If you happened to catch a Peter Mulvey performance over the past few years, you probably saw him veer away for a moment from his own clever and insightful compositions, to tear off a page from the Great American Songbook, putting his mirthful-but-reverent stamp on a familiar tune from the likes of guys with names like Hoagy, Cole, Duke and Irving. Then he would follow with a threat to make an entire album of standards someday.
That day came this past March when the Wisconsin-based troubadour released "The Good Stuff," a collection of standards -- with a twist. On his 15th record, you will find Mulvey’s take on Duke Ellington’s "Mood Indigo," sandwiched between songs written by Tom Waits and Jolie Holland. Then there is the 1961 R&B hit that just about everybody knows -- "(I Don’t Know Why) But I Do" made famous by Clarence "Frogman" Henry that Mulvey breaths new life into -- but does everyone know, the classic "Everybody Knows" by Leonard Cohen? Or Chris Smither’s "Time to Spend"?
If they don’t, Mulvey believes they should.
And that is what this topsy-turvy project is all about, bringing together old compositions that are known as standards and some new ones that, in his estimation should be.
In a recent e-mail exchange, Mulvey recounted where his fascination with standards began. "I was snowed in at a guitar shop that I worked at, and my friend Goody (Goodrich) taught me the chords to ‘Moonglow’ by Irving Mills. The tumblers clicked, and since then I’ve been such a fan of that era of American songwriting."
Mulvey, who has recorded an album in a subway station and has toured across the country by bicycle, was not simply content to do a standard CD of standards.
"I always knew I wanted to make a ‘standards’ record, but when the time comes, you start to wonder: What is the justification for doing this? How do you avoid being just another singer/songwriter who decided to put on the sonic equivalent of a suit and tie, and sing a Cole Porter song? And for me, the way to wriggle out of that was to zoom the lens way, way back, and allow that standards are still happening. Jolie Holland, Tom Waits, Joe Henry -- they are colleagues of Ellington, Monk, Porter."
With that in mind, he assembled a small band of adventurous players he calls the Crumbling Beauties (including his longtime sidekick, Goody along with upright bassist Paul Kochanski and Jason Smith on drums) and brought them into the studio without a list of songs. The Crumbling Beauties would just follow a Mulvey’s suggestion, toy with an arrangement a bit, then dive in.
"I went into the studio blind and unrehearsed," recalled Mulvey. "And this record is what emerged, in two and a half days. Always worth it to hire The Good Guys."
The "Good Stuff" is ultimately the manifestation of those "Good Guys" and an artistically restless singer-songwriter.
"I’ve always been curious, and I suppose a bit contrary. It’s in my nature, apparently. Does a guitar need to be tuned the way it says in the book? Do records have to be made in recording studios? Does touring from city to city necessarily involve a car? The poet Gelett Burgess said, ‘If in the last few years you haven’t discarded a major opinion or acquired a new one, check your pulse. You may be dead.’"
Mulvey, who will be performing at The Windham Ballroom in Bellows Falls on Wednesday, comes very much alive when performing live.
"Oh, a gig should be life-affirming. It’s about that simple. Music is a powerful, powerful thing, clearly related to love (when a crowd sings together, their bodies release oxytocin, for cryin’ out loud), and a good gig can keep you going for quite a while. I came up Catholic and progressive in the Midwest, so I’m always susceptible to the thought ‘But what does it all mean? What the hell is my life doing for others?’ When a social worker or a teacher or a housepainter comes up to me at a gig and says that it made their week, that’s when it all makes sense."
Popolo presents Peter Mulvey on Wednesday, Nov. 7, at The Windham Ballroom, 40 The Square, Bellows Falls. Showtime is 8 p.m. Tickets are $18 in advance, $20 at the door, $30 for best-in-house "Angel" ticket. A special Dinner-and-Show package is available from Popolo. For information, visit www.flyingunderradar.com.
Dave Madeloni writes a weekly music column for Ovation. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.