These are reviews of Larry Murante’s music and performances. For reviews of specific albums, visit the Music Page.
Victory Review: Acoustic Music Review.
“Dropping In On…Larry Murante CD Release Concert for Water’s Edge, April 8, 2000 at Sunset Hill Community Club,” by Brad Warren (read the review)
Playing to a packed neighborhood hall, Larry Murante’s Seattle CD release went off like a harvest celebration — the culmination of a whole community’s aspirations, not just a singer-songwriter’s lone labor. Early in the first set, when a friend of Larry’s at the door announced that 104 people were already in the room (more were coming), the crowd burst into cheers. To be in an audience cheering this way is to take part in a hard-earned triumph: “This guy’s music is our music, and man are we proud!” Many in the audience had known and rooted for Larry for years. Many were musicians, most of us waging our own variants of Larry’s long struggle through good and bad bar gigs, a day job cleaning houses, countless rejections and, finally, his recent triumphs: several national and regional songwriting awards, good airplay for the new album including an all-morning feature on The Mountain.
Sharing the stage with Larry were Dan Mohler and Walter White trading off on bass; Mike Mattingly and Lee Silberkleit layering electric guitar parts and crafty solos; Dave Heath with his sensitive, dynamically attuned drum work; studio meister David Lange on keyboards and accordion; and Linda Severt and Janis Carper on background vocals and assorted instrumental parts. On a couple of numbers Connie Bigelow and Allison Roberts joined in on harmonies; Mark Iler stepped out from behind the sound board to add harmonica; and on the rousing final number “Love the One You’re With” Kevin Jones joined the chorus line. It was one of the most joyfully packed stages I’ve seen in years.
At a festival in Texas last spring, Chuck Pyle introduced Larry Murante as “one of the best voices in folk music.” Larry’s writing is as rich as his voice. In the title track on the new CD, “Water’s Edge,” he gently chides an old macho mentor who taught him to fish and claimed to know about women: “You were tough, aloof and unavailable/Like all those catfish we kept tryin’ to fool/And every now and then we reel one in/To find the softest underside/And the palest of skin.” Larry brought down the house with his hilarious original “Chumstick Chow,” in which a rogue dog shows off his songwriting chops.
For me, though, the song that resonated most strongly through the evening was “Those Days,” in which Larry recalls a trio he played in — aptly called “Friends.” Even though they sent a song to Nashville and never heard back, Larry sings, “we turned those smoky bars in Allentown and Bethlehem into steaming hot ovens of melody and bedlam.” Hear him and you know it’s true. The major labels don’t know what they’re missing.
“Sure-Fire Crowd Pleasers Team Up to Inaugurate Glenwood Coffeehouse,” by Scott Sandsberry, October 13th, 2000 (read the review)
If tonight’s “official grand opening weekend” coffeehouse show at Tim’s Basement in Glenwood Square were being held, say, a two-hour drive north, you’d probably already be too late to get a seat.
From Chelan to Wenatchee and Leavenworth, a double-bill concert featuring singer-songwriters Larry Murante and Michael Dickes would be that hot a ticket. Dickes is the local musical hero in that part of the state, where his every show — solo or with his band, the Michael Dickes Situation — is guaranteed to pack the house. Murante, the Seattle singer-songwriter whose second CD, “Water’s Edge,” has received glowing reviews since its release last fall, has also developed a devoted following in that area.
Yet they’ve never once shared the stage.
“I’ve never done a gig with Mike before,” said Murante, who was originally signed to be the lone performer tonight but asked Dickes to play an opening set. “I thought it would be a good matchup, since we both have new CDs, and I’ve always wanted to play with him.”
Dickes felt the same about Murante. “Larry’s such a great singer,” Dickes said. “He’s got such a great voice. I remember walking down the road to the Acoustic Music Festival in Leavenworth, and he was playing, and I could hear his voice filling that little canyon there. And he’s a great songwriter.”
That’s something said and written about Murante everywhere he goes. Five of the 11 cuts on “Water’s Edge” have won songwriting awards at festivals and songwriting contests around the country.
When Murante was a kid singing in rock bands in eastern Pennsylvania, a voice teacher told him he had a “legitimate” voice. “She said I should consider doing something more sophisticated with it, like jazz or classical.” But Murante’s influences — and his musical taste — ran more to people like James Taylor, Jackson Browne and Joni Mitchell. And while his style is his own, his songs follow in the same rich, story-telling vein of those folk-rock icons.
