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Survivorman: Sean Rowe

Photo: Leif Zurmuhlen

The Not-So-Starving Artist

Singer-songwriter Sean Rowe chews the cud about survivalism—and his new record

By Josh Potter

It’s a chilly day in early April, and Sean Rowe is crouching in a wetland next to Hudson Valley Community College. He’s busy sifting through a pile of rocks, tapping them together and listening to the sound they create.

“If you don’t have a knife or tools,” he says, “you do what people tens of thousands of years ago did: Break the rock in a way to get some simple blades out of it.”

Satisfied with the glassy ring one rock produces, the singer-songwriter-survivalist eyes a choice corner and slams it with a round hammer stone. After a couple tries, a sharp flake splinters to the ground and he picks it up, grinning.

“If we had to make a fireboard [from a cottonwood tree he spotted earlier], we’d use this like a knife. It’s not super sharp, but it’s efficient. We’ll take it with us.”

As a performer, Rowe is the portrait of a self-made man. Like the mythical American troubadour, an acoustic guitar and a world-weary voice are the foundations upon which his earnest musings and stark, slice-of-life stories unfold. In his songs, characters grapple with situations just outside the realm of their personal influence and use humble integrity as a means toward its own end. They’re the stories of brothers, sons and lovers, and whether or not they have any basis in Rowe’s personal life, an autobiographical quality makes them feel true. Offstage, the Troy native lives his code to a degree that most modern city-dwellers might view as a hair left of eccentric. When he’s not playing music, Rowe can be found roving the woods and wetlands of the Capital Region, foraging for nutritious treasures that have largely become lost to the blunt advance of civilization.

“People living a hundred years ago would have had much more of this knowledge,” he says, walking through a small patch of woods that separates a row of houses from a parking lot. “On this very land, people had an intimate knowledge of their landscape. They knew what to gather at what times of year because they were a part of the landscape.” Soda bottles and McDonalds bags litter the ground, and the spring is still new enough that only a few plants have yet emerged from the soil, but as Rowe walks, he describes the landscape as if he’s reading from a menu. Dandelion, colt’s foot, chives, spice bush, Japanese knotweed, hickory nuts. Even cattails and pine needles can, and in Rowe’s opinion should, be consumed, if one wants to truly understand the environment in which they live.

“I think it’s true,” he says, “that if you never use something, it doesn’t have much value to you. Because we don’t have a relationship with most of this stuff, it doesn’t mean anything to us, but that doesn’t mean we can’t get some of it back. I like to come to the woods and pretend that I need to figure out what I’m going to utilize to survive.”

Photo: Josh Potter

He can pretend all he wants, but Rowe’s experience is far from restricted to the realm of make-believe. In 2006 he enrolled at Hawk Circle, a wilderness school in Cherry Hill, where he studied with some of the top names in primitive survival. He learned to build living structures and containers to carry his water. He wove baskets and fashioned snares from natural cordage. He memorized plant usage and mastered the art of building a fire. While it wasn’t required in his coursework, Rowe decided by the end of the program to apply the skills he had honed on a solo survival trip. While many of his classmates resigned themselves to fashioning custom bows, Rowe set out for 24 days in the 200 acres of wilderness surrounding the school.

“I really wanted to test myself,” he says. “I had every kind of weather you could have for September. Dry, 75-degree afternoons, and mornings with frost that I really had to worry about for hypothermia. I had one solid week of rain, so it was important that I had my structure up on day one. Because I was alone, I was doing everything. I didn’t even have much time for contemplation.”

In Rowe’s view, there are two ways that modern people approach such an experience. Shows like Survivorman and Man vs. Wild tend to perpetuate the idea that wilderness is intrinsically inhospitable and that survival is a matter of escaping the jaws of nature. To Rowe, though, survivalism is more about participating in the process of nature and learning to live according to its rhythms. He foraged for much of his food, but realized at a certain point that he’d need more calories to sustain himself. He took to trapping mice and chipmunks.

“There’s such an argument around this,” he says, “but depending on what environment you’re in, the landscape is going to dictate what you’re going to eat. I don’t think we need to be eating as much commercial meat as we are right now, but if you’re an Eskimo, you’re just not going to be a vegan. So, I wouldn’t normally trap animals, but I was surviving and—without sounding hokey—killing chipmunks became part of a sacred process.”

As the days went by, he slipped into a sort of mental tempo mutually exclusive from the civilized agenda. “You totally lose track of time,” he says. “I’d go out and simply do what I had to do. You’re listening and your mind is totally clear.”

One of his trip’s greatest lessons may have been that some benefits of wilderness are accessible to the modern lifestyle. When Rowe talks about collecting wild strawberries and chanterelle mushrooms, or making muffins from wild acorn flour, he continually stresses how important this knowledge could be for the average person looking to gain some independence with their food source. This spring, Rowe is teaching a class at HVCC on survivalism, and will offer an evening class this summer on wild edible plants.

“This is how I balance my life out,” he says. “If it were all music or all wilderness, I’d be missing out on something.”

This is not to say the two pursuits don’t complement each other. “[Wilderness survival] certainly helps my songwriting, not in the sense that I’m writing out there, but it keeps my mind clear.” Before he left for Hawk Circle, Rowe made arrangements to record his long-awaited follow-up album to 2003’s 27 with Troy Pohl of the Kamikaze Hearts. He came back that fall with a bunch of material, and over the course of a year and a half, the duo recorded Magic. Tomorrow (Friday, April 24), Rowe will play an official CD release party at Bread and Jam (and you can catch a sneak peak tonight, as he’ll be opening for the Doobie Brothers at the Palace).

