An Evening with Ken Stringfellow Sunday Oct 6 at the THIRSTY HIPPOBy STAFF REPORTS,
Crowds often shout out requests for their favorite songs when performers come to town.
When Ken Stringfellow makes his first-ever stop in Hattiesburg on Sunday as part of his 60-show North American tour, he has a request of his own.
“Come prepared to listen,” he said. “I would say that this show is not necessarily designed for casual listeners. If people will come to the show knowing that they may be faced with the liklihood of getting really, really deep with a complete stranger, then I have a hunch things will go much more smoothly for us all.”
A California-born songsmith, producer and multi-instrumentalist, Stringfellow has had a hand in the careers of three seminal bands – The Posies, R.E.M. and Big Star.
The basis of Stringfellow’s current tour of what he terms “mostly non-venue spaces” is a 2001 album, a pop treat called “Touched.” The recording boasts a somewhat tumultuous back story.
The record was issued at a point where Stringfellow’s career was especially hectic. The Washington state-based Posies, which he co-led with Jon Auer, had recently reformed while work as an auxiliary guitarist and keyboardist for R.E.M. was ongoing.
There were also dates with Auer in a reactivated Big Star, the vanguard rock troupe the two began performing with in 1993 along with the legendary Alex Chilton.
In the midst of all this was the formation and rapid split of a band called Saltine that Stringfellow was only able to coax a few EP recordings out of.
The songs on “Touched” were delicate but sometimes unsettled pop-inspired works written mostly during the Saltine’s brief existence.
When the album was complete, plans were made to establish Stringfellow as a solo artist.
But the record was released on Sept. 11, 2001 – the day that life in the United States stopped in its tracks.
“Waking up that day, I had bought a bottle of champagne to celebrate the release,” he remembered. “My phone was ringing as I woke up, and a friend of mine was like, ‘you probably need to turn on the television. I can’t really explain what’s happening right now.’ Of course, we all know how the day was. It completely torpedoed my plans. and my solo career was probably forever stunted by this. Of course, that’s not such a big deal — I’m still alive. Many people suffered far worse things on 9/11.”
Difficulties in transportation along with a massive audience hesitance to venture out of a rock show in the wake of the 9/11 attacks largely stymied tour plans.
“People didn’t really know what to do with themselves. They were just sort of processing everything that had happened,” he said.
While a lot of artists immediately cancelled their tours, Stringfellow decided to carry on.
“I got on a plane as soon as I could. New York was still burning basically. When I landed at Newark, you could still see smoke coming out of the crater.”
Performing in New York City nine days after September 11 was an intense moment, said Stringfellow.
“For a lot of those people, it was probably the first moment where people could deal with a show, or anything emotional.”
For Stringfellow, the venue and the patrons in attendance, it was a meaningful evening and when the Mercury Lounge celebrated its 20th anniversary back in February, Stringfellow was invited back to honor the 2001 show by playing “Touched” in its entirety.
“That’s how the idea ignited for a tour devoted to the songs of “Touched” in its entirty,” he said.
Along with the album performance, Stringfellow will play music from throughout his career.
In his solo work, as well as with the Posies, he has shown an innate gift for crafting indelible melodies – expressively using his guitar to access the hearts of listeners, as well as the part of the brain where catchy hooks go to live.
On Touched, especially, his guitar acts as an extension of the rich emotion in his lyrics.
A restless songwriter, Stringfellow keeps finding new avenues for his heartfelt words, creating songs that are more intricate than they might seem at first blush.
“I kind of go for the Jimmy Webb or Burt Bacharach theory, which is that you throw out unusual chord progressions and then see what kind of melody I could stitch through there to make it sound seamless,” said Stringfellow. “You can hum along with a Burt Bacharach-Hal David tune and think, 'Oh, it's so singable, I can easily play it.' And then, any time you play it, it's just all over the place. So, I try and make complexity sound easy. I like the complexity, for my own challenges, but I don't want to – I want to make it musical, I guess. And one of the things I've been toying of doing [with the new Posies album] is simplicity, which, believe it or not, is something I haven't gotten around to yet.”
Regardless, people have connected with it – again – on this tour, which now consists of 60+ dates, including Hattiesburg.
“I played with Big Star once up in Oxford, but that was the only time I’ve ever performed in Mississippi,” said Stringfellow. “I had been driving through Jackson for years on the way to gigs and when this tour was taking shape, I reached out to some folks, who led me to Arden (Barnett) and eventually to Brad and The Thirsty Hippo.”
Stringfellow said he’s looking forward to the stop in Hattiesburg and hopes the response here will be similar to what he has seen elsewhere.
“People really seem to connect with this record,” he said.
In an article titled “How Ken Stringfellow’s ‘Touched’ LP became an indispensable document of 9/11” published last month month on the 18th anniversary of the attacks, Pennsylvania Capital-Star Editor-in-Chief John L. Licek reflected on the comfort drawn from the record’s subtle pop reflections.
“For a lot of people, myself included, ‘Touched’ has become an avatar of that troubled, tragic, and oddly hopeful time, when it was so quiet that even the cars driving over the Harvey Taylor bridge seemed to not make any noise, as if a blanket had been thrown over the whole world; as if in the midst of immeasurable sadness and loss, we were reluctant to raise our voices to a level louder than a prayer.
“The minimalist songs on ‘Touched,’ which boast little ornamentation apart from guitars, drums, and keyboards, reflect that silence.”
Tickets for “An Evening with Ken Stringfellow” are $17 in advance at eventbrite.com