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Leslie Rich (Friday, January 28th, 2005, The Red Sea, Minneapolis)
Leslie Rich - Photo credit tbd

Reviewed by Nancy Jane Meyer

Despite Minnesota's rich history of the lone male singer/songwriter slouched solemnly over his six-string on an empty stage dimly lit, I have become, albeit reluctantly, ambivalent about this particular musical form. Too much earnest plaintive yearning set to pretty, predictable melodies, too many "come back to me" pleadings, the obligatory 4 step walk down from G to Dmaj followed by a solemn Amin or Emin chord held interminably for melancholy "effect"; the bloodless whining clichés about loneliness that make the Bud ad on the wall of the bar a more compelling fixation than the show.

Needless to say, Irish singer/songwriter Leslie Rich, a recent transplant to Minneapolis from his native Belfast, has at least partially restored my faith in this genre, as he is not whiney, plaintive or overly earnest (he might yearn a bit, though, but it goes by so fast you don’t have time to cringe.) Taking the stage at the Red Sea following a bland, Indigo Girls/Kinks/Janis Joplin-cover laden set by Erica Blue (though I love her rich, throaty alto and sincere phrasing), Rich remarked brusquely that despite our inability to understand what he had to say, he would continue to pratter on in between songs. Obviously he was referring to his northern Irish accent, but unfortunately, sandwiched between a female folksinger doing campfire covers and a Weezer tribute band followed by another band regrettably called Swamp Gass, it was his performance that would be lost in translation by the crowd that night, as few people seemed to be paying attention to what I found to be one of the most compelling solo artists I've seen in…..well, a long time, but as I said, I haven't been out in the back alley looking under rocks for wide-eyed cocked-headed folk/rock/pop solo singers, because so few have the courage or sense of originality to even attempt reinvention or exploratory tracks within the genre. Add a tuba, rattle a dried corncob in a tin can, something. Anything—we’re dying out here.

Not so in this case. As Rich drove on relentlessly through his set, I found I couldn’t immediately categorize him as sounding like anybody I knew well. (Nick Drake on speed came to mind later on; some might point to Eliot Smith or Mark Eitzel, for whom Rich has opened in the past.) Furious rhythmically and complex lyrically, Rich’s songs seemed to be less reaching towards heaven or redemption than realizing that here in the purgatory of modern life, we just have to reckon with the capricious meanderings of fate and callous disregard of time, the noisy collision of the material and musical worlds, the tedium of the Standard Questionnaire (as one of his songs is titled) that can define the aimless lives of most everyone in western civilization. On the catchy, melodic “Made Up My Mind” during the set Rich sang “I made up my mind/I ain’t going nowhere/you can kiss my arse/I’m going nowhere”—a kind of ironic simultaneous rebellion of spirit and resignation to stasis. Which is indeed more interesting than a Bud ad on the wall, in my view.

Rich’s set made me feel trapped in an uncomfortable situation I ultimately didn’t mind inhabiting, as the proficiency of his musicianship and urgency of his delivery overcame the inevitable dread I have for that moment a singer/songwriter tries to explain something to me about himself, or worse, tells me how I should feel—however, Rich never succumbs to that urge, if he ever has it. Friday night he just prattered on as promised, juxtaposing observations and images in locked-up quizzical half-formed musings such as “I fight so as not to fight” and “case dismissed/due to lack of entertainment” and “turn around and scream at you/is the easier thing to do”—all apparently in reference to a tumultuous relationship, but I appreciate that he doesn’t tell us what happened, that he lets us wonder, because it’s none of our goddamn business anyway and we can just piss off. And behind me, the smoking talking drinkers smoked absently and talked loudly and drank, and the Somali pool players talked and played pool and gesticulated wildly as a good shot was made, as if nothing of surprise or interest was happening in front of them. It was one of those nights when you feel like you’re the only one in the room listening; Rich’s initial comment regarding the audience’s collective miscomprehension of him suddenly became vaguely prophetic.

Perhaps most surprisingly, given his birthplace of Belfast and background as a longtime participant in the music scene there, Rich doesn’t seem to dabble in the overtly political themes, but I currently have access to only his 2001 CD entitled The Written Lie, (on the Immortal Records label) so perhaps he does elsewhere. Upon checking his website, I was amused to read that Radio K had declined to include him on their play lists because he didn’t seem to “fit”, so if anybody from The Current 89.3 is reading this, an opportunity to radio debut a talented, engaging Irish artist who now counts himself among us exists.

I couldn’t find any local press mentions of Leslie Rich, so it’s possible you’re hearing it first on howwastheshow. His history in Minneapolis from about 1997 on includes gigs at the 7th Street and the Terminal Bar, and he will be playing solo at your local Dunn Bros. in the near future, as well as partnering up with his local backing ensemble as Leslie Rich & Rocket Soul Choir, including local bassist Jason Wahl, who met Rich online. Thinking Rich was a girl, Wahl invited the Irish “singer chick” to come to Minneapolis to play some gigs and….have a cup of tea, perhaps…oy, what’s that—bugger, you’re a bloke!? However, despite that cyber miscomprehension, things appear to working out well for both of them, musically speaking, of course.

Nancy Jane Meyer is