call it a comeback: Mark Mulcahy.
If you were to bump into Mark Mulcahy on the street outside
Valentine’s, you might rustle through your pockets for some
spare change to surrender, or you might scramble to put distance
between the two of you. That’s too harsh. It’s just that he’s
pretty tall, see, and he looks a bit crazy sometimes. Tall—just
enough to be imposing to someone of average height, but not
so much that you might miss the off-somewhere-else look in
Plus there’s his, um, style: For last Thursday’s performance,
he took to the stage in a dark, slightly ill-fitting suit,
a Badtz Maru sweatband circling his right wrist. His curly
mass of hair teetered high on his head, something like a Spinal
Tap-size Stonehenge in shape. Who knew he was such a trendsetter?
Hipsters spend weeks upon weeks combing thrift shops and slacking
off on grooming to achieve this look. Mulcahy got there by
simply not giving a shit.
why should he give a shit, anyway? He’s been plugging away
at this music thing for 20 years, through the highs and lows
of the music industry, only to pull a school-night audience
of about 40 people? Considered a practical non-entity by the
world at large, it’s no wonder he asks in one song, “Can I
make a comeback?” Surprising, too, that he doesn’t follow
up with, “And why should I bother?” But he aims to please—his
current album isn’t titled In Pursuit of Your Happiness
The low profile is a bad thing, for sure, because the guy
is blessed with a voice like none other—expressive and full,
yet bearing a hint of vulnerability. Mark Mulcahy, the performer,
is a passionate and knowing conduit for this gift. He’s aware
that he has something special, and he respects his own ability,
even when he loudly doubts himself in his lyrics. This was
most evident as he vacillated between concerned and pleased,
his facial expression morphing from pained scowl to shit-eating
grin on the lurching “I Have Patience” (“Things I love don’t
bring me joy/The things I want, I want to destroy”).
Backed by bassist Kevin O’Rourke, drummer Kenneth Leary, and
Adam Snyder on keyboard and glockenspiel, the former Miracle
Legion frontman not only revisited the songs from his three
solo releases, but also burrowed his way inside them. When
he closed his eyes to sing “Do you still want to have a baby?/Would
you still want me around?/I know I must be driving you crazy”
on “Resolution #1,” it was as if he were revisiting the thoughts
and feelings that brought the song about.
The audience stood in reverent stillness from the start of
the hour-long set, and the group got things rolling with the
title song from the latest record. O’Rourke and Leary delivered
one of the night’s many great backing-vocal arrangements in
interpreting the song’s alien-sounding call-and-response,
while Leary played the album’s plaintive electric- accordion
chords on a vintage Casio sampling keyboard. The band’s re-creations
of album tracks were, in turns, faithful and adventurous.
The pleading “Hurry, Please Hurry” retained its ’70s soul
snap, while the French horns and cellos of Happiness
were imitated by keyboards, or handed off to Mulcahy in the
form of jaw-agape, one-finger guitar solos.
He’s a man of sharp contrast—his last album wasn’t titled
Smile Sunset for nothing—and this is his therapy. That’s
not a strange arrangement at all—some of the best art is created
from conflict, from sadness and turmoil—but he does little
to dispel the outsider’s gut reaction that he’s a complete
loon. His mannerisms often suggest a narcotic euphoria; his
voice, which swooped from a fragile whisper to an authoritative
bellow on the Fathering track “Bill Jocko,” was intimidating.
But when he finally relaxed and opened a dialogue with the
audience—45 minutes into his set, mind you—he was charming
and funny, soft-spoken and humble; a real gentleman, albeit
one with his share of quirks.
The idiosyncratic encore did nothing to cloud the imagery
of a hermit Mulcahy holed up in a mountainside cave. “Fathering”
came to a disquieting climax, as he emoted through a series
of baby noises, heavy breathing, orgasmic moans, and cries
of “no, no, no.” It’s a wonder the crowd didn’t take a collective
step backward. Then a mischievous smirk came over his face.
“I got a juvenile inside me that just won’t die,” he sang.
Here’s hoping it never does.