Whereas 27 was an acoustic vehicle for Rowe’s songwriting, Magic is a more fleshed-out musical vision. While each song is ultimately about Rowe’s lush baritone, a host of area musicians (including Matthew Loiacono, Adrian Cohen, Danny Welchel, and Cara-May Gorman) fill out each track and, as Rowe says, help “bring out the lyric.”

“People say, ‘I’m surprised you don’t write more songs about trees and stuff,’” Rowe says, “but I think it’s really hard to write about nature unless you’re John Muir or someone. I don’t need someone to sing me what the mountains look like. I’d rather just go there.”

Rowe’s relationship with nature does spring up from time to time, such as on the opening track “Surprise,” where he sings, “My city shakes its head at my wilderness,” or on the politically charged “American”: “All the kids have grown up on driveways and lawns/And the hunters keep secrets on factory farms.” But for the most part, the spatial qualities of nature are evoked in the album’s production rather than lyrically articulated. Lines like “The snow was heavy and the sky was deep” on Night are properly illustrated by the accompanying instrumentation.

“On this record, we tried to create a lot of open space, and nature is just like that,” he says. “You come out here and you’re small.” Rowe credits Pohl for generating much of this space in his production. Rowe’s acoustic guitar is often supported by Pohl’s echoing electric, and thick reverb often coats Rowe’s vocals. Cello and string bass cushion the songwriting even further, but Rowe says he was careful not to go too far. “We didn’t want it to be a busy record with all these solos going on. Putting all of that stuff in there, yet creating this space was the challenge. I wanted it to sound like you could kind of climb into the songs and hang out.”

Rowe says Magic took much longer than he expected, but is everything he hoped the album would be. The process of working in the studio reshaped many songs in unforeseen ways, but if there’s one major way that Rowe’s survivalism has influenced his songwriting, it’s that it’s made him receptive to a song’s fickle vagaries. To explain his studio process, he talks about collecting mushrooms.

“When I go to collect chanterelles, all I’m thinking about are chanterelles. But then I get out to the spot where I know they are and I’ve missed all this other stuff that was along the way. The same’s true for songwriting. You have to pay attention, because there may have been a good song right there.”

And when an idea comes from an unforeseen place, there’s a rule that applies equally to wild edible plants as it does to music: “It’s that willingness to say, ‘Let’s try it.’”

Sean Rowe opens for the Doobie Brothers at 7:30 PM tonight (Thursday) at the Palace Theater (19 Clinton Ave., Albany). Tickets are available by calling 465-3334. Tomorrow (Friday), Rowe celebrates the release of Magic at Bread and Jam Café (130 Remsen St., Cohoes). Tickets are $7. Call 326-2275 for more info.


ROUGH MIX
Bourbon Renewal

IT AIN’T OVER YET Jazz history month, that is. And this Wednesday, jazz historian Hal Miller will haul out a Radio Flyer (no, not really) full of rare videotapes for a special presentation at the Arts Center of the Capital Region in Troy. Presented by the Arts Center and the Albany Musicians Association, “Jazz History from a Video Perspective” is a free program that will find Miller tracing the roots and branches of the genre using footage from his extensive personal video archive. It’s a worthwhile event for longtime jazz fans and newcomers alike. Check out artscenteronline.org for more on this and other upcoming events.

SUBTERRANEAN FUNDRAISER BLUES Since its inception a little over a decade ago, the Underground Railroad History Project of the Capital Region has helped to keep some of the lesser-known stories of the Underground Railroad alive. But like any not-for-profit group, they have bills to pay. This Sunday, the group will hold their annual fundraiser at the Clarion Hotel ballroom in Albany, with a special musical performance from New York City jazz pianist Danny Mixon. Mixon has played with such greats as Art Blakey, Charles Mingus and Hank Crawford, and he’s currently the musical director at Harlem’s legendary Lenox Lounge—he’s what some might refer to as “legendary.” Call 436-0562 or visit ugrworkshop.com to purchase tickets or get more info on Sunday’s event.

JAZZ OVER YONDER The jazz news isn’t just coming from the Capital Region this month—the Pittsfield CityJazz Festival in Pittsfield, Mass. recently established itself as a nonprofit organization, Berkshires Jazz, Inc. The newly formed group will not only present the annual festival—the fifth of which takes place this October, and be headlined by the Dave Brubeck Quartet—but expand their mission to “promote jazz education throughout Berkshire County.” Good news for music fans east of the border. Berkshiresjazz.org has all the info you need on upcoming events and concerts.

GOOD NEWS . . . The area’s numerous free concert series and festivals are starting to unveil their lineups, beginning with that perennial (early) summer-starter, the Tulip Festival. It will be held in Washington Park May 8 through 10, and the music will include Third Eye Blind, Stellastarr*, Benny Goodman’s 100th Big Band Birthday, and Rusted Root’s Michael Glabicki, in addition to regional acts like Bourbon Renewal (pictured) and Railbird. Visit albanyevents.org for the full slate of performers and events.

. . . AND BAD NEWS On the flipside, Monday Nights in the Park will not be returning to Washington Park this summer. The series, brought back to life by the Lark Street Business Improvement District in 2007 after a long hiatus, struggled financially over the last two seasons despite strong turnouts and eclectic, world-class performances that included a rare freebie by pop chanteuse Aimee Mann, and one of the final performances by legendary folksinger Odetta (who passed away last December). While the series may return in the future, the BID has officially put the kibosh on any possibility of any such concerts in 2009. Bummer.

—John Brodeur

Let us know about local-music news and happenings for inclusion in Rough Mix: E-mail tips and information to tigerpop1 @yahoo.com or metroland@metroland.net.



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