Tonight, I filtered into a packed Olsson’s in Dupont Circle to hear Pete Yorn play an in-store acoustic set. I was a little late getting in, and by the time I did, people were flowing right up to the front doors, squeezed in along book aisles, backed up along sight lines.
I put down an Orwell biography to find Pete, hair long and unkempt, shuffling up on to the small elevated stage Olsson’s uses for such events. He wore a faded black tee and a small, closed smile. After many unsuccessful occasions, it was nice to finally see the man behind one of my favorite records of my college years perform.
What struck me most about the show is how intimate and willing to open himself to strangers Pete was, given the circumstances. It was as if he opened up a big ole can of truth and love for us, or something similarly wonderful and rare in this town. He started with “Just Another Girl,” a beautiful ballad from his first album which he later explained to be about the down-to-earth character of a famous friend, rather than a brush-off towards a former flame. He followed this with an unreleased track which, compared to Pete’s quality oeuvre, struck me as unremarkable, but with that slightly off-tune signature croon and the sort of breaking lines and Dylan aches that in a lesser vocalist comes off merely as overly affected, Yorn struck nuggety gold.
Following a rollicking blues cover, he played “Bandstand in the Sky,” which he explained was written following his hearing of Jeff Buckley’s passing. Now there are many, many songs inspired by this influential artist—the album version of “Fake Plastic Trees” came following a Jeff concert in London, Rufus Wainwright, Jamie Cullem, Chris Stills, and so on have covered or written elegies to him—but Pete’s must be up there as one of the most poignant.
The second verse reveals Jeff as the song’s protagonist: “So come with me to a river I have seen/On the way, we can wash off in the stream/Time is waiting for the lightning to arrive/You can take my life but I’ll never die/You can tell that’s the way I’ll survive,” Pete croons, before launching into a full-bodied harmonica middle eight. I closed my eyes, partially to block out the buffoon browsing books during the performance, but mostly to imagine Jeff tuning in from wherever he happens to be these days. A few days ago, I had re-watched the ‘Making of Grace’ documentary, and that tousle-haired, chanteuse-lipped muse I can picture so clearly swam into vision once more. It was a gorgeous performance, and the crowd seemed suitably gracious.
By the fifth song, Pete was asking the crowd for ‘fun songs to play.’ Instinctively, I called out “Strange,” and following a quieter voice closer to the front calling for the same tune, he selected our joint request. “Strange Condition” is by far my favorite Pete Yorn song: a masterful combination of tunefulness and catchy narrative, it is one of the better pop songs of recent memory, beautifully constructed and simply bursting with musical ideas and economical pieces. He didn’t disappoint, though his calls for the crowd to sing along were met—this being after-work Washington—with little response.
I couldn’t have been more pleased. A Jeff elegy and the one song I’d hoped to hear…what could he possibly play now to top it all? Referring to the 1969 March on Washington and the Peter, Paul and Mary show which it included, Yorn quizzed: “They played ‘If I Had a Hammer’ and this song…” The first thing that jumped to mind, alas, was “Puff the Magic Dragon.” But no, this was a protest song, and “no matter what side you stand on,” the crowd was completely struck when Pete leapt into his gut-wrenching, drawn out version of “Blowing in the Wind.” I closed my eyes once more, and recalled those pure, unadulterated feelings of activist idealism that flowed through my friends and I during protest after protest prior to the invasion of Iraq, some four years ago.
Later, as Pete signed my album and after I’d finally discovered how he came to write the perfect key modulation in “Strange Condition,” I told him how much his version of “Blowing in the Wind” meant to me.
“ I took a look at the lyrics, and I just couldn’t believe how true they are today,” he explained, with an earthy candor that I found particularly rewarding. “Particularly in the last couple of weeks.”
I thought of a particular line from the song:
“How many deaths will it take, ‘till he knows that too many people have died?”
And this, with a President who continues to play “Point the finger” from his vacation home, with thousands more troops entering Iraq, and an entire Middle East descending into tenuous chaos.
How right Bob and Pete are. Both then and now. Which leads me to ask: Where are our Dylans and Baezes now, in this hour of need? Who will stand up as our generation’s Peter, Paul, and Mary?