For the first Wednesday night in 2013 the mood at City Winery in Lower Manhattan was surprisingly subdued. The room traffic was light and the show began mostly on time as the very fun Charlie Mars was in for a set on January 2.
Mars emerged onto the stage and leapt right into his somewhat droll storytelling; something he would do quite often throughout most of his 2 hours+ set. He marveled right off the bat that this morning he woke up in his bed in Mississippi and suddenly, he’s here for his 8pm show in New York City.
His first song, he said, was about a relationship where he had “possibly behaved badly.” It was this self-deprecation that he would return to again and again; whether it be in discussing his marijuana smoking, intoxication, reverence for and double talking to the Almighty, or his most popular spoof, relationships.
He used a harmonica a couple of times alongside his acoustic guitar. He remained tethered to his ax save two songs at the ivories.
His forlorn longing would rear its head again and again; even as he was a lot more dubious than his descriptions let on.
Before tonight’s set I was not familiar with Mr. Mars and while his down home Mississippi attitude shone through, his fingerpicking and slap guitar style evoked many of my folk favorites. The lyrical line shifted a number of times from the howling at the moon like Michael Penn or Mark Olson to his more slick lyrical hyperbole of Jason Mraz.
The guitar playing drew influences from any number of sources; Bob Dylan, Jeff Buckley, Matthew Sweet or many others. But it was the guitar line combined with the poppy melody which drew out tones of Bob Marley and a far less produced sounding Mraz. There was no pomp and fanfare here; only a guy and his stories which he played out on his guitar.
Mars’ invocation of acoustic guitar musicianship used slow plucking, slap technique and the vacant spaces between his breaths to tell stories all their own.
Unlike many other guitar players in that vein his was a tight narratives line; many of his songs simply stopped dead once they were over; very much like Evan Dando of The Lemonheads. This was somewhat jarring yet also strangely refreshing in a style of music, folk, which is beleaguered with long rambling listless narratives which seem to stretch on indefinitely. The artistry in Mars playing lies not in complexity or over-layering but in deceptively simple accents and arpeggios of which he has gotten quite good in his six album career.
His set was just over two hours and I must confess, as the evening weaned on, I began to tire to a lot of his tropes and clever little lyrical tricks. He asked us to do a call and response sing-along towards the beginning of his set. I thought that was cute. But when he asked us to do it four or five times; to four or five different songs; it seemed to be a little much.
Towards the end of the night though, he did lay himself bare in a rather surprising turn when he leaned right into a small vignette of Bruce Springsteen’s “I'm On Fire.” He then told a story about how the record “Nebraska” was one of "...three or four albums which changed my life." While I didn't hear much of The Boss in Mars performance this night, the musicians early influences offer a bit of insight into who the performer has become.
Charlie Mars comes through City Winery regularly enough. If you’re looking to sing along or just enjoy some tunes, give him a shot the next time he’s through. To hear some of his stuff, check out his webpage or YouTube page.