Marshall Crenshaw has a well-deserved reputation as a master musical craftsman, and his skills were on full display recently at The Birchmere. During his set, he shared two of his newer songs, co-written with Dan Bern, that deal with the apocalypse. But even when he’s singing about something so dire, the songs are catchy and you can’t help but enjoy it. Doom and hellfire have no sounded so good and so fun.
During his appearance at The Birchmere, Crenshaw was celebrating his 40th anniversary “in show business,” and it’s been a varied, wide-ranging career. He actually released his first, self-titled album 41 years ago, and had been involved in musical theater before that. A native of Detroit, after graduating high school in 1971, he played in a local band. In 1978, he moved to New York, where he became an understudy for the role of John Lennon in Beatlemania. That’s not the only acting he’s done: after years of being compared to the late Buddy Holly, he portrayed him in La Bamba, the biopic about Richie Valens, who died in the same plane crash that took Holly’s life.
After leaving Beatlemania, Crenshaw purchased a 4-track tape machine and began recording his demos. By this time, his brother, Robert, had also moved to New York, and joined Marshall’s band, which played in clubs around the city. On the strength of his demos, Crenshaw signed with a small label, but the buzz around grew so much that Warner Brothers bought out his contract. By this time, rockabilly revivalist Robert Gordon had released a cover of Marshall’s “Someday, Someway.” Though it charted, it was Crenshaw’s own version of the song that went even higher.
While Crenshaw wouldn’t reach the same commercial success with later albums and singles, he continued recording for WB throughout the ’80s, then moved to independent labels, where he continued releasing albums for the next two decades. In the last 10 years or so, he’s moved away from the album format, instead recording a series of EPs that contain a mix of new songs, classic rock covers, and reworkings of his older tunes. He’s also been a much sought after songwriter, cowriting the Gin Blossoms’ top-10 hit “Til I Hear It For You” and writing a couple of songs for the film Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story. He’s also written a book, Hollywood Rock, about movies focusing on music and musicians.
At The Birchmere on Oct. 1, Marshall began the set with “Passing Through,” then moved on to a couple of covers: Buddy Holly’s “Crying, Waiting, Hoping,” and “Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream,” which he dedicated to producer Tom Wilson. A word on the Holly comparisons: They’re not wrong. One doesn’t make the conscious about one’s appearance and style that Crenshaw has unless they’re leaning into the Holly vibe. But Crenshaw is not alone in drawing on Holly. His music has been characterized as power pop, and that subgenre is shot through with Holly’s influence.
Stream “Passing Through” by Marshall Crenshaw on YouTube:
Returning to his own tunes, Marshall and his band played “Cynical Girl.” Between songs, he talked about the late Van Wykoff, who he said did a favor for him early in his career, when Van was working for Warner Brothers distribution. Though he mentioned Van a few more times, he never gave us the details on just what that favor may have been, as he didn’t want to go into a “20-minute rant.” (“That wouldn’t “be appropriate,” he said, and I credit Marshall for knowing that, sometimes, less is more, and it’s not great to indulge yourself too much on stage.)
After “What Do You Dream Of,” Marshall and his band played the two apocalyptic songs co-written with Dan Bern, with “My Favorite Waste of Time” sandwiched between them. The set continued with “Television Lights,” “There She Goes Again,” “Live & Learn,” and “Dime A Dozen Guy,” which he co-wrote David Kantner. He then covered the late Grant Hart’s (the drummer and one of the songwriters for the influential alternative band Husker Du) “2541.” The set was rounded out with “Monday Morning Rock, “Our Town,” and “Mary Anne,” and finished with “Someday, Someway.”
Crenshaw has a fine, somewhat deadpan sense of humor. When it came time, mid-set, to change guitars, he explained that, with all the cords, it takes him some time. He also mentioned his age, saying “I’ll turn 70 on my next birthday.” While he changed guitars, muzak played, and his guitarist and bassist did a very funny dance that entertained and delighted the crowd. That sense of humor was also on display when he came out for his encore and asked if anyone wanted him to just stop. Of course, no one did, so he played three more songs: “Starless Summer Sky,” “Dreaming & Driving,” and “Whenever You’re On My Mind.”
Watch Marshall Crenshaw perform “Whenever You’re On My Mind” live via YouTube:
I wasn’t familiar with opening act Rachael Sage, but she was a delight. As she explained, she “backed into the singer-songwriter thing,” having started out as a ballerina. She described her mother as “a stage mother who didn’t know she was a stage mother.” (I can relate: my mother was the academic equivalent of a stage mother, and I have some traumatic memories of her trying to drill me in geometry until I cried.) A native of Port Chester, Rachael got her start in the anti-folk scene in the ’90s in New York; I noticed a distinct similarity to Regina Spektor, and they used to play the same venues.
Rachael opened her set with the title track of her new album, The Other Side, which is “about transcending obstacles in any form.” Introducing “Sleep When I’m Tired,” she explained that she has ADD, and often ends up awake because she’s been distracted by something. (I related to this, as I often realize I’ve been sitting up for an hour in bed wasting time on whatever has caught my attention, which is usually funny videos or dog videos or funny dog videos.) The next song, “Becca,” was written on commission. While she played electric and acoustic guitar and keys on her other songs, she delivered “Haunted by Objects” mostly a capella, with some very light accents from her fiddle player, Kelly Halloran.
When she says she’s faced obstacles, Rachael isn’t kidding. The next song she played was co-written with her father, and is about their shared experience in being in remission from cancer; it’s about “living in the moment.” To round out the set, she played “Whistle Blow” and finished with “Deepest Dark,” a song inspired by Stranger Things. I couldn’t have been happier!
This show was a delight from top to bottom. It’s been years since I’ve Marshall, and he hasn’t lost his touch. It was also a pleasure discovering Rachael Sage.