Welcome to the Moment of Truth: the thirst that is the drink.
I can’t save numbers of people in Jerusalem or Gaza, or even Tel Aviv, for that matter, with the skills I’ve, maybe foolishly, chosen to cultivate. I’m a writer. Sometimes even an artist. All I can do is process things, such as the current iteration of brutality by the Israeli Occupation against its unwilling Palestinian wards, its painted birds, and I’ve been doing so with the help, these days, of the words and overall attitude of Palestinian American poet and novelist, Naomi Shihab Nye. That processing will take some time. It’s going to be a collective effort. I hadn’t considered the collaborative nature of a poet. My thought has always been that some writing is solitary. But nothing human is ever truly solitary.
Longtime Chicago theater and music creator Beau O’Reilly was close friends with the recently- departed Michael Martin, who I talked about two weeks ago. Today, I’m talking about Beau. And by way of talking about Beau, I’m talking about collective endeavors.
Beau has a new record out. What can you say about a record by a man who is twelve centuries old in thunderstorm years but has a new girl baby, and includes a song, not about that girl baby, though her vocals are featured on it, but about the boy baby that was posited earlier on and received so many gifts in the mail he opened an imaginary emporium?
Maybe I just said it.
But probably not. The new record, Thrifty, by Beau O’Reilly, available from Uvulittle, is an expression of intentional community. It’s one of the things lately which, like hearing about the courtyard at Cary’s Lounge, or anything at all going on at Cary’s, makes me want to come back to Chicago. Beau wrote all the lyrics, except a few, and sent them out for different musician friends to write the music and turn them lyrics into songs. Then those and other friends came together/apart, in that covid way we’ve all resorted to and begun to polish, to record them. All during the 2020 plague year, that’s what happened.
Soil, earth, plant, and tree metaphors will be relied on heavily in this discussion. A few words about Beau’s words: his diction and expression arise organically from strata of influences layered over a bedrock of the imperative to create. There has never been any question to Beau – or at least I’ve never detected any – that the writing, creating, rehearsing, and playing with others would go on. I feel this is probably true of all of those involved in this record. But that’s the foundation of lyrical discovery I’ve always seen and felt in Beau’s writing.
The lyrics always involve the ongoing world and its inhabitants outside the writer/singer. Rarely do I hear the word “I” in the lyrics. “We” seems the preferred first-person pronoun, “you” and “they” and their myriad antecedents fleshing out most of the crowd populating the singer’s world. Or that’s how I hear it. And if I’m wrong, well, then maybe it’s because there’s always something mediating between identities in the songs: a scarf, a bat, a sky, a mutually-known other, a memory, a name one wants another to say, a button, a table leg, a toad. The songs aim outward, into the world.
The collection of musicians involved make this a tree with roots deep and wide, reaching into various communities of Chicago independent music and storefront theater. I first met Beau in 1988, when he and collaborating stage presence Jenny Magnus were the hub, at least as I saw it, of ongoing musical, literary, and theatrical extended families. And the music that grew within and around their co-evolving stagecraft became a singular organism, grown out of folk elements, cabaret elements, rock elements, and lyric influences diverse as Bertolt Brecht, Edith Piaf, Irving Berlin, Allen Ginsburg, Jagger and Richards, Basho, torch songs, blues songs, romance language political laments – I still hear those elements, as particles of the music that is its own undefinable being.
I was going use the label, “art song,” but apparently that is something with a rigid definition, and I don’t want to argue definitions. The instruments are firstly the voice – Beau’s primarily – and include plucked and strummed strings by, among others, Theater Oobleck’s Baudelaire in a Box’s Chris Schoen and T-Roy Martin, who’s also on tuba and trombone at times, and both of whom have played in Beau’s Crooked Mouth String Band; a satisfying bass clarinet by Dez Desormeaux of Mambo Zombies with longtime Neo-Futurist Heather Riordon’s accordion on several tangos; the singing saw of Experimental Sound Studio’s Ralph Loza; worldwide master jazz trombonist Jeb Bishop; and many guitars, pianos, drums, fiddle, and voices provided by the thickening forest of brilliant members of the community Beau has formed of his friends and family.
The music composers range widely, too. Multi-instrumentalist and singer Vernon Tonges’ setting of “Bring It Over Here” allows Beau’s dynamic range a big space fly in. Singer- songwriter and author of the excellent book, “This Land That I Love,” contrasting Irving Berlin and Woody Guthrie as anthemists, John Shaw, set the somehow-familiar-on-first-hearing “Honeyed Mouth.” Stephanie Rearick’s piano on “The Hook,” to which she wrote the music, incorporates so much of what I’ve imagined above are the influences on Beau’s musicality. On “Falling” there’s majestic piano by DePaul music professor and avant-garde composer Jeff Kowalkowski, who also wrote the music for the song and provides additional vocals. Julie Williams’s featured vocals on the song for which she did the setting and co-wrote the lyrics, “Love is the Province,” have an almost Mo Tucker clarity of timbre, although Julie’s pitch is far more stable. Longtime O’Reilly creative partner, Miki Greenberg, set the words to “Head Up the Freeway,” and his vibrant piano on that song is a blood-tonic to hear again. Chris Schoen set “Bat and Fist,” featuring beautiful fiddle by Old Town School of Folk Music’s Colby Maddox, and fattened up with rich background harmony vocals that are uncredited, but I believe I detect the Roches-esque tonal purity of Jenny Magnus. Jenny and Beau wrote it together. Jenny wrote the words and music to “Anglesmith,” on which her exceptional supporting vocals are a unique instrument unto themselves.
Court Dorsey, one of Beau’s “oldest and closest friends,” has the only other words-and-music credit, with “Love Around the Corner,” a song the optimism of which would sound foolish if not informed by well-earned awareness.
Life is hard, things break, bats shriek, gods have it in for you, people die. Making one’s life about art is a struggle, unless one hits the fame lottery, or has a supernaturally sunny disposition, and even then. All these artists are survivors of a capitalism that lives to penalize those who dare to wring their own personal treasure out of life, and to offer that treasure to those who accept such rare, handmade, idiosyncratic currency.
I don’t mean to reduce this record to a small victory in the war between good and evil, life and death, freedom and slavery, but that it is a monument to the struggle for a rich community life against an increasingly atomizing and punitive social ethos pressing down on us all is undeniable. These are talented artists making art at my eye level, making music at my ear level, and I’m not a tall man, but they take me to the tops of trees. This music is also the thirst that is the drink, and the soul soil to grow more music in.
Again, the record is Thrifty, by Beau O’Reilly, available from Uvulittle.com.
Beau will be performing on Saturday, online and in person at 8pm Central Time at Constellation 3111 N. Western Avenue, livestreaming on https://youtu.be/1pphP8ddTKo
Please remember to make a donation to the artists if you livestream it. This has been the Moment of Truth. Good day!