The three Irish tenors who sang on Thursday at WAMC weren’t THOSE guys, the tuxedoed classical guys. They were the duo Guggenheim Grotto and the solo troubadour Tiger Cooke. But, wow, could they sing — and they could also write. Both acts danced across the divide between folk and pop, the Guggenheim Grotto guys sounding like Simon & Garfunkel, more or less, or the Amazing Blondel from the heyday of maximum hybridization in Britain around S&G’s peak; and Cooke showing off equal hootenanny-to-jukebox versatility.
Opener “Tiger” Cooke said he was born Tadhg, and explained he’s undergoing a name change, but his musical identity was clearer: a mashup of Joni Mitchell obliqueness and odd tunings, Kenny Rankin/Michael Franks breathy jazz; and jaunty John Mayer pop. He sang superbly crafted songs of hook-ups, break-ups and make-ups — all sweetly but with real strength, too. A Dubliner like the Guggenheim Grotto guys, he sang without accent in an international style likely to work well wherever well-wrought tunes would be welcomed.
In “Know You Hate Me,” he claimed, “I’m not lost without you,” but he was. He introduced “Like a Stone” as heavily influenced by Joni Mitchell, but this applied, in a good way, to much of what he sang on Thursday. In his last song, “Rid of Her,” he pleaded, “I want a weapon that will cleanse my soul,” and in songs of loss he was exactly that — a broken blade, but still sharp.
Guggenheim Grotto — singer/guitarist (mostly) Mick Lynch and singer/keyboardist/guitarist Kevin May — respected Cooke’s echoing power and seemed anxious to take over, driving hard with “Wonderful Wizard.” Lynch laid down a throbbing bassline via pedals, but they also sang intricate, precise harmonies. In “Philosophia,” May sang nonsense syllables that sounded like learned discourse, a strategy repeated later in “Fee Da Da Dee” which May explained were place-holder syllables Lynch used for a song under construction and that they retained.
May played left-handed guitar in his solemn, sad “Heaven Has a Heart of Stone,” but Lynch’s harmony both anchored and launched it. Searching for a rhyme for “weasel,” May explained, he wound up with “Spiegel,” German for “mirror,” winding up with a German verse in an otherwise very Irish song.
Leonard Cohen is to Lynch what Joni Mitchell is to Cooke: primary inspiration to be emulated or echoed. In “Nikita,” the debt was clear and other songs evoked Cohen’s poeticism without the clutter that some imitators fall into.
In other words, their writing was as pitch-perfect as their singing — and their singing was astounding.
Their pacing made solid sense, too, saving their big, wave-form hit “Told You So” for a plum spot at the end between the sad/beautiful “Lost Forever” and the sexy “Her Beautiful Ideas.” Then came the slow, soft, grim “Cold Truth” as encore.
Like the great folk-pop acts of the 1960s, both acts could attain major, mainstream star status. Both were that good on Thursday.
Reach Michael Hochanadel at [email protected]