Same time, this year

John McCutcheon returns to captivate the Big Room

Singer/storyteller John McCutcheon fills the spotlight at the Big Room.

Singer/storyteller John McCutcheon fills the spotlight at the Big Room.

Photo By matt siracusa

It was a full house packed into the Big Room on a rainy Tuesday night for the first concert of 2010 at the Sierra Nevada Brewing Co..

Emcee Bob Littell greeted the crowd with a cheery “Happy New Year!” before pointing out that the night’s musical guest, Big Room favorite son John McCutcheon, has been booked to play at the Big Room every January since the year 2000, except for last year, when Littell was going to be out of town and would have missed the show.

As it was, McCutcheon—an Americana gem of a folk singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist, and storyteller extraordinaire—was back to grace the eager audience with two hours of seamless, captivating performance.

McCutcheon opened the night with a song he introduced as “one of the very first songs I ever learned to play on banjo,” a touching song called “Little Birdie.” McCutcheon’s facility on the banjo was obvious, but his playing never hogged the limelight. He wove in little stories about singing the song at christenings and funerals; about how he learned to play the banjo from Appalachian miner, musician and farmer Roscoe Holcomb; and about a woman he met at the Country Boy Restaurant in Elk River, Minn.

Switching to guitar, McCutcheon launched into “Calling All the Children Home,” another touching song inspired by hearing his mother calling her nine children in for dinner each night.

Often, throughout the night, McCutcheon’s delivery of both lyrics and spoken words reminded me of Minnesota Public Radio star Garrison Keillor—in tone, articulation and thoughtfulness. Turns out that Keillor, as McCutcheon mentioned at one point, was a deejay at the same college McCutcheon attended in Minnesota before he decided to quit school and hitchhike south across the Mason-Dixon Line to Daisy, Ky., where he reveled in the joys of Southern cooking and learning the banjo.

McCutcheon’s “talking blues” song about baseball icon Yogi Berra, from his 2008 baseball-themed album Sermon on the Mound, was a thoroughly entertaining piece made up of “Yogi-isms” strung together: “Shut up and talk,” “Pair up in threes,” “90 percent of the game is half mental,” “Nobody goes there—it’s too crowded,” and so on.

Another baseball song, featuring McCutcheon on keyboard, was a poignant piece about a girl at the end of her softball career who falls while running the bases and is helped to make it to home plate, limping, by a member of the opposing team.

“Sometimes help comes from where you least expect it,” McCutcheon sang, “and carries you all the way home.” It was one of a number of tidbits of life wisdom sprinkled throughout McCutcheon’s repertoire.

Two of the things McCutcheon is known for are his prolific creation of children’s songs and his prowess on the hammered dulcimer, and he treated the audience to some of each.

At the piano, McCutcheon performed a playful, wisdom-dispensing song that he wrote for his now 27-year-old son when he was in kindergarten: “Don’t hurt each other and clean up your mess/ Take a nap every day/ Wash before you eat/ Hold hands, stick together/ Look before you cross the street.”

McCutcheon’s “Leviathan,” which he wrote “after going on a whale watch,” was one of four pieces he performed on electric hammered dulcimer. The song was mesmerizing—a beautiful weaving together of sounds evoking the voice of a whale, vaguely pinging sounds reminding one of a submarine under water, and exotic sounds similar to those of the plucking of koto strings.

He closed the night (before his encore) with what amounted to a tribute to iconic, 90-year-old American folk singer Pete Seeger when he pulled out his autoharp and had the audience join him in a sing-along of Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land.”

McCutcheon sang all the verses, just like Seeger did at President Obama’s inauguration—even the lesser known ones about “private property” and hungry people during the Depression. Another of his timely bits of wisdom for this year’s audience.