His songs on “Water’s Edge” run the creative gamut. “Streets of Seattle” weaves a vivid tale of a standoff between police and a sword-wielding homeless man in a Seattle parking garage. The title cut waxes nostalgic over childhood memories of an iconoclastic role model from Murante’s youth. And “Chumstick Chow” is a hilarious toe-tapper, a yarn about a free-spirited stray dog, an animal control officer and an amorous poodle named Gigi.
For as well-received as his songwriting is, though, it’s still those booming pipes that first get him noticed. Chuck Pyle (of “Zen Cowboy” fame) introduced him to a festival crowd in Richardson, Texas, as “one of the best voices in folk music,” and the crowd attested to that assessment with loud cheering throughout his set. Dickes’ new CD, “The Moveable Child,” won’t have its official release party until an Oct. 21 show at The Clearwater in East Wenatchee, where upwards of 300 fans will almost certainly pack the joint. But he expects to have copies of the CD for sale at tonight’s show — which, of course, will be a much different type of audience.
Although both Dickes and Murante play in bands before raucous bar crowds, their solo gigs both tend to eschew bar shows in favor of more intimate coffeehouse settings like that of Tim’s Basement.
“It’s hard to find places like that any more,” Dickes said, “where the music is there to be listened to — not just something in the background.”
Victory Review, May 2000
Interview by Brad Warren (read the interview)
There are lilacs blooming and a tiny fountain burbling in the garden behind Larry Murante’s house, where I find him with his wife Karen pulling weeds as I arrive to interview him for this article. We sit on the patio behind their modest one-floor rambler. The tape recorder captures the sound of prop planes grinding into the air from a nearby runway, the roar of low-flying jets occasionally drowning out our talk.
If the setting always frames the story, this garden under the flightpath leads straight into one of the main veins in Larry Murante’s remarkable lyrics. His songs are full of the sense of how lucky and fragile our lives are (most of us): to have music, companionship, family, a roof overhead, a semblance of mental health, food on the table and the opportunity to grow — these are gifts that in Larry’s songs seem tenuous, revokable, and tender.
But if he never forgets we can lose everything, no one can tell you Larry doesn’t enjoy the gifts of his life. His joyful, high-octane performances are legendary. As a performer, Larry is the envy of other singer songwriters; he cranks out more watts with his powerful voice and acoustic guitar than most rock bands can manage with stacks of Marshalls, and in concert the sweat beading off his forehead resembles the perspiration of a great diesel engine. For many musicians, it would be enough to aspire to such dynamic performances. But for years Larry has had his eye on another prize as well: the ability to pack truckloads of story into a few minutes of song.
The songs on Larry’s new album, “Water’s Edge” represent a songwriter at the peak of his craft. These are musical stories that emerge from maturity, the work of a man who has graduated from the main struggle of young artists: he has worn down his ego and no longer needs to prove anything. He’s just doing what he does, beautifully.
These songs are instantly enjoyable, but they reward repeated listening and — unlike most songs — repeated hard readings of the lyrics. Like an O’Henry short story, Larry’s song “Streets of Seattle” picks a moment from the city’s recent history and turns it into a fable that subtly touches too many uneasy places in the city’s psyche to be boxed away into categories like “protest music” or “social commentary.” The song revisits the disconnect that happened when a mentally ill man swinging a sword blocked traffic downtown for eleven hours — infuriating thousands of tight-scheduled drivers and provoking an impromptu celebration at a nearby bar— before he was finally subdued with fire hoses:
“And when the sub-urban soccermom called the Mayor’s office that day
And suggested swat team sharpshooters could put all of this man’s miseries away
Oh there were medications that were not taken while the demons flew around
And no one could leave the parking garage at Second and Pike downtown.
“They’re pouring drinks Down at the Mirror and Turf and everybody’s there
Let’s raise a glass to the hapless soldier”
(From “The Streets of Seattle.”)
If the scale of Larry’s canvas is larger than the average contemporary songwriter’s, so is his approach to verse and rhyme. Though his songs are cleanly structured, he rarely writes himself into a tight formal box, and you can feel his narrator’s eye moving across the landscape like a great, kindhearted novelist who stops to probe gently into each of his characters and their desires (sometimes his own) before moving on to the next scene.
“Between The Road and The River” opens with Larry’s gutty, acoustic ostinato guitar line that pulls the listener into an intimate coming-of-age story. In this song’s world the landscape and the river whisper goodbye and remind the singer of his own seasons, of forces larger than his own will or desire:
“Sun’s settin’ low, comin’ back from Philly on this windy 611 road
I pulled over just this side of Raubsville to a place where you and I used to go
We laid there right in that spot With nothin’ on but our adolescent innocence under those rock maple trees
Til the fall winds came and blew their leaves away, blew their leaves away.
