Made for the 'New Yorker'

Publication Date: Friday Jul 7, 2000

Made for the 'New Yorker'

Richard Shindell brings modern folk music to Johnson Park by Robyn Israel

Richard Shindell remembers the exact moment he was captivated by folk music. It happened at the age of 9 in 1969, in his school's auditorium, when a visiting folk musician started playing "The Streets of London," a song by Brit Ralph McTell. Expecting to be bored by the assembly, Shindell was instead transformed by the experience.

"I remember sitting in the auditorium, wishing my friends would shut up, so I could hear this guy," Shindell recalled. "I'll never forget it. It's burned onto my brain."

Today, Shindell is regarded as a rising star in the world of folk music. A May review in the New York Times described him as "so literary that his ballads would go straight into 'The New Yorker' if they were prose." Locals can assess his formidable songwriting skills themselves when Shindell comes to Palo Alto Tuesday as part of the city's Twilight Concert Series.

Shindell recently released his fourth solo album, "Somewhere Near Paterson," which features a mix of full-throated folk rock, three-part harmony (accompanied by Dar Williams and Lucy Kaplansky), an exhilirating Celtic reel and cheerful Texas string-band music. Songs on the album deal with an eclectic mix of topics: a hard-edged Wall Street insider whispering secrets to his pharmacist; a family of Bosnian refugees pondering God's will; a nun and her prison choir of "car thieves and crack dealers;" and commuters in a paroxysm of road rage. Throughout the album, sparse imagery is paired with unadorned and forthright melodies.

Joan Baez was so impressed by Shindell's songwriting that she covered three of his songs on her 1997 "Gone From Danger" album, and invited him to accompany her on her European and U.S. tours in 1997 and 1998.

"Richard Shindell is one of the best songwriters of this or any other era," Baez said.

But songwriting is a skill that did not not always come easily to the Lakehurst, N.J. native. Early attempts at songwriting were abject failures, Shindell said in a recent phone interview from upstate New York.

"It was a miserable experience, and I swore I'd never attempt it again. I didn't like the songs. The lyric thing caused me the most grief, and still does."

While New Jersey was his birthplace, Shindell grew up on the north shore of Long Island, in Port Washington. As a child, he listened to classical and choral music, Episcopalian church hymns (the reason he lasted as an Episcopalian as long as he did) and the music of Rogers and Hammerstein. As a teenager, he was drawn to the sounds of Gram Parsons, Emmylou Harris and the Beatles.

Self-taught on the guitar since the age of 9, Shindell started off wanting to emulate Bob Dylan, admiring the legendary musician's simple, folk finger-picking style evident on "Girl of the North Country (1963)."

"I was entranced by the way his guitar sounded," Shindell said.

He played electric guitar during high school, and returned to folk music while at Moravian College in Pennsylvania, where he studied "everything and nothing." There, he discovered various acoustic strains of music, including bluegrass, folk, Irish and Celtic. He also played guitar in the Razzy Dazzy Spasm Band alongside the young John Gorka, later considered one of the leading lights of the New Folk movement.

After two years at Moravian (1978-1980), Shindell enrolled at Hobart College in Geneva, N.Y., where he earned a bachelor's degree in religion and philosophy--two topics that have always interested him. Although he jammed with other students there, he didn't play in a band, as academics remained a higher priority during that time.

In 1986, Shindell decided to pursue graduate studies at Manhattan's Union Theological Seminary, a mostly Presbyterian, Columbia University-affiliated school. His goal at the time was to receive training in running a parish.

That all changed when Shindell heard Tennessee singer/songwriter David Massengill on a New York radio station. He was impressed by Massengill's fusion of modern themes and images with the traditional flavors of Appalachian folk music.

"It gave me a sense of what was possible," Shindell recalled. "You had someone writing in a certain way, and all of a sudden it opened up a whole new avenue. It was magical."

Shindell picked up a pen and started composing songs. Not surprisingly, the first few songs Shindell wrote after that seminal revelation sounded a lot like Massengill, but slowly he started to discover his own voice. Little by little, songwriting took over more of his time and energy, and he realized his new calling. Although Shindell did earn a master's degree in arts at the seminary, he never put his religious training into practice.

His songwriting quickly earning a word-of-mouth cult following and Shindell gained his first notoriety via the "Fast Folk Musical magazine" series (which previously launched then-unknowns like Lyle Lovett and Nanci Griffith). After a featured appearance on folk singer/songwriter Christine Lavin's 1991 compilation, "When October Goes," he recorded his Shanachie label debut, "Sparrow's Point," a year later; "Blue Divide" followed in 1994, and in 1997 Shindell resurfaced with "Reunion Hill.

He next teamed with friends Williams and Kaplansky in the group Cry, Cry, Cry (a name chosen for its melancholy tunes and because it was a threesome), issuing a self-titled LP in 1998. United by their love of singing harmony, the trio decided to sing cover songs by obscure artists (save for REM's Michael Stipe) in an effort to give such songwriters more exposure. The album sold more than 50,000 copies in its first year and spawned an underground phenomenon. The group never thought it would last beyond a six-week tour, but it endured on and off for a year.

"We never wanted to compete with our individual careers. Those were always primary for us," Shindell said. "But it took on a life of its own."

Shindell recently moved with his Argentinian-born wife, Lila Caimari, and his three children to Buenos Aires, where he is adjusting to life in South America. Future projects include a live record within the next year and another studio album.

A definite career highlight so far, though, has been having Baez record three of his songs.

"It was a wonderful thing," Shindell recalled. "I grew up listening to her and to have her sing one of my own...It took a few days for me to wrap my mind around it. It was like a disconnect--You can't be singing my songs!"

Who: Richard Shindell (part of the city of Palo Alto's Twilight Concert Series)

When: 6:30-8 p.m. Tuesday

Where: Johnson Park, Everett Avenue at Waverley Street, Palo Alto

Cost: Free admission

Info: Call (650) 329-2527 or (650) 949-4507 

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