Sunday, November 18, 2019
Johnson Hall, Gardiner, Maine
I’ve been a Shawn Mullins fan since the mid-90s. I got through a sophomore slump in college with help from his 1998 album, Soul’s Core, and it was one of the few albums I took with me to my study abroad program in Namibia in 1999. I listened to it when I was homesick. To say that album has been there for me is really an understatement. 98.9 WCLZ briefly did a thing where they’d play listeners’ “Desert Island Discs” from start to finish at noon with snippets of an interview with the nominator. Obviously, my desert island disc was Soul’s Core. I finally got to tell Shawn how much his music means to me at a show at The Strand in Rockland back in 2011. I almost never stay after a show to meet musicians. I took a gamble that night, though, and he was so kind.
I had the pleasure of seeing Shawn again at One Longfellow Square in 2013. Shawn shared the stage with Chuck Cannon and Tom Ryan that night, and they were lovely and had such a positive vibe. I’m not sure Shawn’s been back to Maine since, though. I saw that Shawn was crowdfunding to record a 20th anniversary release of Soul’s Core, so I promptly sent $150 to show support that also put my name in the liner notes and came with an autographed copy of the final product. It came in the mail a few days after this show, actually, and I’ve loved listening to Soul’s Core Revival. I’ve only heard the acoustic disc so far, but was thrilled to learn (and this is my favorite thing) that it includes Shawn talking about what inspired each of the songs on the album. That’s honestly my dream as a listener, so I’m extra happy!
Late in the summer I noticed that Shawn was touring in Maine, and I just happen to be on the Board of Directors of Johnson Hall Performing Arts Center in Gardiner, Maine, so I asked our amazing executive director if he might be able to book Shawn while he was in the area. I was overjoyed that he could and that Shawn came to teeny Gardiner, Maine for an intimate night of storytelling and song. The crowd was obviously thrilled and there was a lot of love and admiration in the room that night. I had a chance to catch up with Tom about the album and the tour before the show, and it was great to see him again, too.
Johnson Hall executive director Mike Miclon welcomed Shawn to the stage and left him a dollar because “Lullaby” was the first song he ever downloaded on Napster. Shawn made his way to the stage with Tom and Radoslav Lorkovic! I’ve seen Rad a ton of times touring with Ellis Paul over the years. He played piano and accordion on the anniversary release of Soul’s Core, too, and it’s always a pleasure to see him live.
I was thrilled to hear songs that have meant so much to me for so long in person again. Shawn’s voice is a stunning and beautiful bass with rasp and character. He played a few songs from Soul’s Core–but also covered “The L & N Don’t Stop Here Anymore” and “House of the Rising Sun,” which he recorded in 2006 on 9th Ward Pickin Parlor.
The audience was particularly pumped for “Light You Up” and clapped along poorly, but with such enthusiasm that I wasn’t annoyed that they were so offbeat. Shawn told us about recording his My Stupid Heart album at Chuck and Lari Cannon’s home studio. He had a dream that Bing Crosby was singing the title song and doing a wonderful job with it while Shawn was on the film crew making a video. He woke up a lot more confident about the song.
Shawn introduced a friend of his from high school who came to the stage to interpret “Shimmer” in American Sign Language. I was surprised to hear the story Shawn told on Soul’s Core Revival about the events that inspired “Shimmer,” by the way, but I won’t ruin it for you.
I’ve got to say that “Lullaby” is even better in person. Shawn talked about how grateful he is for the song, although he doesn’t understand why this particular song (written just like any other, he said) went “worldwide big.” He told us that a local DJ in Atlanta liked the song, believed in it, and played it a lot and it just got picked up by other stations. After 9 years of being on his own, he had his pick of record label and management. As he glanced around the room he joked that “one song can change things for you–and also not–as you can see by the stadium we’re sitting in.” “Lullaby” came out of a poem Shawn wrote while in Los Angeles. He’d played a show at a tiny venue in LA that he finally sold out on his third show there–even though “it was free to get in and only 25 people could fit in the room.” The song was such a hit that it landed Shawn a record deal, on MTV, and touring with the Backstreet Boys, which Shawn said was completely out of his element.
A devout and very appreciative audience asked for an encore, and Shawn, Tom, and Rad played one last song from Soul’s Core–his cover of “Sunday Morning Coming Down.” I was so happy to be in the room for this lovely show. What a treat for Gardiner to have talent of this caliber come to town. I hope they’ll come back in a couple of years when Johnson Hall’s upstairs 400-seat theater is renovated!
I chatted briefly with Rad after the show and told him I’ll see him in a few weeks at One Longfellow Square for my 50th Ellis Paul show! I love a milestone!