Singers like Martin Grosswendt are rare birds these days. They carry forward the traditions of the "roots version" of The American Songbook. A Grosswendt concert is likely to be filled with difficult-to-master finger picking and slide guitar techniques that went hand in hand with Blues, Country, and Cajun music that percolated from Tennessee to Texas in the early twentieth century - and was sung by colorful, sometimes charismatic characters who roamed from rural lanes to urban juke joints.
Grosswendt has an archival memory and channels the voices of scores of singers who laid down the musical traditions that modern singers still emulate.
Talk about heavenly music. Martin Grosswendt’s performance at the Notlob Music Concert last Saturday night was a little miracle performed on a stage whose Sunday incarnation is as an altar at the Clarendon Hill Presbyterian Church on Powder House Boulevard in Somerville, MA.
Here’s this big guy in a well worn baseball cap, a flannel shirt and jeans sitting on a folding chair in the middle of an unadorned stage and delivering the cleanest finger picking blues you’ll ever hear around here. And when he got down to Louisiana music -mama, look out!
Part of the draw was to listen to him choose from the vast repertoire of roots music he’s been fascinated by for about thirty years. He’s a student of this stuff. He knows the pedigrees of the songs and the life stories of the men who sang them. I’ll bet he could tell a pretty good cultural history of the first half of 20th century America by patching together the hundreds of songs he knows.
He singing voice has a naturalness that fits the songs' emotional cores, with inflections and tone that makes the music so uniquely American. He’s not interested in imitating the voices of the original singers but he sure can play like them, which he did with the six and twelve string guitars that stood in stands on either side of him - and the fiddle that languished in its case till near the end of his one hour set.
Between the vaulted ceiling and the anemic speaker system, occasionally the lyrics and often the singer’s patter between songs were undecipherable… a monumental obstacle to this reviewer straining to hear the background Grosswendt gave before most songs, stories that will go untold here. A blessed exception was the sound emanating from a gooseneck mike aimed right at the sound box Grosswendt’s well-worn guitar.
American roots music spans Blues, Country, Bluegrass, Gospel, Cajun, Zydeco, Tejano, and American Indian. Grosswendt’s selections tonight covered blues and country from Tennessee to Texas and the Cajun music of southwest Louisiana.
He started the show with “Payday,” a Mississippi John Hurt song from the 1920s and followed that with Josh White’s late 1930s version of “Good Gal.” By this time, the audience sitting in the handsomely curved pews realized they were in for a set of extraordinary musicianship.
You may have heard of Taj Mahal, Dave Van Ronk, Sonny Terry and Brownie McGee, NRBQ and Sam and Dave. Well, good ‘ol Martin has been an opening act for all of them.
Grosswendt’s cover of “Savannah Mama” by Blind Willie McTell featured another of his talents: slide guitar. Watching a musician coax waves of sound by sliding a metal tube over a ring or little finger and gliding it up and down the frets of a guitar is a window into the past. African American artists like Blind Willie McTell in the early 1920s were among the first to popularize the technique. That slide technique ranges from stompin’ to steamy. Martin can play ‘em both. Gorgeously.
One of Grosswendt's songs was a Blind Blake song called “Police Dog Blues.” It was a treat to watch Grosswendt's big fingers flutter around the strings and produce that precise finger style blues picking that prompted David Bromberg to say, "Martin Grosswendt is one of the best fingerpickers I ever heard play..."
Grosswendt played “The Good Times Are Killing Me,” an elegant twelve string bottleneck (slide guitar) original, an elegaic instrumental he composed upon hearing of the death of musician friend Jim Ringer and has since dedicated to roots/blues musicians who’ve gone to the great juke joint in the sky. The bottleneck style is a natural fit in a roadhouse but this tune felt right at home in a church.
Grosswendt finished his set with two songs he said were ‘the kind of music you’ll hear in southwest Louisiana, places like Crowley, Opelousas, and Eunice, Louisiana.” His foot stomped the time as he fiddled songs made famous by Cajun masters Dan and Ed Poullard and Andrew Carriere. I wish I could tell you the names of those songs but I can tell you they had the piquant flavor of a po’boy sandwich with red sauce. If given an invitation, I’d have jumped up to dance a Cajun Two Step right down the aisle.
Many of the songs he played are on his CD "Call and Response," which seems to be available only at his concerts. No website, no email, no marketing, but plenty of talent.
Grosswendt is a member of The Magnolia Cajun Band, a favorite of Cajun and Zydeco dancers all over New England. You might not be able to hear Grosswendt’s virtuosity amongst Magnolia's two fiddles, guitar, washboard, accordion, bass, and drums but you'll damn well hear the vitality he adds to the group's monthly gigs at the German Club in Pawtucket, RI.
If you ever go down there to dance and listen, you can ask him about that CD.