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A folk singer who goes beyond the cliché

Posted: Thursday, March 13, 2008

So a highly talented folk singer is coming to Juneau for a fundraiser, and I'm going to abuse his generosity by telling everyone where to snag several dozen of his songs for free.

No wonder musicians hate reviewers.

But my intention is to help readers decide whether it's worth $25 to hear John Gorka play a double-bill concert March 27 with Susan Werner on behalf of the Juneau Arts & Culture Center. Two Web sites with a plethora of free MP3 downloads ought to provide plenty of guidance.

I didn't need much convincing that the concert is worth the price of admission, however, after learning that Gorka's recording career started 20 years ago at Red House Records, a label that exposed me to Greg Brown and a bunch of other phenomenal talent humble enough to still be gigging at coffeehouses.

The Pennsylvania native's bio states he grew up influenced by the likes of Suzanne Vega, Bill Morrissey, Nanci Griffith, Christine Lavin and Shawn Colvin, and now stalwarts such as Griffith and Mary Chapin Carpenter perform Gorka's material and/or tour with him.

I rant a lot about lyrics that say little more than "I love you" or "I miss you," and Gorka is reasonably solid at going beyond the evergreen clichés. It takes a decent storyteller to make one feel sorrowful for a natural-born circus clown on "Carnival Knowledge" ("See this is really my nose/I ran away back in junior high") or sympathy for candidates on the endless "Campaign Trail" ("There's someone watching every move I make/And I've got more hands than I could ever shake").

The two sites with downloadable songs include a fan's collection, which offers more songs but are of low-audio quality, and Gorka's official site, although downloading isn't necessarily his intention. The details, in order:

• The John Gorka Videosite (http://home.hetnet.nl/~f2hjhmvanvliet156/home.html) offers 23 "rare" tracks from a wide range of projects. I'm guessing they're 64mps (FM-radio quality, or half that of a standard MP3) based on the file sizes, but they're certainly acceptable for folk music. There's no hiss or obvious distortion, although the added richness of the tracks at Gorka's official site is obvious if compared back to back. Because there's essentially no overlap in material, this is a rare time I recommend the lower-quality stuff first so it can be enjoyed without the contrast. The fan site also has 32 video clips in YouTube format, a radio archive with Gorka on 19 programs and 35 of his songs performed by other musicians at varying levels of audio quality.

• Gorka's official site (www.johngorka.com) features one of those embedded jukeboxes that plays automatically, which drives me insane for several reasons including the possibility I'm listening to something else and/or the default volume might blow my eardrums if I'm wearing headphones. He offers 20 songs from a broad range of his career for those who don't mind streaming audio, but it turns out there's a backdoor for saving the tracks. A lot of musicians block such access and the fact he hasn't should serve as more, not less, incentive to actually buy the stuff you like.

I didn't see any collections of Werner's material, by the way, aside from a large number of Russian and other bootleg sites. But there's streaming audio previews from her nine albums and about a half-dozen videos at her official site (www.susanwerner.com).

• Mark Sabbatini is a professional music reviewer who has played guitar since he was 7, but couldn't get 15 minutes at the Alaska Folk Festival if his life depended on it.



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