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Don’t call it a comeback: Mark Mulcahy.

photo:Joe Putrock

Faraway Guy
By John Brodeur

Mark Mulcahy

Valentine’s, June 16

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 his eyes.

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.

And 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 for nothing.

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.

 

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