Even when Mark Eitzel pulled the mic far from his face, his voice filled WAMC’s Performing Arts Studio on Wednesday. His performing power far exceeded his star power, so the audience was sparse. But they were impassioned — willing passengers aboard his pub-crawl express through netherworlds of despair that he transmuted to acceptance, desperation that became an oddly compelling sort of Zen state in his songs.
We’re talking major cult figure here: an exceptional, in fact wonderful, artist, but one of exceedingly stubborn and spiky individuality. In straw fedora, WAMC bumper sticker on his wrinkled blue shirt — he later repositioned it over the fly of his equally wrinkled gray pants on being told it was unzipped — he looked conventionally hip enough, but he surprised, right from the start: “I Left My Heart In San Francisco.” This was no low-rent lounge-lizard lampooning, though it boasted some of the barfly bravado that erupted behind most of the choruses he built to bold belting throughout the 75-minute show. He sang it with great command and real affection for the hometown whose denizens richly populate his songs with strippers, drag queens, the addicted and the alienated, the survivors and celebrators of love, and those whose unhappiness is unmasked, inconveniently, at Christmas.
Eitzel’s songs are hard to sing, full of forced phrasing to get all the words in and bristling with odd intervals and inversions, yet he rendered them with a graceful naturalness. Some of them are hard to hear. “The Windows of the World” and “Patriot’s Heart” may be the most painful 9/11 songs possible; “Night Watchman” described a months-long deathwatch with a friend; “The Thorn In My Side Is Gone” mixed agony with ambivalence; and “I Live in This Place” (from an unproduced musical) at first felt like a postcard to somewhere but wound up protesting entrapment there.
Yet he mourned with a melodic beauty that exorcised the misery. It hurt so good. The guy’s voice was a marvel, the casualness of his hipster presentation a bit deceptive, distracting from the precision — sometimes pumped, sometimes peaceful — that he brought to each phrase.
Dark humor edged into many songs. Like an uninvited guest invading a swanky party it spiced things up, making you cringe, then laugh. He put a gay spin on Billy Paul’s “Me and Mrs. Jones,” dramatically crooning it to “Mr. Jones” and dropping to his knees mock-imploringly. He sang the Goffin-King classic “No Easy Way Down” fairly straight, but in Kris Kristofferson’s “For the Good Times,” Eitzel’s joking burst through the song’s solemnity. Struck by the Marc Capelle’s delicate piano accompaniment, Eitzel pronounced it “tinkly” in admiration. Capelle kept Eitzel grounded, more or less, providing accompaniment so expert that he and Eitzel’s voice were all the songs needed. The encore of “Johnny Mathis’ Feet” perfectly paired hubris with self-effacement in a mock-dialog in which Mathis offers Eitzel bizarre show-biz wisdom and Eitzel’s responses are even stranger.
Ultimately, Eitzel was more compellingly musical than disruptively strange, but he danced across the line nimbly and in both directions on Wednesday: a one of a kind artist with a one of a kind talent.