Those Old and Worn CDs

It’s uncanny how music sometimes provides a strong emotional recall. The opening notes of a song that has gone unheard for years can trigger the brain’s ability to make unconscious connections, launching the listener into a series of memories — events that were set aside in their mind along with the song itself. This is the kind of rapid association I experience every time Brock Evans and Josh Mordecai pick up their guitars.

Josh Mordecai at the Shark Tank

Anyone who has had their middle/high school CD binder discovered by their adult friends understands how difficult it is to hold up yesterday’s burned albums and explain why they still hold a place in their hearts. This is music from a phase of seemingly insurmountable uncertainty — a phase where one latched onto anything of significance and allowed it to emotionally anchor them. To the music fan, these artists were our adolescent comfort blanket and our transitional teddy bear. All we can do when these artists are inevitably held under scrutiny years later is provide context. When I saw both artists play on a humid Saturday evening this past August, I felt as though I was holding up those old and worn CDs. Now, I’ll try and provide some context.

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I have to admit that I have a bias towards Brock Evans’ music that isn’t based in performance or aesthetics. We have been roommates on and off for most of my adult life. As a result, his mid-range vocals and semi-claw hammer, Townes-Van-Zandt-incarnate style of guitar play have been the background music for much of my twenties. I have memories of waking up next to my girlfriend in my upstairs bedroom on any given cold and gray Rochester Sunday morning to the soundtrack of Evans practicing in his bedroom below us. We also collaborated in the loosest possible sense. Shortly after I turned twenty-one, Evans and I locked ourselves in a different bedroom of mine with a bottle of Devil’s Springs (151 proof) vodka and recorded a drunken and disjointed series of songs together.

Then again, the magic of Evans’ stage presence is that he makes the audience feel as though they’re outside of a closed bar listening to an old friend pluck out a few songs while waiting to sober up just enough to get home. He played the part of an unassuming country musician that Saturday, decked out in Tivas and a polo shirt. No light was shining on him as he sat in the corner of a living room with about twenty people gathered around, a few more sitting by a window outside — their drinks and cigarettes on hand.

All signs of a house party were vacated from the moment Evans introduced his first song, “Rust Don’t Itch”, a song he said was about life in a part of the country he used to drive through which was covered in pro-life and anti-meth billboards. Yes, in a world where modern country means stars, bars, beer pong, and songs about cups, Evans offers six-string morality plays in a cowboy hat. He’s the impartial observer whose country is scarred from differences and its citizens are trying to do the best they can.

It came as no surprise that the crowd stayed silent and wide-eyed for most of his set. Lines like “Bloomin’ like a bloody blossom/All across the cotton the cotton sheets/Love don’t come around that often/So when it does, don’t let her leave”, from his critique of masculine possession and violence titled “Gilded Gun”, danced off Evans’ tongue and reverberated off of the crowd’s ears. It was a set that proved that the best songwriters are rarely marketed. Rather, they’re found in basements and living rooms. Often, they go undiscovered altogether as their pursuit for truth is internal and burns brighter than any pursuit for fame.

When Evans’ set was over, he set his guitar down and we were ushered outside to watch an artist who I first heard playing on a living room floor almost ten years ago.

* * *

The night I first heard Josh Mordecai play was also the last time we would all get together in what was a party house for some people and a living space for others. In the living room-turned makeshift bedroom a few people, most of whom I knew from an open mic night I frequented at the time, were passing an acoustic guitar around. About three songs in, the guitar was passed to an unassuming, bespeckled young man wearing a flannel with a homemade patch on it. He spoke softly, made vulgar jokes with everyone else, and when he launched into his song, the original murder-ballad entitled “Laredo”, a room of mostly underage drinkers went quiet.

While this has not always been the case for Josh Mordecai’s shows (one time I watched him stand on a chair, break all his strings, and scream to get a rowdy house show’s attention, another time, he played the Minor Threat anthem “Bottled Violence” in front of patrons at a loud bar), his sincerity and storytelling prowess have silenced my inner swill-guzzling teenager show after show for almost a decade since that night.

Jump forward ten years to a crowd gathered in backyard lousy with mosquitoes. Backlit by a tree wrapped in rope lights, Mordecai was given the most dramatic staging of the night. It’s fitting, too, since he hadn’t played a show in nearly three years. He looked like an ethereal being as he launched into his set, playing his guitar at the speed of an early Hüsker Dü album and singing with his own American hardcore influenced sprechesang. His technique of attacking his acoustic guitar with a thin pick mimicked the type of bass-less warble found on a demo recording of an 80’s punk band.

The therapeutic quality of Mordecai’s music lies in the desperate and inclusive search for wholeness. This is in contrast to many of his contemporaries — singer/songwriters who started playing music in the early 00’s — who participate in an Oberstian race to the bottom to see who has lived the most depressing life in song. The final verse of his song “A: There is No Plan” acknowledges that, yes, the world may end and it may end during our lifetime but, if that is the case, then why not celebrate our community and our love. Despite the numerous references to murder and George Eastman’s suicide in his lyrics, each Josh Mordecai set is that aforementioned celebration.

As the mosquitoes swarmed in on the crowd, Mordecai finished his set — which was twenty minutes, with most songs played within medleys, and only two breaks for water — with “Repeat After Me”. Mordecai dictated the chorus, which is a basic set of instructions for those having a panic attack. It’s a dark concept at first glance but, the verses fill the space in-between with the explanation that, though we may be broken, we can save each other. He petitions his audience to stop being broken people and start being a part of a communal wholeness. The last verse he sang was the observation that, though he does not observe a god, he does have music and as long as there’s a venue for that music, he’ll still reach catharsis. It’s this message that sustained music scenes comprised of living rooms and basements, coffee shops after closing time, and warehouse spaces when I was in my late teens. It’s musicians like Josh Mordecai who continue to preach this message like traveling evangelists through my late twenties.

* * *

I left the backyard shortly after eleven with memories of the past decade of my life weighing heavy on my head like the deep piles of snow all with which Western New Yorkers will soon contend. The sidewalks were all familiar to me and elsewhere in the city someone else was discovering the music that will define the next steps of their life.

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