know the avenue by which you got to her music. You are likely to own more than one of her 24 solo albums created over the course of her 40-some year career.
Maybe you discovered her at The Bottom Line, or Caffe Lena, or one of several clubs she sings about but doesn’t identify in the three “Hooterville” songs on this album.
Maybe it was Fast Folk. Or a Bob Sherman “Woody’s Children” anniversary concert that she no doubt helped put together and that you heard on the radio or were lucky enough to attend.
Perhaps it was via the Four Bitchin’ Babes. Or the On A Winter’s Night CDs or tours. Or one of the many online concerts she’s hosted and performed on, introducing her musical friends new and old. (Chris is one of the biggest boosters of other artists out there, and not just folkies.)
Maybe it was one of her stints guest hosting John Platt’s show on WFUV/Public Radio — shout out here on “First Dance/Last Dance,” which she recorded on that show one Sunday morning, not normally a time for a folksinger to be up, as Chris will be the first to tell you — but in this case a gift to all of us. Thanks, John, for taking a vacation!
If you aren’t already familiar with Christine Lavin, this 25th solo album is as good an introduction as you will need to be inspired to dig back into the others, find live performances on Youtube, or go to Vimeo to view and listen to the poignant videos she’s been making to illustrate her songs, as for “First Dance Last Dance” and “Ode to Clint Eastwood.” (She also makes videos for other artists; that’s a story for another time.)
The videos are a relatively late addition to Chris’s music-making; they point up a characteristic of her music that has always been there, and which is key to Chris’s unparalleled ability to draw people into her world: She writes visual songs. Precise little vignettes. Eloquent, sometimes wistful one act plays — three acts here, for the album’s title song.
But here’s the thing: Chris’s songs don’t need the videos to be seen. Listen to “My Sister Mary and My Mother” and tell me you can’t picture that gorgeous song in its entirety. Only then should you check out the delightful video and story to go with it (see Chris’s notes below).
Or “Ramblin’ Waltz,” a 45-year-old number she wrote when she was an entourage driver for the first week of Bob Dylan’s “Rolling Thunder Revue” tour. If you have ever seen Ramblin’ Jack Elliott — and I hope you have — this song will dance itself to you. In Technicolor. If you haven’t seen Ramblin’ Jack, you’ll get the picture all the same.
Or the jazzy “Ray’s Copy Shop,” mostly composed 20 years ago, only finished this year — it’s Dave Frishberg crossed with Tom Waits hangin’ on the Upper West Side. And “Until That Day,” a love song to her parents, complete with requisite subway scene. That’s a take.
Chris’s spot-on comic instincts and timing are most in evidence in this set by “Wut?” and “The Quiet Car.” Her humor is not always, shall we say, subtle. But it works; even hearing some of her funny songs over and over (there’s a joke there for “Wut?” but you’ll need to listen first) the fun doesn’t wear out because it’s situational. Again, we are all embedded inside Christine Lavin’s songs. Go to an earlier CD or online and cue “Sensitive New Age Guys” and “Good Thing He Can’t Read My Mind” or its updated companion, “Good Thing She Can’t Read My Mind,” for two of her most popular examples.
There is one side of Chris’s songwriting that is missing on this album: There are no political songs.
I haven’t asked her specifically why, and you can find plenty of ripped-from-the-headlines Christine Lavin songs online, but most of this album was produced during the Covid-19 lockdown and in the runup to the 2020 presidential election. Maybe it’s just too fraught a time, too angry a moment. Maybe Chris is unconsciously suggesting we focus on the good inside. I’m OK with that. VERY OK.
Truth is, good as Chris’s recorded output is, nothing compares to a Christine Lavin concert. I’ve been to dozens over those 40 years, starting back when that was her night gig while by day she was a medical typist at Bellevue Hospital. (Back then I was reviewing for the New York Post.)
Fast forward: In February 2020, just before the lockdowns, my family and I were privileged to host a house concert with Chris in our living room, which 50 relatives and friends attended. The intimacy of that night, at which she performed many of the songs in this set, was stunning. The actress Christine Lavin used every facial muscle to accent the songwriter Christine Lavin’s lyrics, her voice as steady and strong as ever. That, and the video projector she brought with her to share some of her videos, transformed our living room into Chris’s own personal theater.
Put this CD in your player (yes, most of us in the Christine Lavin fan club still have CD players), or start your stream. Close your eyes and listen to these songs. You can see them, can’t you?
Ira Mayer is a forever Christine Lavin fan and former contributor to the Rockaway Wave, Village Voice, Rolling Stone, Record World, Sunday New York Times, Music Week, the New York Post, and more. For periodic current jottings about music and theater, visit www.nightmayer.net.