Local singer-songwriter Barclay Martin is best known around town as the dude who sounds like James Taylor and looks like Orlando Bloom with a tan. He's played places like PotPie and Bar Natasha, and last night I caught him at JP Wine Bar and Coffee House. This time with a full band.
Erin McGrane and Barclay Martin shake their respective groove things. Photo: Brian Collins
Over email the past week, he'd implored me to help him recast his image from gentle, bluegrassy fokie to, well, here's what he said by e-mail:
I started as a solo acoustic act a few years ago, but the project has evolved into something that can barely be described as singer/songwriter folk. I'm playing with insanely good jazz players in a variety of styles, high-energy, all original songs....etc.
The thing is, people still think that when they see my name out, I'm going to just stand there for two hours and play folk songs until they're catatonic.
Kansas City doesn't like that kind of thing.
He already aired out some of this take-me-seriously stuff in a March 22 interview in the Star, in which he talked about hooking up with the jazz musicians (including well-known pianist Mark Lowery) who are now in his backing band and what it's like making music with them. From the article:
"I'd already had some songs leaning toward jazzier stuff," he said. "As I got to know Mark's playing styles, it has become more natural to write atypical songs that accentuate each member of the group. I don't' say 'This is a samba,' or whatever. I leave it up to them. No rendition of one song is ever identical, and I love that. The whole process has been very natural and organic."
I could see what he was talking about last night at JP, as some of Martin's new songs broke down like jazz numbers, with Lowery and upright bassist Mark Willoughby taking solos.
The place was crowded when I arrived at 8, packed full of mostly urban-professional types -- late-20s and 30somethings in sophisticated attire, most of them women. It could have been a wine-tasting party. I found a seat at the bar, next to two older gals in workout clothes drinking lattes out of big mugs. I ordered a gin and tonic, no preference on the sauce, and was served the default, Beefeater, which punched a $6 hole in my tab.
I didn't mind the crowdedness, the upper-class dames or the pricey drinks. The bartenders there were fun, kinda corny dudes; the classic b&w thriller The Third Man was playing on the TVs (I love it when bars play old movies, or new ones, for that matter, instead of random shit); and the music, like the setting, was classy and unpretentious. The guys in the band wore suits to acheive a polished look that, as Barclay told me later, was partly inspired by the cowboy-dandy look of classic country singers.
Martin's set started out with a familiar, Americana tune -- 4/4, fingerpicked guitar, harmony vocals enabled by backup singer Erin McGrane, of the local "modern cabaret" band Alacartoona. I'm not sure I heard McGrane's voice all night. The combination of the bar's concrete floors, the ambient chatter, and the small vocal PA meant that anyone who wanted to really listen to the band would have to take a seat in front of them -- and there were already people flopped out in the two or three available lounge chairs at Barclay's feet.
The band played from 8 to 10 with an intermission, and Barclay was right about the change in his sound -- it's jazzier and more improvisational, with some European-folk influences. At the end of the gypsy-klezmer-sounding "The Devil Can't Kill Me," the band spun into a frenzy, almost silencing the room. I wanted to yell "hey!" at the abrupt end like a Cossack, but I found myself only applauding loudly with the rest of the room. You can hear that song on Barclay's MySpace, along with a couple other new ones (look for the ones with the fewer number of plays).
There's a bit more fire and soul in his music, but Martin still treads light, accessible, soft ground -- which is by no means a bad thing. It was perfect for JP last night. The people there, myself included, thoroughly enjoyed it. It was great for a rainy night of cocktails and conversation in the Crossroads. But Barclay wants more. I've had a few chats with him about the possibility of his crossing over into "the scene," the existence of which seems to annoy him to no end. Here's a guy who's worked hard on his music, has put in the touring hours, and has considered quitting music altogether because of the frustration that's arisen. It's hard for singer-songwriters to get out of the coffee shop circuit.
It's impressive that Barclay's diverse repetoire is all original, but I think what it needs is more pop and bigger sounds, more ambitious composition. His percussionist last night, Greg Jackson, did a fine job, but the first technical step in a crossover strategy for Barclay should be to start working with real drums. Pump up the jam, as it were. Right now, I'm in love with British solo studio magician and '70s throwback songwriter Lewis Taylor. The size -- not necessarily the sound -- of Taylor's songs could be a good model for acoustic troubadours like Martin. Don't just bring in talented musicians -- give them hooks to play instead of letting them noodle, however good that may sound when they do it. Lead the band, baby.
Barclay left this morning for another trip to the Philippines, where he's been working on a documentary with a non-profit group to portray the lives and customs of the Catholic-Muslim communities in the southern part of the islands. He's also writing 20 original tunes for the soundtrack.
When he gets back in three weeks, the Barclay Martin Ensemble will tour a bit and hit the studio to get these new songs on wax. Barclay probably can't afford Todd Rundgren, but I think that an injection of elaborate, rainbow-summoning, '70s power pop could help Martin get away from bars with espresso machines behind them.