“A Beautiful Evolution.” Folksinger John Gorka LIVE! at Toms River’s Grunin Center
Folk music took center stage at Toms River, NJ’s Grunin Center of the Arts on Sat. Jan. 20, 2018 with a concert of contemporary folk music by John Gorka.
Gorka — a world-renown singer-songwriter — grew up in Colonia, NJ. He got his start in music at a small coffee house in Bethlehem, PA while studying philosophy and history at nearby Moravian College.
He went on to record over a dozen albums, including his latest effort, 2018’s True in Time. As an artist, he’s worked with many of the best musicians in the folk scene including Shawn Colvin, Suzanne Vega, Dave Van Ronk, and Lucy Kaplansky.
Gorka is called “the preeminent male singer-songwriter of what has been dubbed the New Folk Movement,” by Rolling Stone magazine. Today, he resides in Minnesota, but spends a good part of the year touring the world with his special brand of contemporary folk.
Waiting for Gorka’s performance this evening is a crowd of music enthusiasts assembled in the Grunin Center of the Arts auditorium, located on the campus of Toms River’s Ocean County College .
Before Gorka takes the stage, he is preceded by talented singer-songwriter Amilia K. Spicer. Right from the start, Spicer connects with the Grunin Center audience when she says, “I thought I’d start with a love song. This is called ‘Train Wreck’” — to which the audience chuckles and Spicer deadpans, “You know that guy, too?
On “Train Wreck” — a track from her critically acclaimed 2017 CD, Wow and Flutter — Spicer’s haunting vocal and driving guitar accompaniment clearly impress the crowd.
Bringing her compelling song to life, Spicer’s performance is both beautiful and tender as she sings, “Our love is like a train wreck, a train wreck/I saw it coming/Heard a big noise, and I started running/Now I’m looking back, it’s sliding off the track/Nothing left to see here/Nothing left to see of you and me.”
Revealing that she’s just gotten over a cold, Spicer says of her voice this evening, “Hopefully, all the notes will come out. If not, they’re implied — you can just fill them in.”
Moving on to a second selection from Wow and Flutter, “This Town,” Spicer spins a yarn about her town, a tune which features the catchy chorus, “You go up, down, baby in this town/I’ve tried, I’ve tried, I’ve tried but I can’t leave/I know my home is in this town/Like I know just how to breathe.”
She follows that up with yet a third number from Wow and Flutter, “Shotgun,” her sparse guitar playing demanding each listener’s attention as she softly sings, “Shot gun/I’m riding shot gun/ ’Cause everyone’s got one around here.”
Moving over to the grand piano nestled behind her on the stage, Spicer announces, “I just have to play this beautiful piano!” Launching into her song, “Like An Engine,” Spicer’s sultry voice croons, “Some parts are fire/Some cold as stone/You’re like an engine/Just like an engine/You’re making noise when everybody else is going home.”
After revealing that the song has been “in a couple of movies,” Spicer wraps up her impressive set with another original composition, “Delayed Effect.” The audience responds with appreciative applause for Spicer as she introduces John Gorka to the stage.
Opening with one of his newest numbers, “True in Time,” Gorka sings, “If I can sing long enough/And make each song a song of love/Then maybe every song comes true/ True in time/True in time.” His voice sounding strong, clear, and resonant, Gorka sings with great emotion.
The audience responds to his performance with avid applause.
After welcoming the crowd, Gorka tells them, “‘True in Time’ is the title song of my new record,” joking, “and it’s still out,” with a twinkle in his eye.
Announcing, “Hi, my name is John and I’ll be your singer this evening,” Gorka takes a moment to introduce himself to all of the “new people” in the audience who’ve never attended one of his concerts. For them, he launches into one of his most-beloved compositions, “I’m from New Jersey,” a crowd pleaser that several members of the audience join in singing on lyrics like, “I’m from New Jersey, I don’t expect too much/If the world ended today, I would adjust.”
Gorka entertains the crowd with stories of his days as a student at Moravian College in Bethlehem, along with tales of being a member of his folk group, The Razzy Dazzy Spasm Band, a combo that frequently performed at Bethlehem’s Godfrey Daniels’ coffee house.
Moving on to “The Land of the Bottom Line” — a song Gorka dryly states he wrote in “a deep pit of melancholy, despair, and woe” — his clear, true voice sings, “I couldn’t bribe a wino on what I used to make/My fortune was as sure as the wind/But I was free to wonder and time was on my hands/It was mine to burn and to bend.”
Singing and talking breezily with the audience, Gorka makes all of the newcomers in the house feel welcome as he opens himself up to the crowd.
Performing one of the highlight numbers of the evening, Gorka sings his composition, “I Saw a Stranger with your Hair,” a clever tune with lyrics like, “I saw a stranger with your hair/Tried to make her give it back/So I could send it off to you/Maybe Federal Express/‘Cause I’d know you’d miss it.” A poignant number, too, Gorka concludes the piece by wistfully singing, “By the way, how is my heart?/I haven’t seen it since you left/I’m almost sure it followed you/Would you sometime send it back?”
After explaining that his next number is a tribute to the people he met while working at Godfrey Daniels coffee house, Gorka reveals, “This is only the second time I’ve ever played it in front of anyone.” Here, he goes on to introduce another compelling number from his latest CD, True in Time. Entitled, “Nazarene Guitar,” the song is reminiscent of Paul Simon’s “Graceland” and features both a compelling storyline and a driving rhythmic accompaniment.
Following the touching, “Let Them In,” Gorka invites the audience to join him in singing his composition, “Branching Out.” Featuring Amilia K. Spicer on background vocals, the pair concludes Act I of tonight’s concert crooning, “When I grow up I want to be a tree/Want to make my home with the birds and the bees/And the squirrels, they can count on me/When I grow up to be a tree.”
