I’m always on the lookout for live music. My musical tastes are wide, so my antenna is open for jazz, rock, Celtic, classical . . . the list keeps going. One series I keep tabs on is Bryn Mawr Twilight Concerts, held on mid-year Saturday evenings at a park in the center of Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania, a handful of miles west of Philadelphia. This series brings in some rock and R&B bands, but primarily sticks to acoustic folkie singer-songwriter types, most of the latter well known in that genre’s circles. The musicians set up shop in the park’s large gazebo. I had noticed a few weeks ago that the series opener on June 6 would be John Gorka, a singer-songwriter road warrior with over 30 years’ worth of original material to draw from. On Gorka Day, I checked the Bryn Mawr weather forecast. It emphasized a zero chance of rain. Bryn Mawr here we come. As the sun began approaching the horizon, my wife Sandy and I plunked ourselves down in our folding chairs, joining about 200 others at the park, and settled in for what we expected would be a night of good music. The skies were filled with friendly clouds, the air cool and dry. Hardly a better place to be.
I’ve been familiar with John Gorka for many years, but had seen him in person only once. That was about six years ago at the Philadelphia Folk Festival, where he was part of a round-robin song swap with other musicians on a small stage. I knew his backstory a bit, how he had honed his craft at the legendary Godfrey Daniels folk music club in Bethlehem, PA, and how his career began to take off around the time his first album, I Know, came out in 1987. Since then, he has logged too many miles to count in North America and overseas. The Bryn Mawr show probably was somewhere around the 3,000th concert performance of his career. During that career, Gorka has tended to take the solo route — Have Guitar, Will Travel — but on this refreshing Bryn Mawr night he brought along a friend.
Music critics often note the fine quality of Gorka’s baritone. That’s true. His voice is deep and burnished, but he doesn’t go for extra volume. Soothing and comforting are words I’d use to describe his singing. He’s like a lower register version of James Taylor. Between songs he is funny and somewhat jittery, slyly putting himself down and reminding me a bit of Woody Allen. The Bryn Mawr audience loved his on-stage personality, which might very well be his real life personality too.
From within the gazebo he sang only self-penned songs, 20 in all. Four came from I Know, and five from his latest release, 2014’s Bright Side Of Down. The newer material was as smart and flavorful as the songs from his young man days. His pool of inspiration hasn’t dried up. For the ninth song of his 100 minute set he brought to the stage Russ Rentler, his mandolin-playing pal since the late 1970s. I figured that Russ would garnish a couple of tunes and then depart. Better, he remained till the concert’s end. The mandolin’s tight and high tones, the swirling notes from Russ’s fingers, added a lot of energy and contrast to the music. Gorka’s vocal and guitar work through the first eight songs were just fine, but Russ took the performance upward.
John Gorka’s makeup leads him to produce songs that unfold mostly at slow or medium paces. Which is fine with me. He examines love and relationships regularly, as do nearly all songwriters. And he also writes about people’s day to day struggles. I connected with nearly all of the songs he sang. I’ll mention some lines that made my ears bend stageward.
Love Is Our Cross To Bear is a gentle song about falling in love. It comes from I Know. As the air began to chill with descending twilight, and I realized how wise Sandy had been to tell me to bring along a light jacket, Gorka sang, “I didn’t know that I would find a way to find you in the morning/But love can pull you out of yesterday as it takes you without warning.” Beautifully put, John. And five tunes later he reached into Bright Side Of Down and gave us Outnumbered, a love song for his wife. Gorka’s voice, steady and strong, was something you could believe in. He sang, “Suddenly you were there behind a smile, behind a name/After that summer day I’d never be the same.”
John Gorka is a romantic. And he put on a good show.