Twin Cities singer-songwriter Michael McElrath opened the June 16th bill at Club Jäger for the memorial tribute to Jazzy J, his friend and fallen comrade in arms against cancer—an occasion I wished I’d attended instead of being home laid up with pneumonia. I did catch McElrath a while back, at the February benefit Jazzy’s son Morgan held at BarFly for, actually, McElrath’s own costly battle with cancer.
It was a new and different experience to enjoy a throwback to eons past when folk troubadours held a special place in the music industry. When the likes of Tom Rush, Phil Ochs, and others didn’t break the bank but still made an impression on the market, delivering simple songs that came from the heart and reached listeners in a quiet way. That doesn’t happen so much these days, which makes McElrath’s album Keep On Drivin’ one of the experiences you seldom come by and are glad when you do.
Michael McElrath, backing himself on acoustic guitar, has a basic, sort of fragile sound. His friend and arch-fan, Tom McIver, who made the trip clear from San Diego to be at the BarFly event, puts it well, reflecting, “Michael has a voice that always teeters on the edge of not hitting the note but consistently does. His voice gives the impression of being weak yet is strong. His melodies are nicely simple and his lyrics are just the right side of lovely. He’s not an easy, instant listen, I feel, but is worth the effort taken to actually listen to what he is saying and how he is saying it.”
Take, for instance, the title song from Keep On Drivin’. It’s a gentle, poetic look at the life through a long-distance traveler’s eyes. “The road unwinds for miles ahead/ we might be better off in bed but let’s keep on drivin’/ So good to be out here with you/ there’s nothin’ I would rather do than to keep on drivin’/ Beyond the glow of the dashboard lights/ the moon and stars light up the night/ so let’s keep on drivin’/ just keep on drivin’”
And there is “I Miss You All the Time,” a guileless missive baring the vulnerability of what it is to care for someone with whom you can’t quite connect. “I thought I saw you Sunday morning/ You turned to me/ I thought I heard you call/ But then you disappeared without no warning/ And I woke up empty, staring at the wall.”
Michael McElrath is exactly the sort of musician coffeehouses were made for. And when he’s out and about, that’s where you can catch him. At places like Corner Coffee and 42nd Avenue Station. You can keep track of his schedule at michaelmcelrathmusic.com. It’s definitely worth checking up on where and when this artist, a unique craftsman, is plying his trade.