I don’t much enjoy the artsy and touristy central section of New Hope, Pennsylvania. Haven’t been there in several years. The crowds, the traffic, the bad news parking situation. Who needs it? But I have been to New Hope’s fringes a bunch of times last year and this year, as I mentioned in my article about Kim Richey. The New Hope Winery lies a couple of miles south of the “I’m not going there” zone, and that’s where my wife Sandy and I have become semi-regulars.
Behind the winery’s gift shop is a roomy building dubbed the Event Center. On its small stage the winery presents a nice variety of musicians year-round. On Thursday evening, June 18, Raul Malo, lead singer of The Mavericks, stepped into the spotlight. Malo is on tour with The Mavericks but took a short solo side trip to New Hope, where he had played the previous evening too. The next day he’d be back rocking and rolling with his band in Rochester, New York. But in New Hope the audience got a full dose of his contemplative side. He picked up his acoustic guitar at 8:10 PM, and for the next 100 minutes had the audience, me and Sandy included, in the palms of his hands.
Raul Malo has been a pretty big name for the last 25 years. His voice is the reason why. It’s a rich tenor, wide-ranging, and moves nimbly in upper registers where others may fear to tread. In New Hope Malo brought the volume and assured passion at appropriate times, but largely kept things reined in. The point is that he has wonderful vocal taste and great control. His singing is a thing of beauty.
I’d seen Raul on television, heard him perform on the radio, but New Hope was my first live visitation with him. He sang 17 songs, ten of which he wrote or co-wrote. I was smitten from the git go, but in a million years wouldn’t have guessed his choice for show opener. Picking his guitar slowly and easily, he quietly sang not one of his own numbers, but Summer Wind, the tune made famous by Frank Sinatra in 1966. Raul did the song proud.
Summer Wind is a lament about lost love. All 16 songs that followed, self-penned and not, also were about love in one way or another. Love in bloom, love desired, love remembered. Raul covered all bases. I never thought I’d hear a version of Harvest Moon, a gorgeous and pure love song, to rival that of its author, Neil Young. But Raul came close, singing with restrained emotion, hitting the high notes with clarity. He did excellent work on his own Born To Be Blue, and Lucky One, the Roy Orbison-like operatic qualities of his voice emerging on those two numbers.
The most stunning moments arrived late in the show. (Call Me) When You Get To Heaven gave me goose bumps. Raul wrote this song for The Mavericks’ In Time album. From my seat 15 feet from stage left, I took it as a song about a breakup, a relationship not meant to succeed on planet Earth but destined to flower in a better place, maybe one of the mind. Raul sang slowly, mournfully. He drew out the song for many minutes. When introducing the tune, he had asked the audience to join in towards the end. They did. And that’s where the goose bumps came in. Though surely some males were part of the choir, somehow I heard only female tones. As Raul fingered the refrain’s chords over and over, angelic sweet voices rose throughout the room. Call me when you get to heaven . . . Call me when you get to heaven. It was just so beautiful.
During that number I realized who Raul reminds me of. José Feliciano. Like Feliciano, Malo possesses both fervor and quiet strength, and the ability to be in-the-moment. None of this was lost on the near-capacity crowd seated at the room’s red tablecloth-covered cocktail tables. They went wild with claps and yells between songs. But when Raul sang, they were seriously silent and attentive. Raul loved them back. Happy, laughing and joking around during the interludes, he especially made the night for a lady celebrating her birthday at the show. She was a super fan, it turns out, saying that this was the 80th time she had seen Raul perform. To honor her, he sang Can’t Help Falling In Love, the Elvis hit from 1961. And then he threw out two of his best and funniest lines of the evening. I hadn’t planned to use any profanity in this blog, though I curse aplenty in my non-blogging life. But I’m going to repeat verbatim what Raul Malo said after the final guitar strums of Can’t Help faded away. “That ought to buy me some karma points. Now I can go back to being a shit.”
A worthy side note about choice. The night that Sandy and I were in Malo pastures, two other splendid musical events were available not far away in the Philadelphia suburbs: The Richard Thompson Electric Trio and Graham Parker And The Rumour, great bands that must have brought down their respective houses. For discriminating music fans of any age, June 18 presented one of those uncommon convergences when deciding where to pay one’s money was a tough call.