Graham Parker @ Shank Hall

Graham Parker is playing a solo set for his Last Chance to Learn the Twist (2023) tour. He played 4-5 songs from his latest album (“It Mattered to Me”, “We Did Nothing”, “Lost Track of Time”, “Them Bugs”), then one song from the rest of his records. For this set is was “Back to School Days” from Howlin’ Wind (1976), “That’s What They All Say” from Heat Treatment (1976), title track from Stick To Me (1977), “Discovering Japan” from Squeezing Out Sparks, (1979), etc. I’m a fan, but don’t have all his records, so when he introduces songs from Up The Escalator (1980) and Steady Nerves (1985) I’m basically hearing them for the first time and they are holding up with the rest. I’m saying to myself, “I’ve got to get the rest of his records,” and that hasn’t happened to me in a long time.

I’ve been to a lot of shows in my life and seen many great bands & performers, but the truth is most live shows disappoint in many respects. Often the performance isn’t good, and doesn’t reflect the standard set with their studio versions, videos, etc. Most bands & acts need a great producer to prop them up a bit. It’s one thing to be able to record yourself well, it’s another thing to translate that into a live performance that commands an audience. Graham Parker does all that & more.

Shank Hall is general admission, doors at 7:00, show at 8:00– and yes, there are Spinal Tap (1984) reminders all over the place. Legendary venue. I arrive just before the doors open and there’s already a line of a dozen people. Mostly men, my age or older. Once you’re in you can sit anywhere and the people ahead of me mostly go for the tables. I let everyone go ahead, then walk down to the front row and select the chair directly in front of the microphone. Best seat in the house. I order a Guinness and relax. More people now start seating themselves up front.

Graham Parker’s set-up is a telecaster electric (not electrical!) guitar plugged into a Fender combo amplifier that is microphoned to the house PA. He uses one effect box, which I didn’t identify. He came out on stage with an acoustic/electric guitar that fed into the house soundboard, while wearing a harmonica rack– ala Bob Dylan. He substitutes a kazoo for harmonica on an encore number “Them Bugs” that brought the house down.

I have tried the harmonica rack in the past for live performance, and I can tell you it is one of the most difficult things to well as a rock musician. It’s extremely difficult to get comfortable on stage when your strapped in with that thing, as you feel like a restricted paraplegic. You can’t dance around to distract the audience or naturally to release tension. You have to be completely into the music and focus everything on delivering the song no matter how uncomfortable you are feeling. Graham Parker does this very well and makes it look relatively easy, which is quite a trick.

Graham Parker has the magic, by that I mean he can focus his songwriting spirit, singing voice, guitar playing & (when necessary) harmonica playing into one sound which fills up the room & captivates the audience. I’ve never witnessed an original rock performer who was more relaxed and 100% sure of themselves than Graham Parker. That is a total artist.

There are two basic situations which make it difficult to relax on stage. First is if you have a tough crowd and no friends in the room. You have to handle that FAST, otherwise you’ll get run off stage. I’m sure Graham Parker has dealt with that in the past and knows what to do. You have to have a chip on your shoulder and then let it rip. If you can do that, you can play anywhere.

The other case where it’s tough to get comfortable on stage is when the crowd loves you. There’s a lot of excitement & anticipation which infects the audience, and the artist feels this. That is perhaps an even tougher pressure to deal with, because you’re fighting yourself. You want to do well for this crowd that adores you and expects a great show. It’s very tough to relax and live up to those expectations. I’ve never seen anyone handle that better.

Graham Parker didn’t even play 20% of his best songs, and everyone (newbies & longtime fans) left that show saying to themselves, “That guy is amazing, I definitely underrated him!” Graham Parker played for 90 minutes, and performed about 20 songs– 4-5 from his new album, and 15 classics he decided he wanted to play that night. What that means is that his next show where he still promotes his new songs (as he should), he can play 15 entirely different songs from his catalog of classics and that show will be just as good. He can do this at least 2-3 more times before he runs dry or starts repeating. How many artists can you name who can do that? There are very few, and most of them are dead. Bob Dylan, Elvis Costello & Thurston Moore are among the living artists who are in Graham Parker’s class.

This leads to another point, which I had in discussion with a longtime fan before the show. You have to survive to be this great, and that’s not easy. The music industry will kill you, and few know this better than Graham Parker. You can hear it in his music. There’s always an intellect working and the music has soul. This no longer exists in the music industry because everything revolves around superstar performers like Taylor Swift & Beyonce. Nothing exciting or original can be allowed to interfere with these mega-releases. The industry can’t afford that, so there are no original rock bands anymore, and songwriting has been pushed to the side in favor of American Idol winners.

I can’t imagine Graham Parker kissing Simon Cowell’s ring in order to get a record deal. I don’t think it would happen, and furthermore I know it wouldn’t work. A young songwriter like Graham Parker isn’t allowed to exist in the music industry today. The corporate blacklist on originality & meaningfulness in music is complete. So for all these reasons, I highly recommend Graham Parker in concert. The title of his latest record leads one to believe there may not be many chances left to see such a true artistic genius as his. Don’t miss it.