Alberta Street Pub
November 7, 2009
It was easy to recall Peter Mulvey’s last blastoff from the well-worn floorboards of No’ Po’s funky Alberta Street Pub. The merry Milwaukeean’s stories then were about the weirdness to be found in one Wasilla, Alaska (more precisely a hot springs near there). Mulvey had flown in from Wasila just as the national elections of 2008 commenced. Nearly a year later, Mulvey was back to bask in the historic moment of America’s first elected president of African descent to a packed house full of relief that former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin was back in Wasilla planning a rock-star book tour, and not in the White House a heartbeat away from laying her roguish hands on the controls of a superpower’s nuclear arsenal and making like a maverick through at least two far-flung wars with no endgame amid economic dissolution.
Mulvey had previewed some of the material now gracing his album Letters From a Flying Machine. The release was filled with witty, swinging set of tunes and spoken interludes that take the form of in-flight letters to newborn nieces and nephews for a lifetime’s pondering of life’s simple and quantum wonders. Mulvey is not himself a parent, but he drew his between-song banter from zooming in on his large Catholic family and making wondrous observations about his sibling’s offspring. This time around, Mulvey was working his way down the Pacific Coast from Alaska to the Mexican border. He was accompanied by opening singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Krista Detor, who also backed Mulvey for some set highlights with lively harmony, sophisticated keyboard, and less welcome accordion textures. The performers’ ease at bounding onto the no-frills pub stage with energy and good humor to burn was reciprocated by a vocal roomful of sunlight-deprived Oregonians as enchanted with Detour’s laconic tales of a marriage to a good, if incompatible, man as they were with Mulvey’s zinging improvisations and impressions.
He stirred the rhythms with his shuffling-to-hard-boogeying rafter-raisers like “Kids in the Square,” which rocks harder live than on the swingier Django jazz arrangement on the CD. The deceptively titled shot of ecstasy from 2004’s Kitchen Radio “Sad, Sad, Sad, Sad and So Far Away from Home,” opens with a priceless couplet finally explicated in a hilarious pre-song anecdote with the back story on . . .
Houdini’s still stuck in that Doctorow book
The one place he can never escape
. . . and quick-cuts to . . .
Once I was standing on a Dublin street corner
I heard a fiddler pierce the veil of illusions
Once I got plastered at my best friend’s bar mitzvah
And once I lived in perfect confusion
Mulvey also picked folk icons off the Alberta Street Pub’s stage-right “wall of fame,” mimicking the likes of Greg Brown with canny and knowing repartee. Among Mulvey’s gifts is resurrecting, wherever he appears, vaudeville, replete with folklore and firmament.
Mulvey eased down the tempo for his 2006 Midwestern summer masterpiece “The Knuckleball Suite” and a poignant slide on his steel strings to reflect on the weathering of hard times across the generations as caked onto an Alaskan townie kid’s “Windshield.” The dark autumnal evening slipped into the sublime with Mulvey’s story of counting stars and sharing beers (as well as cosmic mysteries) with his loquacious Czech buddy “Vlad the Astrophysicist.” When you want to decode the quantum secrets of time, space, and extraterrestrial telecom connections, who ya gonna call?
—Mitch Ritter (Portland, OR)
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