Friday, June 29, 2019
One Longfellow Square, Portland, Maine
This was a perfect day–a sunny day with a friend at Popham Beach, goat yoga (exactly what it sounds like) at Sunflower Farm in torrential rain that cleared and offered a rainbow, and then a lovely, warm album release show with tons of friends in the crowd to support our dear friend, Max Garcia Conover.
I’ve written enthusiastically about Max’s shows easily a dozen times now, but he keeps getting better and I like him more and more live. My Bowdoin College classmate and dear friend, Ken Templeton, interviewed Max ahead of this Stagger albumrelease show, and you should read it to learn a ton of context and dig into Max’s songwriting process. My good pal Aimsel Ponti is also a Max fan, and she interviewed him and talks a bit more about the songs on Stagger.
Max introduced his friend, Ahmad Kafari, to the stage to open the show. Max told us that he met Kafari when he was a prospective student visiting Bowdoin College. After dinner, he sat down at a piano outside the dining hall and played some of the most beautiful sounds Max said he’d ever heard. It drew a crowd. Kafari plays piano, rhythm bones, and mixes. His music is soothing and soulful and layered. He is humble and sweet. As a good teacher does, Kafari explained the surprising origins of rhythm bones to us (they came from Ireland and ended up in minstrel shows) and asked someone in the audience to hand out a bunch to the crowd so folks could learn to play them. Kafari played for about half an hour and then welcomed Max to the stage.
Max is a quiet and introspective guy. I listened to him sing a few songs and answer some questions on 98.9 WCLZ the day before the show, and I was struck by how very humble he is. Max had just gotten home from a month-long tour of Spain, Poland, Switzerland, and Sweden, and he seemed glad to be playing in Portland to a room full of his closest friends and supporters. He said, “there are lots of people here who are very close to me and who I admire and feel so much for. It’s just on the edge of overwhelming and too good.” Max played more than the eleven songs on Stagger, including a favorite older song of his called “The Wedding Line.” To introduce the song, he told us that when his dad got remarried about ten years ago, Max remembered seeing his dad standing at the altar in a vulnerable, hopeful way.
Max grew up in a religious town in western New York, and used to go to church because everyone else did, too. After he stopped going, he went for nature walks on Sundays with his awesome mom (Hi, Vivian!) and they’d read and recite poetry together. Max said, “I thought we were praying, which says a lot about how I got here.” About his next song, “Holy Rider Pt. 4,” Max said, “this is the fourth time I’ve written this song about a preacher.” A lyric that sticks out to me is “The last thing I want / is to burn something down / The last thing I want is to ruin this song / To make anyone feel like they’re / hearing it wrong.” One of the things that Ken talked to Max about is how many times Max comes back to songs and changes them. On Stagger, 3 of 11 songs are titled as PT. 2, one is PT. 4, and one is PT. 1. Songwriting for Max is a never ending process, for sure.
Max is also writing songs about what’s going on in our world today–the good, the bad, and the ugly. He talked about the for profit prison system in Louisiana, which had the world largest prison population per capita. He talked about the crazy laws there designed to keep people in jail. For example, the second time you steal a car in Louisiana, you have to go to jail for 24 years. He wrote a song about the guy who profits from the system–he “probably has a house and wife and kids and this is a song about that guy.”
“Gone” is a song from Max’s 2017 release, Motorhome. Maybe five years after quitting church, Max started going back to because “this girl I liked was going there and one day we both admitted to each other that we didn’t like church at all.” They snuck away from church during the 4th of July fireworks, got on a bus, and took off to Canada together.
Max encouraged us to ask questions throughout the night, and someone asked about “Funeral Guests,” which is a stunning song. The lyrics are heart-wrenching:
I asked him not to tell everyone else
Alright he said
But they all like you
so much more than you like yourself
When he died
his mother called
to talk to me about his funeral guests
She said she wanted
to get to know me
to understand what I was to him
I said I don’t know myself
but I think he did
Someone asked if it was autobiographical, I think, but it’s not. Max said he was leaving a show in Burlington, Vermont headed for Cleveland, and he was listening to A Little Life and crying in the car a lot, so he didn’t notice that Google maps had adjusted his route to save him 5 minutes by sending him along the Trans-Canada Highway until he found himself sitting at the border without a passport. He finagled his way onward, but pulled over to write that song so he could spend a bit more time with the character in the book.
