Friday, September 12, 2014
Mayo Street Arts, Portland, Maine
Max Garcia Conover is a name that’s popped up on whatbreesees more than most. Max is a helluva guy—humble, talented, soft-spoken, introspective. If you haven’t seen Max live, it feels a lot like being serenaded in your own living room—intimate and warm. There’s not much more I can say about Max that I haven’t in countless posts about him and his live show, and this night was similarly wonderful but also somewhat bittersweet. Max, Sophie, and their dog Arlo are off in their RV on a three-month family tour of the US to promote their new album, ellery, and this was their sendoff. The gang was all assembled for a final hoorah before saying goodbye for a while to a couple of our favorite people.
I got to Mayo Street Arts early after a great Friday afternoon happy hour with dear colleagues in Freeport just in time to snuggle Arlo and keep Sophie company in the RV while she got ready for the show. She introduced me to the now famous Ben Cosgrove, who not only arranged and produced ellery, but also played too many instruments on it to count. Max has been singing the praises of Ben for a long while now, so it was great to meet him and also to hear him play in person.
Mayo Street Arts filled in just as the show started, and the kind folks who work there had to fetch more and more seating from the back room to seat everyone, including a bunch of Max’s students from Breakwater School. Max opened the show by thanking us all for coming out and introducing Ben Cosgrove, who sat in for the entire show and wowed the crowd with his instrumental prowess. They opened with “Teem,” and Max told us that Ben really made that song happen—a difficult, instrumental piece that opens Max’s 2013 album, Burrow. Ben liked “Teem” and so learned it just by listening to it on his drive to Maine and then played it from memory at a show he and Max played together in Portland. Take a listen. You’ll start to understand how truly gifted Ben is.
Max is from Ellery, New York, and he told us that the album is about the idea of home and trying to belong somewhere. He called his new wife (!) Sophie Nelson onstage to sing “Amapolas, Part One” together. Max said this song (which means ‘poppies’ in Spanish) is meant to continue on in future albums. Sophie’s airy vocals are a nice juxtaposition to Max’s grittier sound. Ben accompanied them not only on piano but also on the flugelhorn at the same time.
Ben played a couple of songs solo. He said that his instrumental music is inspired by landscape and played two impressive piano pieces—“Montreal Song” and “Abilene.” I just drove cross country last month, and so I appreciated Ben’s introductory words about how disorienting it is to drive through Kansas. Max joined Ben onstage and read lyrics for one more of Ben’s songs—“The Contoured Shape of the Ground”—which I think Ben said he’d never played live before. They played “The Songs” from ellery before the break, which is a song about writing songs. I particularly like the driving tempo in the song and the lyric “they don’t want truth/just tell better lies.”
Max called us back together after intermission and played “I Won’t Mess You Up”—a song he said is about getting married. He told us that growing up in Ellery he didn’t really know what a singer songwriter was, except he read about a guy who toured New York in a canoe with his ukulele. And then he pointed to Chris, the very sweet guy I’d been sitting with, and welcomed him to the stage! Chris Bell didn’t have his ukulele with him, but played a couple of bold, looping songs with his electric cello and a serious array of foot pedals instead.
Max told a story about driving home to upstate New York with Sophie and Arlo when their car died with an hour to go in the middle of the night. Sophie fell asleep in the tow truck and soon, so did the driver. Max, feeling a need to protect his new wife, had to break out of his shell to engage the driver in conversation to keep him awake. He didn’t know where to start, so he just asked him about the gigantic crack down the middle of the windshield. It worked. Max invited Sammie Francis-Taylor to the stage to play shaker on “Say That You Know Me,” which is partially about having to connect with people even when you don’t know how or even really want to.
I was really excited when Max started to introduce “Wildfires Outside Laramie, WY.” It’s one of those songs that cuts right to the heart of the matter and is one of my favorites of all of Max’s songs. He said it’s about when you can’t find common ground. He also told us that he just booked a gig in Laramie, and I’ll be interested to hear how playing that song there goes. It’s a heavy one.
Max, Sophie, and Ben left the stage and said goodnight, but we weren’t ready for the night to end. They came back and played another favorite, the very lovely “You’re the Farthest I Go” and went right into “Evelyn O.” to end their encore. I loved watching Sophie and Max looking at each other with sideways glances and knowing smiles during the songs they sang together. It is really sweet, how those two are together. It was a real treat to be there for this sendoff show. We didn’t get in our traditional Mayo Street sing along! I’ve gotten used to belting out the chorus on “The Start of Fables,” but Max wanted to be sure he built in some time for us all to hang out after the show since they’re off on tour for so long. Miss you guys already. Thanks for a great night!