“Oh this Delaware River’s Rushin’ mud downstream,
Haven’t stood on this bank for years
We would walk between that road and this river
‘Til the day I moved out of here.
From the Catskill foothills to Delaware Bay
Is where these waters have always flowed
But it’s here where you said you loved me
And it’s here where you said ‘Don’t go.’
“And those headlights on 611
Cracking branches up in those trees
I can still see your face above me now
I can still feel that evening’s breeze
“Where would I be if I’d have stayed here? Have I really left this place at all?
Where are you now? Who do you love? Do I really want to know?”
It’s been a long road since then, and it has carried Larry through the usual American dystopian byways of hard drinking (“sold our adolescence down the river/To the Rolling Rock store,” he sings in “I Got Used To It), grunt labor (“started working in a factory/Doing Heli-arc welds/With one big family/Working in a prison cell”) and an incredible number of bar gigs.
Like many of us, Larry has repeatedly worn down — and then dug out from — ruts in the road of life. In his lyrics and in various musical gatherings, Larry speaks openly about his respect for the hard work of living sober, of growing up, and of healing from the wounds that keep so many of us living as if we were less than we are. Instead of proudly closing the door on choices that could make him vulnerable, he seems to embrace them. I had the pleasure of getting to know Larry several years ago in a songwriting group (“It was a blessing and a torture,” he says now, aptly summing up my own recollection of that intense, creative gathering.) Larry brought to the group ideas and practices he had picked up from “The Artists Way,” Julia Cameron’s handbook for unlocking inspiration. Though personally I bridled at some of Cameron’s New Age preaching, I admired Larry’s courage in laying aside such judgements and openly applying her useful ideas.
Larry moved to Seattle in 1979, and when I first heard him, about twelve years later, he was performing solo in a bar down in Pioneer Square. There wasn’t much of a crowd and they weren’t exactly a songwriter’s dream audience. The bartender was watching football, and the handful of other patrons looked a little too impaired to pay much attention. Larry was gamely soldiering his way through a set of mostly original tunes. He wasn’t yet the folk powerhouse he has become, but to me he was impressive nonetheless. He was playing in a variety of altered guitar tunings, and he had a knack for weaving closely observed, literate stories into songs.
Today Larry doesn’t even remember that gig. It just wasn’t bad enough to earn a spot on the “gigs from Hell” list that every working musician painstakingly maintains, like an athlete’s retinue of scars or a comedian’s bag of self-deprecating jokes. Larry has hauled his PA and his guitar to so many smoky bars that he doesn’t bother to keep count. He’s worn out enough guitar strings to suspend the Brooklyn Bridge. Along the way, he’s fought through the frustration of playing to indifferent and drunken crowds; he’s known the misery of hounding booking agents for gigs that barely pay gas money; gigs that were double booked or canceled without notice; gigs that sent him home reeking of second-hand smoke and wondering if his voice would last.
When a guy makes it through all that and still loves this business, he’s unstoppable. Larry is the kind of performer who embodies the old adage that there’s nothing like a road full of challenging gigs to teach a performer how to work a crowd. For many, a string of implacable bar rooms also instills respect for cover tuns. But playing covers has never troubled Larry. “I think there’s a different set for every situation, whether it’s a bookstore or a bar or a concert setting,” he says. “There are songs that I just really like to perform, that I’ve known for 25 years, that are true crowd pleasers. Especially if I have a crowd of different ages, or a true family audience — I’ll play a song that’s a hit or that a lot of people would know. I tend to gear my sets so the first song is a happy hello, a ‘Here I am, let’s all have a good time’ kind of thing. Then I’ll put my more serious songs toward the center of the set, the ballad songs. And I try to end on an up note, so people have something they feel good about to take away at the end of the set or the end of the night. Because the last song they heard is the one they’re going to remember, the one they’ll walk away singing.”
In the last few years, Larry has pretty well graduated from the school of musical hard knocks. In 1999 he racked up a string of national and regional songwriting awards and honors (Wildflower Arts & Music Festival Songwriters Showcase in Texas, Lakefolkfest Songwriters Contest in Lakewood, Washington, and the Tumbleweed Songwriters Contest in Richland, Washington, among others). The Seattle CD release show for Water’s Edge (reviewed in Victory Review last month) revealed that Larry has built a substantial and enthusiastic audience, and his release concerts elsewhere in the state have demonstrated a strong regional following.
