Dissolving The Heart's Hard Shell
By Cat Ballou
There's a kind of irony in a commercial rock world where male megastars flirt with androgyny in their stage acts to titillate fans, while gay artists either choose to keep closeted for the sake of professional acceptance or confine their performances to audiences with a similar sexual orientation.
Dave Hall, the folk-rocking bard who'll play West Strand Grill in Kingston Wednesday, October 27, transcends the either/or approach to the preference issue with an embrace. Picking acoustic guitar with a flowing, classical touch-the man did time in an East Coast music conservatory-and rolling on a beat that has a seductive, subliminal pulse, reflecting a Middle-Eastern heritage, the finest songs on Hall's CD, Places, bewitch and lure a listener beyond the literal of event and locale to transparent horizons of the soul, universal rather than unisex.
Layer by layer, tripping along on Hall's cross-country quest in "You Gotta Go Easy" (imagine Kerouac joining Janis and Bobby McGee and bouncing from DC to Frisco to love's true home in New York City), absorbing the tender summons of "Brooklyn" (Hall makes this much-maligned borough seem mystically alluring as Bali) and imbibing the ecstasy of "Joy," the hardened shell of the heart dissolves, leaving it innocent and open to infinite, immaterial expectation.
There are also those album cuts treating Hall's all-American mixed immigrant family background, touching on abuse, isolation and grief suffered by a sensitive boy who knew he was gay in his teens. These are pitched in a (Bob) Dylanesque nasality-a satiric vocal sneer suited to subject. As a psycho-socio revelation, it's depressing to observe that the abuse and racial ostracism Hall's olive-skinned family of mixed ethnic background endured when they "bought into" a neighborhood where "none of their kind lived before" is passed directly onto the "different" son, whose cheeks are pinched and hair is pulled as he's told, "You'll never be nothin', you'll never go nowhere...." The whole three-generation saga is recounted in "Saugerties": "...that brought you to your knees, shame and pride of a nation, Saugerties." (We presume this song was written before the town achieved its current hip, P.C. state.)
Love mixes with exasperation in the opening cut, "Seven." Hall is joined in this song and a few others by a backup trio of singers-The Corridors, some guest guitar players, Dave Moreno, "classic" among them, and Sean Conly, Gregg Sulzer and Todd Isler, who give musical attitude on bass, traps and percussion. The guys chant "nana, nana, nana," like a school-yard taunt, as Hall invokes his Italian Catholic grandmother who prays to St. Anthony to "keep her boy from the devil's tricks." Nana receives the promised miraculous rose (bone up on your Catholic saints to understand this reference or listen close to Hall's lyrics) and so continues to pray for her errant grandson's return to "normalcy."
"This Was My Childhood" is a fleeting idyll of innocence Hall sings in an eight-year-old's voice, recounting apple-pie wholesomeness, which perspective he upends as a man suffocating at a suburban house party for his perfect brother, "The Mayor of Dullsville." It does not require gay sensibility to relate to the material. Tom Wolfe said, "You Can't Go Home Again"; Hall tells us why we really, really don't want to. It's straight politics and uptempo fun in "Biff and Tony's Wedding," a gay affair officiated by a minister who's just trying to keep up with his flock. Hall's publicist says this song is receiving national air play.
All the biographical material-in-song is so vivid, you start to feel like you're a member of Hall's family, for better or for worse. The soaring starts beyond this stuff. It's as if working through anger with irony takes Hall vocally and in spirit to higher ground, the place he was coming from all along, and what makes him an artist rather than a musical career opportunist engaged in catharsis. The closed, nasal honk opens to a lyric transparency, the voice hangs iridescent, and the tenderness of its summons, mirrored in a flowing, acoustic pick, is what activates the dissolution of all grief in this world.
Review: PLAYIN' THE MAN
Dave Hall is a true product of America's melting wok. His roots are Lebanese, Italian and Norwegian on his mom's side, Irish and English on his dad's. His New England Yankee pedigree (from dad) goes back to colonial days, and here in the 90's he's proudly and contentedly gay. But the only thing you really need to know about Dave Halll is that he's an artist of the first water, penning sharp, classy, intelligent tunes and singing and performing them with grace and grit.
Even a cursory listen to Hall's album, Playin' the Man, reveals his rare gift for wedding perspicuous lyrics to great arrangements. In the buoyantly rocking "Do You Remember?", he captures the plight of every yearning adolescent who's had to keep his wings tucked in, "Six feet under a small,dead town/With nothin' to do but hunker down." "Zoe and Chloe" tells the sad story of a quiet, backwoods Lesbian couple, killed by "redneck crackers with the world on their side"; the title cut, a cheerfully naughty song about the conventions and confusions of homoerotic sex roles, features drily spoken vocals and a cozy, inviting mesh of guitars and drums. And how can you resist a lyric like "I like the way you roll your eyes/They look like big old apple pies/Maybe I can have a slice/After the revolution"?
For his gig at Painted World, Hall will be appearing solo, sans the tight band and ebullient backup singers on the album. Not to worry: the songs, he says, "are pretty convincing, even without the band." Several, like "Zoe and Chloe," are well served as unaccompanied acoustic ballads; some "loud strumming" and Hall's expressive vocals will more than compensate for the full ensemble.