February 20-26, 2003
Eric Schwartz can turn them on and off.
At the Northeast Regional Folk Alliance Conference in the Catskills this past November, one of the muckety-mucks from the Philly Folk Festival was grabbing people and stage-whispering, "Get in there! This guy has written a song about Ira Einhorn!" Legendary imp Eric Schwartz's late-night showcase was already in progress, an acoustic show by candlelight since an ice storm had knocked out the lights (and heat) just before showtime. Among lovers of topical songs, his "Who Da Bitch Now?" with its special Einhorn verse -- and that intimate show -- helped grow the legend.
Schwartz is a cute and mellow-voiced master of many musics beyond the expected three-chord singer/songer fare. Think of somebody who at age 33 is too young to recall Tom Lehrer at his topical prime, but who is clearly heir to that type of highly intelligent musical razzing. Schwartz has a background in musical theater and a challenging intellect. His songs question authority and correctness, occasionally sliding out of the comfort zone for some of the audience, but he does so without malice.
Beloved by many hell-raising folkies, "Who Da Bitch Now?" starts out disarmingly like a bit of piano-based lounge fluff. But content contrasts delightfully with the melody when Schwartz asks the titular question of convicted bullies and batterers. Be you a brutalizing cop in New York, a gang of gay bashers, the punk from East Texas who dragged the hitchhiker to a horrible death or Ira Einhorn, yes, poetic unofficial justice awaits you.
"Bitch" is the first song on Schwartz's Pleading the First: Songs My Mother Hates. The collection brings the spirit of '70s Midwestern folkie Steve Goodman back to life. "Trust Fund Blues" falls into that guitar-based humor school, as does "I Swear She Said She Was 18."
Prepared to give this show a miss, thinking Schwartz has nothing to offer besides humor and politics that might not fit with yours? Big mistake. He has a crooner's pipes when he chooses to use them that way and his newest recording, Sunday Blue, lets his romantic side creep out of the closet on original heart songs.
In a chat at the national Folk Alliance Conference in Nashville, Schwartz mused, "You almost feel guilty writing and singing these songs." The sweetness is too easy, no matter how sincere. And it's almost indulgent how well these songs show off his lovely voice.
"The writer in me wants the theatrical stuff. The performer is insecure enough to find it hard to perform a beautiful melody with surface lyrics." Arresting renderings of Juan Luis Guerra's "Bachata Rosa" or Jacques Brel's "Chanson des Vieux Amants" are both part of his repertoire. Schwartz allows that you can't always be hysterically funny, yet he feels slightly like he is not living up to his promise of intelligent songs and surprising settings. "I always find irony attractive, it adds depth." Old torch songs lack that twist, but do carry away the romantics in the audience with Schwartz's heartfelt delivery.
Selling the songs comes from Schwartz's background in acting. While doing his undergrad work at Tufts, he realized theater was enthralling him in a way that biology was not. So he made the switch. A tour as the romantic lead in a bilingual version of The Barber of Seville left him lots of time to reflect on what his next move should be. The answer was, "I don't want to be the victim of casting anymore."
"Today," he says, "my casting is always perfect, because I write my own show." Does this mean that there's a script? Far from it: "Every show is a preparation for the next show, and a culmination of the last." Meaning the Eric Schwartz revue is in constant tryouts, in flux and being rewritten. No two are even remotely alike, but sure to be full of good -- and shocking, to some -- fun and great music.
Eric Schwartz performs Sun., Feb. 23, 7:30 p.m., $12-$15, with Full Frontal Folk, Cherry Tree Music Co-op, 3916 Locust Walk, 215-386-1640.