Friend of Mine – The Bill Morrissey Tribute Concert – review
Friend of Mine – The Bill Morrissey Tribute Concert
Somerville Theatre, Somerville, MA November 17, 2011
The show was set to start at 7:00 pm , but at 6:45 the on stage video screen lit up with Bill’s infectious grin. The footage was of a performance at a small arts festival in Massachusetts from 1991 and included an interview with Acoustic Café host, Brad Paul. Bill was his usual witty self, joking that his then upcoming “new” album (“Inside” released in Jan. 1992) would be all polka songs. This video was the perfect opening to the evening that would follow, an outpouring of love & feelings of loss for one of our finest singer-songwriters.
Bill Morrissey passed away in a Georgia motel room on July 23rd, 2011. Almost immediately after learning of his death, his friends and fellow musicians began discussing how to not only mourn his death but more importantly, how best to celebrate his life and music. This November night was chosen because eight days later, November 25, would have been Bill’s 60th birthday.
A who’s who of the folk music scene was on hand to pay tribute to a man who was their friend, their touring companion, their mentor, and musical guru.
David Dye, longtime host of World Café on NPR, began the evening with a welcome to all and proceeded to introduce his co-host for the evening, Cliff Eberhardt. Cliff started out with one of the many “Morrissey” stories that would be shared with us throughout the evening. He told how Bill convinced him to move to Northampton, MA, where Morrissey was then living. Six months later, Bill moved away, but they knew there would always be a spare room for the other, wherever they later lived. Each artist this evening had agreed to perform one of Bill’s songs along with one of their own, which they would dedicate to Bill. Cliff gave a strong and heartfelt performance of “Handsome Molly”, the leadoff cut from Bill’s 1989 album, Standing Eight. Next was Cliff’s song “The Long Road” with John Gorka providing the duet part. This established a trend throughout the evening including Peter Keane playing guiter to accompany David Johansen, and Pete Nelson getting harmonica support from Cormac McCarthy and guitar licks from Mark Erelli. Later in the show, during his own two song set, Mark would provide one of the many highlights of the evening. Mark sang a wonderful song that he had written specifically for the evening, a song expressing the love and respect that he had for Bill while also acknowledging the flaws (ie: a passion for bourbon) that were also part of Bill’s personality. The song mentions a gig where he opened for Morrissey, and Bill told him to perform “Birches”, one of Bill’s best loved songs. This night, Erelli proceeded to blow us all away with an outstanding take on that song from Bill’s 1993 album, “Night Train”.
Other highlighted performances of Bill’s songs included Peter Case singing “Night Train” accompanied by his ringing 12-string guitar, and Peter Keane’s gentle version of “Barstow”. He was then joined by David Johansen on harmonica for Mississippi John Hurt’s “Louis Collins”, a song recorded by Bill for his Grammy nominated, “Songs of Mississippi John Hurt” (1999). Patty Larkin’s rich vocal & exquisite guitar work graced ”Love Song/New York 1982” another great song from Bill’s “Standing Eight” album. David Johansen, aka Buster Poindexter, former New York Doll, sang the title song from “Inside” and was joined by Peter Keane on guitar. Shawn Colvin topped off the second half of the show, with a great performance of “Texas Blues”, from Bill’s 1984 debut album, “Bill Morrissey”.
Family members were also on hand to participate in the celebration of Bill’s life. His second wife, Ellen Karas, was one of the organizers of the evening concert. She joined Cliff Eberhardt on stage to extend her thanks to everyone involved, and to announce that Bill’s papers / writings would be archived would be archive at the University of North Carolina. She also pointed out two of Bill’s guitars, sitting on the front corners of the stage, each one bathed in a soft spotlight. Bill Morrissey’s mother came out on stage after the brief intermission, to read a short eulogy for her son, but to also thank everyone for the love they were showing for him, by sharing their “Bill” stories and singing his songs.
Other close friends of Bill were able to attend and shared their memories. New England political satirist Barry Crimmins stated that “Morrissey revealed more in few lines than the average Russian writer could in 1,000 pages.” Bruce Pratt, a songwriter, poet, and University of Maine professor, read two very funny entries written by Bill in the guest book at Bruce’s fishing camp in Maine. He then read his poem , Ashes In The Eyes of The Trout, which was a favorite of Bill’s. Fred Koller told of how Bill spent the few days before he passed away, visiting with Fred in Nashville.
If given a chance, I believe most, if not all, of the evening’s participants would have made a pilgrimage on hands and knees to the top of the highest peak to once again be able to gather and hear the wit & wisdom of Bill Morrissey. As a finale, they all joined on stage the sing one of his songs. Ellen had asked Cliff to pick something up tempo, nothing too dreary. Cliff replied that left them with one choice. So the evening concluded with the group, armed with two mandolins, a banjo, a couple harmonicas, and several guitars, together singing “Long Gone”, a standout cut from Bill’s album “Inside.”
It was a fitting end to an evening that reminded all in attendance what a phenomenal talent we had lost, and how lucky are to have his music to remember him. This tribute concert raised $12,000 for MusiCares, an organization that provides a safety net of critical assistance for music people in times of need.
- Cliff Eberhardt – Handsome Molly
- Pete Nelson – These Cold Fingers
- Peter Case – Night Train
- Anais Mitchell – Harry’s Last Call
- Peter Keane – Barstow
- John Gorka – She’s That Kind Of Mystery
- Patty Larkin – Love Song / New York 1982
- Fred Koller –
- David Johansen – Inside
- Mark Erelli – Birches
- Cormac McCarthy – Small Town On The River
- Shawn Colvin – Texas Blues
- Ensemble – Long Gone