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OK, pay attention Rhode Island music fans. Phil Madeira has just released the definitive home state musical narrative. In a charming and musically dazzling show at the Columbus Theatre Friday night (April 6th), Madeira showcased songs from that album, affectionately titled Providence.
Madeira, who grew up in Barrington, is a respected Nashville-based session musician and songwriter, a Grammy Award winner, and one of the most important artists to come out of our fair state. He’s led Emmylou Harris’ band the Red Dirt Boys, since 2008, and has written songs and performed with stars including Alison Krauss, Garth Brooks, Elvis Costello, Mavis Staples and The Civil Wars, with whom he shared the 2014 Grammy Award for “Best Country Performance by a Duo.”
Rhode Island Theme
Friday’s show highlighted many tunes from the new album. Backed by only bass and drums, Madeira opened with the immigrant song “Gothenburg,” built on his own grandfather’s experience coming to America over 100 years ago. With a piano-centric vibe and Randy Newman vocals, it’s a song just waiting to be placed in a movie soundtrack. The lyrics are a reminder that for many Americans, the distance from the immigrant experience to the present is far and wide.
“Italian, Irish, Portuguese/Not a word they understood./The melting pot, America, Was your grandma’s neighborhood.”
“The history of family/Fades like the Harbor Lights/Of Gothenburg as it drifts away/So quickly out of sight”
A theme of duality comes through on the New Orleans influenced “Rhode Island Yankee on Jefferson Davis Court.” Madeira sings of the disconnect between regions, and to some extent, cultures. “I learned to draw my words out long …I called my mother, she said you don’t talk like us no more, you’re a Rhode Island Yankee on Jefferson Davis Court.”
“Wicked Job” is a RI-specific song about suffering through a dead-end job. Who hasn’t been there? “Life’s a wicked job, someone’s gotta’ do it/When it gets rock hard, you gotta’ chisel through it,” he sings. Madeira wrote the song over 20 years ago about a job he held at a once landmark shopping establishment.
“Working the day shift at the Ann and Hope/A dreamer’s graveyard on a dead end road.
Stacking toasters on a conveyor belt, the girls downstairs put ‘em on a shelf.
Microwave opens, electric brooms, I may as well have been in a padded room.”
The audience chuckled at the amusement park lyrics on the funky “Crescent Park”… “listen up mister, you never ride the twister.” In the song, Madeira recalls sneaking into the renowned Riverside park as a kid and later a meaningless summer job “taking tickets in the sun.” He waxes philosophical in his conclusion – “all that’s left to tell, is that life’s a carousel, I’m talkin’ bout Crescent Park.”
“Rich Man’s Town,” is a song about the affluent hometown suburb of Barrington where Madeira “grew up in a modest neighborhood.” But he wasn’t a rich kid … like many of us, he rode “on somebody else’s boat, didn’t have the kind of credit to float that kind of note.” On a deeper thought, he keenly observes:
“Never gave a second thought to what others understood/About borderlines of class and status, and how the wealthy are often the saddest.”
The warmest song of the night was “Dearest Companion,” heartfelt love song. Look for it to show up as a dedication at a wedding near you. These are lyrics of experience: “Take down all these fences/And come to our senses. If love ain’t defenseless/It just ain’t true.” No doubt, you can see why Phil Madeira won a Grammy. His lyrics are cleaver and often humorous, yet they make a powerful statement.
The concert included several references to Madeira’s musical influences, including “Wide-Eyed Dream” a song written about piano legend Mose Alison, and a swinging rendition of Thelonious Monk’s “Straight, No Chaser.”
Although Madeira re-located to the South 35 years ago, his heart and soul have never strayed far from home. This collection of songs feels a bit like a trip back through the 20th century – listening to his lyrics, you realize this isn’t just a Rhode Island tale, it’s an American one. Let’s hope Madeira returns to Providence soon. Or Newport, or anywhere else in the area. Meanwhile, check out his new album here.
Opener – Brian McKenzie
Singer-Songwriter Brian McKenzie, also a Rhode Island native, opened with a pleasing set of originals. A member of the metal-rock band Kilgore, McKenzie noted that he’s “traveled from metal to rock to singer-songwriter.”
That songwriting is personal and contemplative. A sweeping country feel is strong on many of his tunes including the buoyant “Waiting for You” and the ballad “Holding On,” a “song about getting by,” McKenzie noted. He’s scheduled to open for The Mavericks at Indian Ranch in June and we advise you get there early to hear his set. Check out his music here.