Andrew Calhoun,
Staring at the Sun:
Songs 1973-1981

(Waterbug, 2005)

Years ago, when I moved to Chicago and proceeded to pick through the remains of its folk scene, I often encountered a kid lugging a guitar. Usually, he was standing at the outer circle of a group of older, established musicians and looking in yearningly. His face always bore a serious, intense expression. I didn't know who he was until once I saw him step up on stage and play a couple of his serious, intense songs, rendering them in a brittle baritone (vaguely reminiscent of Archie Fisher's or Gordon Bok's) suited to their downbeat subjects. That's when I learned his name -- Andrew Calhoun -- which struck me somehow as an imposing handle for one of such tender years.

After he cut an album, some of Calhoun's songs got spun on Chicago's premier folk-music show, WFMT's Midnight Special. One in particular, "Water Street," sticks in memory for its pretty, morose melody and poetic lyrics calling up despair and desire. Many years later and long after I'd left Chicago, I was conducting a web search when I came upon a Calhoun song, "Goin' Down to See John Prine." This was not a Calhoun I knew, this composer of savage memoir aflame with rage, raw from unhealed wound, out to settle scores. I wonder if Prine has heard it. If so, I'm glad I wasn't there.

Neither "Water Street" nor "John Prine" appears on this disc. "Prine" isn't here because it wasn't composed till two decades after the cut-off date -- Staring at the Sun revisits Calhoun's earliest songs in fresh, albeit just as spare, versions -- and "Water Street" ... well, maybe he just got tired of singing it. Overall, this recording documents that memory has served me well: Calhoun's performance and material are pretty much as I remember them from the latter 1970s and early '80s.

A bright and literate young man, Calhoun -- unlike many singer-songwriters even then -- knew traditional music and placed himself unapologetically on the folk-music spectrum. Except for the largely mid-tempo ballad melodies, however, Calhoun was not reviving anything, just giving voice to his own observations on life, love, experience, tragedy and absurdity. His deliberately crafted, elusive lyrics were not ordinarily intended to yield to facile interpretation. Even with his occasional wordiness, Calhoun practiced an economy of melody. Some songs shared melodies or, anyway, their first cousins. A handful -- "God Told Me I Could Come" for one, "Walk Me to the War" for another -- jump out and demand attention. Others stand back shyly, hoping that one day soon you'll notice them.

It is easy to haul out the pale praise, to remark with faint damning that this is, after all, the testimony of an earnest, if clever, young man. That happens to be true, of course. Less certain is where one goes with that not so profound understanding. Though one keeps expecting it to be, Staring is never quaint or embarrassing, as the work of a young artist often looks at a mature distance as well as, in this context, from the perspective of the untold thousands of singer-songwriters who came after.

I do recognize these as the creations of that sober, unsmiling guitarist I remember from the life of the man I used to be. I suppose the difference is that, unanticipated though the pleasure be, I like them better now.

by Jerome Clark
30 December 2006

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