So Many Miles Stephen Fearing Live (2000)

So Many Miles – Live (2000)

  1. Blind Indifference [lyrics]
  2. Toronto/Vancouver – NY/LA [lyrics]
  3. The Longest Road [lyrics]
  4. Wailing Wall [lyrics]
  5. Expectations [lyrics]
  6. Dog On A Chain/James Medley [lyrics]
  7. So Many Miles Away [lyrics]
  8. Anything You Want [lyrics]
  9. When My Baby Calls My Name [lyrics]
  10. Glory Train [lyrics]
  11. The Bells Of Morning [lyrics]
  12. Know Your Audience
  13. The Lark/Robert’s Waterloo
  14. Tryin’ Times
  15. Thrasher

I’m standing at a window; I’m pressed against the past; I’m looking on in black and white through the eyes of photographs. Under the soft coloured gels of a dozen spotlights, a black-clad Stephen Fearing casts a long shadow across the stage. It’s late winter in the Tranzac Club, a small, crowded hall in downtown Toronto. In this song, The Longest Road, and others, he’s telling stories about past and present, yesterday and today. Around him the stage is crowded with the past – vintage microphones, reel-to-reel tape recorders, a gramophone – cozied up against contemporary digital recording equipment that’s capturing these two nights in a glorious intimacy not possible in the folk music heyday of four decades ago. And on several traditional tunes, like Robert’s Waterloo, Stephen’s intricate fingerpicking is executed on acoustic guitars that he’s lovingly outfitted with customized amplification systems. In a new song, Wailing Wall, Stephen acknowledges the peace we make with these two sometimes conflicting elements: Don’t get too sentimental; the past is just the past; now I have to live from day to day.

I remember a time when small crowds regularly gathered in clubs and coffee houses to listen to folk singers. It seemed like rock & roll would kill that, but the folk singer, who’s really just ca storyteller using music as his medium, has been around as long as there have been stories to tell and people to listen. Stephen fearing is a contemporary folk singer not above strapping on an electric guitar and rocking out, as anyone who’s heard his Industrial Lullaby CD or his work with Blackie and the Rodeo Kings knows, but who wanted to step out and make an obviously acoustic recording that captured the magic and intimacy of the lone singer-songwriter onstage before a small audience, another reflection of past and present.

But it’s as true today as it was yesterday that when you think of a folk singer it comes down to two elements: words and a voice. Stephen’s deep, resonant voice contains within it the sound of English balladeers from two centuries ago blended with sixties folkies and a kid who grew up on post-Beatles rock & roll. He plays with words, rolls them over, nudges them into shapes that suit his needs. In Dog on a Chain, with the audience spellbound, he sang: When one tired candle makes a cavern of my room, and the ashtray spills over on the page. Listen to the way he takes the word candle and rolls down three notes like he’s skipping a stone, buffed flat and smooth, across a pond. And the way he rushes the words ashtray spills over, before dropping a moment of silence so our ears see the precarious pile topple across the page. As for his words, he writes literary narratives that cast their own shadows across the stage at a concert or across a room when projected from your stereo speakers. Striking images: The first country of my youth; my heart was ever drawn to you; like a tongue to a broken tooth, from the Longest Road. Small truths that we all know but seldom express: Picking up your letter; I read between the lines that lovers say; Distance is precarious for me; so many miles away, from So Many Miles Away.

Today, in a world of dispensable music, is anyone listening? On these two nights in this small crowded hall in Toronto, they huddled around tables, leaned elbow-to-elbow against the bar and stood against the back walls listening to Stephen Fearing’s timeless performance, like the voice of inspiration in an empty hall.

David Hayes, June 2000