The audience clearly enjoys every minute of this number as the duo’s voices blend in sweet harmony.
Act II begins with Gorka presenting the oldest song he still performs. Acknowledging, “I wrote it when I was 19,” he notes, “It was true then, but even truer now.” At this point, Gorka delights the crowd with his rendition of “Like My Watch,” singing, “Like my watch, I’m a little slow/And I don’t always go when I’m s’posed to/I’ll take my time and still change my mind/And I’ll stop if you drop me.”
Moving on to another of his newest compositions — a lovely piece entitled “Mennonite Girl” — Gorka captures the hearts of his audience when he croons about a girl whom he once loved, “I wish her peace/I wish her love/I wish her easy with the rough.”
He follows that up with two funny pieces — the Gorka audience favorite, “Italian Girls,” and the humorous “I’ve Fallen for You and I Can’t Get Up.”
Displaying his affinity for singing the blues, Gorka rocks out on the rollicking “Lightning’s Blues.” Afterwards, Amilia K. Spicer joins him on a duet of “The Gypsy Life” — a gentle tune which features Gorka’s stunning guitar accompaniment work.
The audience loves Gorka’s rendition of yet another tune from his latest CD, “The Body Parts Medley, a whimsical number which includes such playful lyrics as, “I like my toes/We’re very close/I should compose/Epic prose/For my toes.”
Moving over to the piano, Gorka performs a bluesy cover version of Ray Charles’ classic, “You Don’t Know Me,” pausing to let the mellifluous tones of the piano completely fade away before delivering his next lyric.
Continuing in the blues vein, he sings “Baby Blues” — a tune which Gorka wryly claims he wrote in the “Mid-Atlantic suburban piedmont style of the blues” which features a rhythmic guitar accompaniment.
Yet another highlight of this evening’s concert is Gorka’s original composition, “Where the Bottles Break,” a compelling song about urban change in Bethlehem, PA in which he sings, “It happens when the money comes/The wild and poor get pushed aside/It happens when the money comes/The poor get pushed/The buyers come from somewhere else/And raise the rent so you can’t hide/The buyers come from out of state/And they raise the rent.”
After taking a request to perform his amusing ditty, “People My Age” — a song in which he vocalizes, “People my age/Have started looking gross” — Gorka tells an intriguing story about meeting Pops Staples, patriarch of the famous family gospel group, the Staples Singers. Here, he sings what he calls “a secular gospel song” he wrote for Pops entitled “Good Noise.”
Gorka wraps up his performance tonight with “a straight-ahead love song” — “Love is Our Cross to Bear” — after which the audience rises to its feet, anxiously awaiting and cheering for an encore.
Gorka rewards them by taking a seat at the piano and performing a wistful cover version of Harry Belafonte’s “Country Boy.”
Following huge applause, as audience members make their way out of the auditorium into the Grunin Center lobby, we take an opportunity to chat with both of this evening’s performers.
First, we catch up with Amilia K. Spicer, who says about tonight’s show, “I love performing in centers like this one where you can hear a pin drop.”
After describing some of her musical influences — which include everything from The Beatles to Irish folk music to Broadway to Led Zeppelin to The Who — Spicer reveals she was especially influenced by the music of Jersey rocker Bruce Springsteen, notably his recording, The River.
As a Pennsylvania native, Spicer comments about performing here in neighboring New Jersey stating, “This still feels like home. These are my kind of people. I always know when people are savvy, like this audience — an educated audience.”
We also chat with John Gorka, clearly happy to once again be performing in the Garden State, exclaiming, “It’s great to be back in NJ! It’s so familiar — it goes really deep — it’s home.”
Noting, “When I’m here, I try to ground myself,” Gorka goes on to confess, “Actually, I love the food in Jersey. I had a nice lunch at Aqua Blue today, and tomorrow I’ll be looking for some Taylor Ham for breakfast — or maybe a pepper and egg sandwich!”
In addition to the artists, we also chat with several members of the audience who share their opinions of tonight’s concert with us.
Comments Terry from Seaside Park, “I enjoyed this show! John Gorka is as comical as he is musically talented. When he performs, he just makes you feel very comfortable,” before adding, “And Amilia K. Spicer is very talented, as well,” remarking, “She was a nice warm-up for John Gorka.”
Next, we chat with Wayne and Maureen from North Brunswick. Acknowledges Wayne, “We went to high school with John Gorka, and this is the first time we’ve seen him since 1976, although we’ve heard his music on the radio.” Adds Maureen, “He remembered us, and we got our picture taken with him. We really enjoy his music!”
We also talk to Bill and Sarah from Howell. Relates Bill, “We’ve followed John Gorka for about a decade. We’ve seen him at concerts in Chatham, NJ, and have traveled as far as Maryland to follow him,” adding, “We even once saw him perform at a house concert. He has a great stage presence and storyline.”
Comments Sarah, “We’ve watched him evolve over the years,” explaining his appeal by stating, “He has funny songs and serious songs — and he is very clever.”
Noting, “When he first started performing — when he spoke — he seemed nervous, and he would even stutter a bit, but as soon as started singing, he would completely mellow out,” Sarah refers to Gorka as “one very talented musician” before concluding, “seeing him grow has been a beautiful evolution.”
To learn more about John Gorka, please click on johngorka.com. For more about Amelia K. Spicer, please go to amiliakspicer.com. For information on upcoming performances at Toms River, NJ’s Grunin Center of the arts — including mandolinist Sierra Hull on Feb. 3, An Intimate Evening with Rickie Lee Jones on Mar. 22, Tom Chapin and the Chapin Sisters on Apr. 21, and Peter, Paul and Mary’s Peter Yarrow on May. 11 — please go to grunincenter.org.