Mark Erelli must be doing something right

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BRATTLEBORO — I first saw Mark Erelli perform back in 1999 and remember being impressed with the fledgling singer-songwriter after seeing him sing his compositions, opening for bigger names in relatively small venues. Now and then, I would also catch him joining a loose conglomerate of players, who called themselves The Kitchen Table, playfully trading rootsy cover songs by the likes of John Hiatt, Nick Lowe and Los Lobos.

A few years later, as Erelli began to build a following (including Dave Alvin, who once said "If I had a voice like Mark Erelli, I could go places") he joined another ensemble that included southern Vermont's beloved Jake Armerding and the renowned Lori McKenna. Armerding and McKenna created a guitar pull of sorts for the past 14 years at Club Passim in Cambridge, Mass., swapping songs by a mishmash of songwriting peers, for a popular project called Under The Covers that will sellout the venerable folk club for several shows later this month.

For those who have closely followed Erelli's career (which also includes membership in the bluegrassy ensemble Barnstar and stints playing stadiums as McKenna's guitarist) would not be surprised that his latest release, entitled "Mixtape," is a covers only album. They might very well be surprised that is has taken him this long.

I asked Erelli, who will be sharing some of those covers tomorrow night at Next Stage, why he chose the songs he did for "Mixtape," which includes surprising, passionate, and clever interpretations of songs by artists such as Phil Collins, The Grateful Dead, Neko Case, The Band, and Richard Thompson. "There were a few different criteria for choosing a song for "Mixtape." If the original artist was hugely influential for me, as in the case of the Grateful Dead, then I wanted to honor that. I discovered so much music through the Dead — folk, country, bluegrass, early rock n' roll, jazz — and I wanted to give a nod to their influence on me. Songs like "The Boys of Summer" and Phil Collins' "Against All Odds" were chosen to celebrate the cover song as an opportunity for reinvention."

Erelli is not a fan of recreating songs exactly as they were done originally. "I am far more interested in trying to show them in a new light, and if it's a good song, there is usually more than one way to do it. I really wanted to showcase my singing voice on this record, and so we chose songs like Roy Orbison's "Crying" or Arcade Fire's "My Body Is A Cage" that really go pretty far beyond what you might expect from your average folksinger."

Ah yes, that distinctive and mellifluous voice, the one that Alvin envies. Erelli believes that singing other artists songs frees his voice to go some places that his own songs don't allow. "Every song I write, I am inherently limited by things like my own narrative perspective, emotions, musical and harmonic choices. Covering a song really challenges me to inhabit something that someone else made, and pushes me to consider new emotional dynamics and musical choices. I also get to have some fun and do a little musical role playing, like when I sing Richard Thompson's "I Feel So Good." That song is written in the bitter, brash voice of a character that I just wouldn't think of myself. After doing a cover song, my musical horizons are widened a bit more, and it often influences my own writing somewhere down the line."

It was over 18 years ago when I first wrote about Erelli. Much has happened in the music biz and in his career since that first piece came out. I asked him to reflect on his journey. "Honestly, I just want to be able to keep doing what I'm doing with my life: I want another 18 years of music. As long as I can keep writing and singing the songs that I feel in my heart, and travel around to play it for folks, I'm good I probably had much grander dreams when I started out, but the business has changed so much during my career. Survival truly feels like victory, and I've survived for 18 years, so I must be doing something right."

Erelli plus Stephen Chipman will be at Next Stage this Friday, Dec. 8, 7:30 p.m. Chipman grew up in Boston, where he learned to play guitar at an early age and rode the folk music wave through college frat parties and corner bars in the 1970s. Forty years later, when he's not rebuilding old parlor guitars in his Chester shop, Chipman returns to his singer/songwriter roots with a set list of songs dedicated to poking fun at himself and the follies of his past.

Next Stage is located at 15 Kimball Hill, Putney. Tickets are $16 in advance, $20 at the door. For information, call 802-387-0102. Advance tickets are available at nextstagearts.org, Turn It Up in Brattleboro and Putney Food Co-Op in Putney. For more information, visit markerelli.com, twilightmusic.org and nextstagearts.org.

Dave Madeloni may be reached at madeloni@aol.com






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