Mark Erelli (Photo: Ken Abrams)

Creating and listening to live music is a sacred endeavor, something to be appreciated on many levels. That idea, that the concert experience is holy, is something that Mark Erelli certainly understands.

The singer-songwriter is coming to the Jamestown Arts Center on Thursday, March 23 for a show produced by Newport Live. Erelli returns to the region following a well-received outdoor concert last summer at the Norman Bird Sanctuary. This time, he’ll perform with his full band to celebrate the release of his new album, Lay Your Darkness Down.

“It’ll be the first time we’ve realized all of these songs on stage,” says Erelli. “That’s a really holy occasion, the creation or the re-creation, the conjuring of something that I take really seriously.”

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Over the course of his 25+ year career, Erelli has worked as producer and session guitarist for artists including Lori McKenna, Paula Cole, Marc Cohn, and Josh Ritter. He’s also written and produced his own material, including 2018’s “By Degrees,” nominated for “Song of the Year” at the Americana Honors and Awards.  Erelli is heavily influenced by classic rockers like Tom Petty, George Harrison, and Roy Orbison – although his songwriting and live sound is very much his own, more along the lines of Ray LaMontagne or Jacob Dylan.

 “It’s a new start of sorts, not really by choice,” says Erelli of his 13th album. “I did it in the wake of a big diagnosis, getting diagnosed with degenerative retinal disease, which happened in the middle of the pandemic, a time of great isolation and uncertainty. The diagnosis didn’t help with any of that. It kind of sent me into a bit of a catastrophic mindset.”

Erelli feared his music career was over. “How am I going to make music, how am I going to travel, how am I going to go to strange places and navigate them if I can’t see as well,” he wondered. “All that stuff sent me into a tailspin.”

So he began to make music at home, recording full band songs in his home studio, recording one part of one instrument at a time, much like famed producer Jeff Lynne of ELO. “Very much like layers of paint in an oil painting,” he explains, “as opposed to getting a bunch of musicians in a room and hitting record.” Eventually, he invited members of his band and fellow songwriters, including his friend Lori McKenna, to join in on the recording.

The result is the new album. “There are some songs on the album that were written even before I had my diagnosis, some of them seem to kind of foretell it in a way, and some were addressing the effects of the pandemic,” Erelli explains. “Because of the overlap, in time, and with the range of emotions I was feeling, they kind of worked for both purposes. The word blind or blindness, which is the destination of my disease, doesn’t occur in any of the songs. It’s not a record about blindness per se, but what it did, learning that I was struggling with this visual affliction, was kind of open my creative eye to a perspective that I don’t think I could have reached otherwise.”

As the pandemic wanes, and on the heels of his diagnosis, Erelli savors the concert experience, perhaps even more than previously. He offers some thoughts on the storytelling experience.

“I think the people who come out to shows are definitely more appreciative, definitely have a better sense of what we were prevented from doing for a while. The modern gig is kind of a reenactment of this ritual that we’ve been participating in since before we had modern language, since before we had widespread civilization, since before agriculture, since before organized religion.  Something going way back in our species when we were trying to communicate certain truths about our environment to each other.”

“Storytelling and the witness of storytelling in a modern concert is a modern analog of that age-old ritual and that is clearly fundamental to our species. We do it in wartime, we do it in times of poverty, we’ve always done it,” he adds.

“I’m just one part of that ritual on any given night, the audience is the other part, and it’s happening in other places, too. I feel fortunate that I get to hold up my end of the bargain. It’s something that I’ve never taken for granted. I’m tuned into how fundamental and important the whole process is. It’s not ‘just a gig’ anymore, everything feels pretty important and feels like a chance to kind of heal.”

Jobi Riccio, winner of the 2019 NewSong Music Competition, opens the night at 7PM. For further information and tickets, check the Newport Live web site here.

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