He’s still out there gigging steadily, not only in the Northwest but across the country in regular East Coast tours. But at age 43, Larry has earned enough confidence — and enough listeners — to quit calling on those tavern owners who treat a working musician like a dinner-hour caller from a telemarketing company. “I don’t need that anymore,” he says. “It just isn’t worth it.”
His audiences would agree. When Larry won his Wildflower songwriting prize last spring, Chuck Pyle, the “Zen Cowboy” songwriter known for his thoughtful take on life in the West, introduced him to an enthusiastic crowd in Richardson, Texas as “one of the best voices in folk music.” After Larry let loose with those pipes the cheering crowd made it clear they agreed.
Larry came by his talent honestly. He grew up in Nazareth, Pennsylvania, home of Martin Guitars, and his working class family was a stewpot of home-grown music in their spare hours. “My dad was a really musical guy,” Larry recalls. “He played any instruments, all self-taught: mandolin, accordion, guitar, dobro, organ, piano, harmonica. He had an old button accordion that he brought over from Germany when he was in the war. He was a jack of all trades and a master of none, but all those instruments were sitting around my house, and when I was quite young — but old enough to know better — my father and two of my uncles would play, his brothers would come over with their families on Sundays, and everybody would sing. There’s be 20, 30 people in our living room on many Sundays when I was growing up, doing all kinds of songs.”
Larry traces his roots as a professional musician to an event that happened when he was “probably about seven years old” — his first performance outside his home. “One of my uncles had a country and western hand that he led, and I remember sitting in on drums and doing the old Ventures tune “Wipe Out.” It was in this old bar/restaurant. I wasn’t taking lessons or anything, but I had my own drumset and I would jam with my brother and my dad. My uncle called me up to play with them and I remember all the adults there being very excited that this young boy went up there and played. That was my first experiene of having people applaud and get excited about me playing music in front of people.”
Larry still plays multiple instruments — he regularly backs up other musicians on hand drums and harmonica— but it was always his powerful voice that stood out. “Even as a little kid I spent a lot of time singing,” Larry says. “Both my brothers were much older than me, so I spent a lot of alone time, and I had to entertain myself. A lot of that entertainment was singing. My older brothers on the other hand did influence me a lot because they used to sing. We’d all be singing Beach Boys songs, all cranked up at 7 o’clock in the morning waiting for the bus to come by — “Fun Fun Fun” and “Help Me Rhonda” and stuff like that. We’d be singing at the top of our lungs and doing three part harmonies. None of us knew what we were doing but we just loved the energy.”
Larry’s voice today is a testament not only to good pipes but to years of training — which he’s done, logging over a decade of study with opera, jazz, and musical theater stylists. He sings with smooth power and precise intonation, and audiences love his show-stopping high notes: long sustained flights that inspire awe among many of his singer-songwriter peers. WIth those skills, he’s proved to be a “one-take wonder” in recording studios, as well.
In high school, Larry began singing in working bands of every kind. “In my late teens I was singing in wedding bands and doing cover music,” he recalls. “I was also singing in rock bands and playing in top 40 groups in town on the weekends. And when I wasn’t doing that, I was playing folk music.
“I guess what really got me serious about studying music was my first voice teacher. When I was singing in the rock band I would go hoarse, so I started taking lessons from Gloria Davis in Bethlehem. She encouraged me to pursue opera, or at least go to college for singing. At the time that was a huge stretch for me, but it did get me thinking about college, and that’s what eventually did get me to go to college — for music.”
Though his singing voice has always drawn attention, Larry’s guitar playing has also evolved its own unique and complex voice in his music. In a typical show, he jokes, he’ll use “probably too many” tunings: DADGAD, open D, drop D, double drop D, open G, open C, and of course standard tuning. With driving ostenato lines, partial chords and an array of crafty ornamentations, he can give a sense of propulsion to songs at any tempo — an art that still eludes many fine guitarists.
What comes next? Larry is already thinking about next album, but in the meantime he’s putting some energy into an idea that a number of us have begun to explore: building shared resources and a higher public profile for the region’s songwriter scene. “There are more and more great songwriters here in the Northwest,” Larry says. “And although we’re starting to build a reputation we don’t have anywhere near the reputation of the other major centers like Boston or Austin or Northern California. And there were some organized efforts in those communities. We’re just getting started now. I don’t know where it’s going to land, but there’s a lot of enthusiasm from a pretty good chunk of songwriters.”