Claudfest: Singer-songwriter Claudia Schmidt celebrates 50 years of performing
“Golden anniversary” sounds tacky and “semicentennial” reads incomplete, so what does a musician call her slow-rolling, year-long celebration of 50 years on stage?
For Claudia Schmidt, you just go ahead and portmanteau it—hence Claudfest, and let the bells ring.
Schmidt’s career as a singer-songwriter spans time as well as genre, and she’ll perform selections from her accumulated repertoire on Saturday, October 7, at The Ark when she appears with Rachel Davis.
While she remained active through the COVID-19 shutdowns with a regular series of YouTube concerts, the stage is where Schmidt’s art truly breathes, her rapport with the audience an essential element. Her long-awaited return to A2 brings Claudfest to a city that bore witness to various stages of her musical evolution.
A native of New Baltimore, Michigan, Schmidt pulled the modern equivalent of running away with the circus as soon as she was able, joining a theater group after high school and traveling with them for a year. Another round of seasons given to the University of Michigan didn’t work out, so she relocated to Chicago, where an already vibrant folk music scene welcomed her and inspired a career that led to dozens of records and countless miles.
Ann Arbor would have been a regular stop for anyone playing the Midwestern folk circuit of the 1970s, and Schmidt had no shortage of gigs at the venue she’ll visit this weekend. “I’ve played at all of The Arks,” she said. “I played at the original one on Hill Street, then when it moved to South Main. I’ve followed them all around.”
It was at the late, lamented local music emporium Herb David Guitar Studio that Schmidt first laid eyes on an Appalachian mountain dulcimer, an instrument she’s been associated with throughout her career. “Never seen one before, didn’t know anything about it, it was just an interesting shape and it was cheap,” she said. “So it was mine!”
A prolific songwriter on her own and enthusiastic interpreter of songs for others, Schmidt made her name with a series of stellar releases on famed indie folk labels Flying Fish and Red House Records. She restlessly roamed between styles, mixing slinky jazz, earthy blues, earnest folk, and passionate Southern gospel with textures borrowed from music worldwide. “I sort of have ears out for a lot of different things,” she said.
Schmidt’s penchant for genre-hopping and ability to evoke joy and sorrow with equal skill reveals a musical mind that finds a common cause between the individual and the many.
“I sort of embrace the whole gamut of emotions and being able to write about them is probably one of the things that keeps me from having to be on antidepressants,” she said. “I get to do a lot of processing.”
“I’m not really crazy about confessional singer/songwriting stuff,” added Schmidt. “Even if it’s written in the first person, I want to make it available to everybody. It’s the kind of transmutation that takes place where something that’s personal becomes universal. So as I’m singing it, I’m giving it away. No matter what the song is, whether it’s jubilant or sad or reflective, it’s hopefully written and performed in such a way that it’s not me, it’s not mine, it’s us. It’s ours.”
A LISTENER'S GUIDE TO CLAUDIA SCHMIDT
Michael Peter Smith’s romantic Reconstruction-era ballad takes its inspiration from Edgar Lee Masters’ Spoon River Anthology, and it’s been in Schmidt’s repertoire at least as far back as her 1979 debut album. We can thank COVID-19 for this gorgeous rendition from 2020, for if not for the shutdown, she surely would have been wasting it on a live audience rather than filming it in her living room.
"Live in California"
Schmidt performing in Palo Alto circa the early 1980s, tearing through a Blind Boone ragtime number on lap dulcimer. She follows with her own “Ashleyville,” an infectious song about how lame her hometown was. It’s a theme common to the music of the young, but Schmidt’s criticism is the kind one only has for something they love.
Everyone knows someone like this—some of us are someone like this. Claudia Schmidt wrote a song about this person, that lost friend whose pain can’t be salved and whose path can’t be cleared, and all one can do is pray they find their way. Midwestern Heart from 1981 might be her strongest collection of songs, and among the many highlights is the haunting “Man Who Visits Me,” a tale of shared loneliness as disturbing as it is poignant.
"Make It Across the Road"
Schmidt followed her adventurous muse into more percussive territory with 1987’s Big Earful, choosing Violent Femmes drummer Victor DeLorenzo to produce the sessions. A mother’s urgent plea for her child’s eternal vigilance in hopes of safe passage home, this Charley Hollins composition is stripped down to the studs, but draped with smoky gospel backup from the Original Soul Stirrers.
"Mama, I Miss You Tonight"
The ultimate Mother’s Day anthem. Schmidt and frequent collaborator Sally Rogers (a Midwestern folk legend in her own right) hosted a series of Mother’s Day concerts in East Lansing for many years, and this tear-jerker was a mainstay. Their first album together, Closing the Distance, arrived in 1987, finding both women at the top of their game and nudging each other ever higher.
In this righteously angry protest against American apathy, Claudia declares war on snowflakes. Another collaboration with Rogers, this broadside was originally released on their 2016 album We Are Welcomed, but the fiery version captured here is more recent and no less relevant.
"Bon's Bonny Back Yard"
A typically raucous live show from 2022 is capped by this dedication to a recently lost friend, whose garden’s lushness provides all the metaphor Schmidt requires to eulogize a life.
Fred Beldin is a writer and musician living in Ann Arbor. His work can be found at www.thesearetheendtimes.com.