Enduring Music: Peter Mulvey at The Ark
Peter Mulvey is a monster guitar player, able to coax supple, intricate, highly ornamented melodies out of his acoustic six-string as well as spiky, serrated harmonies. He’s equally adept at pinging out soft, atmospheric harmonics or pounding rapid, rhythmic riffs and percussive, danceable grooves that make you crane to see where the bass player and drummer are hiding. His guitar does not merely accompany his singing, it also dialogs with it.
And then there’s his way with words.
Mulvey’s lyrics sparkle with striking similes ("The girl across the street, she is as light on her feet / As sunlight bouncing off chrome"), hilarious one-liners (“Once I got plastered at my best friend’s Bar Mitzvah”), and phrases such as “They say a kiss is just a flower that a bee might return from / And do his little dance at the hive" that perfectly illustrate Archibald MacLeish’s dictum, “A poem should not mean, but be."
Sometimes Mulvey’s tunes are crowded with more words per minute than most rap songs. It sounds like stream-of-consciousness riffing, which gives the lyrics an improvisatory, just-made feel, while still having an underlying coherence and order. And even when his lyrics are spare and simple, they're never simplistic. Plus, they're always married to elegant, evocative melodies that float over surprising yet just right harmonies and chord structures. As the Boston Globe said about him, “Peter Mulvey is all substance, which is his style.”
Mulvey’s well-worn, gutsy baritone has a lived-in quality that lends further believability to his lyrics and stories -- which he has in spades. The first time I saw him in concert was in 2015 in a giant tent at the Wheatland Music Festival in Remus, Michigan. In his 40-minute set that afternoon, Mulvey sang only six songs, and one of them was the traditional sea chantey "Shenandoah." He filled the rest of the time with introductions and tales -- tall, long, and short -- that were informative, interesting, engaging, rambling, quixotic, and thoroughly entertaining. (A few weeks later, Mulvey played a 12-hour concert in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in which he played over a hundred songs.)
Mulvey reached the apex in his Wheatland set with a song he wrote earlier that year, just days after the killings of nine black people at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina. “Take Down Your Flag” powerfully expressed his rage and sadness while also poignantly honoring the dead. It’s worth seeing Mulvey in concert just to hear him sing that song.
In the past two decades, Mulvey’s recorded 14 albums composed primarily of his original songs. His latest record, Are You Listening?, came out in March and was produced by Ani DiFranco. Mulvey is amazing all by himself, but the 10 tracks on this album feature additional musicians and some of the most tasteful, inventive arrangements you’ll ever hear.
Music isn't the only thing Mulvey is great at doing: He rides his bike super-long distances, too. To get to the Wheatland fest, Mulvey rode his bike from his adopted hometown of Milwaukee, pulling his guitar behind him in a special rig. He took the Lake Express ferry across Lake Michigan to Muskegon, then biked down to the festival.
When Mulvey comes to The Ark on Thursday, April 27, he will likely travel via more conventional means because the ferry doesn’t start running until the next day. But that may be the only thing conventional about Mulvey's show in Ann Arbor, which could be epic in length. As his biking adventures and 100-song sets demonstrate, Mulvey has plenty of endurance -- and I have no doubt his music will endure as well.
Peter Mulvey plays The Ark, 316 S. Main St., Ann Arbor, on Thursday, April 27. Doors open at 7 pm; the show starts at 7:30 pm. Tickets are $15.