Folksinger Rod MacDonald Will Never Forget Rocking Out with Ray Charles and The Stones
Rod MacDonald says the first concert he attended – Ray Charles & His Orchestra at The Bushnell in Hartford, Connecticut, in 1963 – was the best one he has seen. “I suppose the ones that really open your eyes leave the most lasting impression,” says the singer-songwriter who grew up in nearby Plantsville: “a small town with no live music.”
MacDonald was “a huge fan who used to sing all Ray Charles’ songs” when his family was out of the house. “He was incredible, played almost all my favorite songs, sang with such soul. And the orchestra swung like crazy. It was even better than the recordings – all live and in the moment.”
MacDonald made his mark live as part of a 1980s folk revival in Greenwich Village clubs. With Jack Hardy, Christine Lavin, David Massengill, and others, MacDonald walked in the footsteps of Pete Seeger and created a folk rebirth in a New York City music scene dominated by punk, new wave and the CBGB scene. He had chosen to become a folk singer after graduating from Columbia Law School.
His first album, 1983’s No Commercial Traffic, was filled with insightful lyrics and well-constructed melodies. It included probably his most-known song, “American Jerusalem,” which looked at the disparity between the wealthy and the poor in Manhattan.
“I wrote the song when I finally got an apartment lease in my own name in the Village.” MacDonald recalls. “I was thinking how New York seemed the place where one had to go to speak to the world. I can really only tell you why I wrote it. It’s a description of how I felt about the things I observed. What it’s about is a different question – something for the listener to answer.”
In ensuing years, MacDonald may not have received as much publicity as he did during the Greenwich Village folk rebirth, but he has continued to churn out well-crafted albums – too often under the radar, including last year’s Later That Night. (They are available at www.rodmacdonald.net.)
He says he and co-producer Mark Dann are always trying to expand their horizons. “Recording my songs is our canvas,” MacDonald says. “We wanted the acoustic guitar front and center with contemporary rhythms, so the melodies would have real drive. Lyrically, I wanted to address some personal topics, such as the long-lasting love in ‘To My Dearest One,’ and the profiteering from violence that’s left my country drowning in wars and gun worship.”
Besides his own albums, MacDonald has recorded three albums with a Dylan tribute band, Big Brass Bed. Each year, he performs at The Bob Dylan Tribute Festival at the Warwick Valley Winery & Distillery in Warwick, N.Y. It’s a lively three-day festival at a beautiful vineyard, and Rod brought the house down there two years ago with his cover of Dylan’s “Hurricane” and other Dylan classics.
“I’ve never met Bob Dylan, though I was at Folk City the night he launched the Rolling Thunder Revue, and we have some mutual friends and musicians,” MacDonald says, referring no doubt to drummer Howie Wyeth, who played drums on Dylan’s Desire and was part of the Rolling Thunder Revue. “I love [Dylan’s] songs. When I was first learning guitar, he and several others were exploring a full range of experiences – not just love’s one-liners – and that gave me something to aspire to as a writer.
“Since then, I admire how he deals with interviews, how he says what he wants to say and keeps his independence. And, like Paul Simon, Sting, Leonard Cohen and a few others, it’s fantastic that he has continued writing great stuff through the years.”
MacDonald says Seeger was “a more direct mentor” to him than Dylan. Seeger “embodied living your ideals through your music and the way you live your life.”
“I sang with him numerous times,” he continues. “He commented on some of my songs – both pro and con – and helped me write The Death of Victor Jara. Pete was a great musician, and playing with him was terrific. He lifted everything up.
“I read once that the painter Henri Matisse said something like ‘you study all the people who inspire you, and then one day you step beyond that and begin to discover your own work.’ I stopped trying to write or sound like anyone else pretty early on, and, ever since, have written and recorded all my songs following my own senses. I’m into playing the guitar, singing well and creating good artistic work. That’s my goal – everything else is a result of that quest.”
Speaking of artists who studied those that inspired them before following their own muse to rock superstardom, MacDonald remembers another particularly memorable concert he saw. At the New Haven Arena in 1965, he saw the Rolling Stones, who adored America’s blues masters and took their name from a Muddy Waters song.
Tickets for that show at the old hockey arena, which a few years later would gain notoriety as the place where The Doors’ Jim Morrison was arrested during a performance, sold for $2.50-$5.
“I was already a big fan,” MacDonald recalls. “Every time they started a song, everyone would jump up and start dancing. The cops would turn on the lights, and Jagger would sing ‘sit down, children.’ Then they’d start another song, and the place would go nuts.”
Though MacDonald says the Stones and Ray Charles shows were the best concerts he’s ever attended, he was most influenced by a show of Richie Havens in a small coffeehouse (that he can’t remember the name of) in Provincetown, Massachusetts, in the summer of 1967.
“We were the only people in the place, seated on wooden picnic tables in an outdoor, fenced-in venue. Richie played and sang like he was possessed, paying no attention to the fact there was virtually nobody there.
“Richie was pure, like jazz or symphonic music for guitar and voice, without being entertaining or awaiting a response. It transported me, and I went on a journey with him. Ever since, I aim for that inner music that’s beyond the thinking part of a performance. I want to take the audience on that journey with me.”
MacDonald also was taken by some of Bruce Springsteen’s earliest shows in the early 1970s at Max’s Kansas City in New York City.
“As it was for a lot of people, seeing Bruce Springsteen was a revelation,” MacDonald recalls. “He wasn’t famous yet. A friend was the sound man and got me in free. I went to every show that week – 14 in all. Incredible. He had great, epic songs – real rock and roll with extended symphonic-electric jams. Bruce was so in tune with the crowd. After that, everyone I knew wanted to play that way, but very few could pull it off.”