To introduce “New Sweden,” Max joked that “people in Sweden don’t love the idea of New Sweden.” That song is heavy, and it’s evolved over the years to its current incarnation. Afterwards, Max introduced us to his band–his mom’s suitcase from when she was in college and one of her suitcases from when she was in her twenties. Max introduced “Rich Man” by saying it feels like the first song he’s written that’s completely in his voice. Spencer Albee produced the song and wrote about “Rich Man” on his Facebook page ahead of the show:
“This song is intimate, honest and vulnerable. To my ears, ‘protest’ songs are usually heavy handed, or they are pandering to a particular audience, but this one is different. What I hear in this song, and what I relate to most, is that this is the voice of a person in the world who is trying to make sense of all the crazy shit going on around them.
It strikes a chord.
That’s why I really wanted to help bring it to life. Max is a tremendous guy. ‘Rich Man’ is a tremendous song.”
I agree wholeheartedly with Spencer, and I hope you’ll give “Rich Man” a listen. Max also played it on 207 the week before this show. I am so glad that Max is getting the attention we know he deserves, though I doubt he thinks he deserves any attention at all.
Max told us the backstory of the “Crow Song.” His record label, Son Canciones, invites two musicians from their label to meet on a working farm in Barcelona and spend a week together to write and record an album. Max said, “it sounded wonderful and romantic, but I got there and it was the worst.” He said it was beautiful on the farm–he watched horses galloping by–but he couldn’t think of any songs at all. He searched for inspiration inside the very old farmhouse, and eventually found a dark room and sat down to strum a few chords when a crow randomly stepped out of the fireplace, got upset that Max was there and tried to escape, but just kept hitting the walls again and again, missing the small exit, until he died. We tried not to laugh when Max told us that the poor crow inspired the first he wrote that week. Max is decidedly an introvert, so when he asked us to sing along with “Crow Song,” he readily admitted he probably wouldn’t if he were in the crowd. Our friend Ken has a booming voice, and without naming him, I knew why Max knew it would work on this particular night to ask us to sing. We closed Max’s set together while he unplugged and came to the front of the stage with the hopeful lines “I’ll be home where I go / I’ll be home wherever I go / I’ll be home where I go / Someday.”
We cheered for an encore, so Max played “Grand Marquis” for us. The main character of the song is a 1986 Grand Marquis that Max found on Craigslist when his van died. Max chuckled as he told us that it “wasn’t listed as a car–it was listed as a one bedroom apartment. I called the guy and we talked about it over the phone and after a long time, he told me it didn’t have an engine. So I didn’t get it, and wrote a song about it instead.”
This was a spectacular night. Max has hit his stride with banter even though it pains him some and he made us laugh a lot, despite how serious and heavy many of his songs are. I grabbed a physical copy of Stagger that night, but I suspect they’re all gone by now. The only place where you can find it for now is here, and I really encourage you to listen. I am not at all exaggerating when I say that I have listened to it probably 20 times straight through on repeat in the couple of weeks since the show. It is by far my favorite MGC album.
I can’t pick a favorite song on Stagger, but a handful of lines that I haven’t mentioned above really do stick out to me at every listen. In “We’ll Be Friends,” I love the notion that“this is bravery / this is the romance of the century / this is music right in front of me.” Also, in “The End of Fables,” the image that “the shepherd shot the sheep / Fell to his knees and he cried / They looked like wolves to me” is particularly heartbreaking. Stagger is incredibly well-written and Max’s songs are more melodic than I’m used to in a way that I find intriguing.
This post is so long, but it was a night worthy of a thorough recap. I do that for the musicians I really love. Max is surely one of them.