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By Ray Stern
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By Stephen Lemons
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"It's in one of the poorest districts of Maricopa County," he says. "And they have interesting programs with the kids fusing music and arts at a very young age. So they got Mozart playing while the kids are taking nap time. They draw and they have colors. I chose that charity because I thought we need to put a voice to the charities that are actually using these kinds of tools.
"One of the selling points was an emotional thing. Some of these kids come in on Monday and they haven't had anything to eat since Friday. I stopped and dropped my jaw."
A live CD that will soon be available was recorded from the Tempe festival featuring the likes of Stephen Ashbrook, Hans Olson and Joe Meyers, among many others, who donated their time and effort. All proceeds from the sale of the disc will go to the learning center.
Janelle Degn, director of program services at Phoenix Day, describes the center's relationship with Richardson as "wonderful."
"I see him as a partner," says Karyn Parker, the center's executive director. "Being a nonprofit organization, donations come in many forms, but with Walt we get financial help and creativity from his music. He's absolutely a gift from heaven."
Walt Richardson's latest record -- made with Hannes Kvaran -- 1998's Silent Artist,is an all-acoustic blend of chimey folk and sing-songy narrative pulled by themes of self-discovery, inner peace and failed love. Richardson and Kvaran match their bright-eyed folk roots with fetching harmonies and the chemistry that gives Morning Star's live bit a whole level of sincerity.
"Mill Avenue" is the set's best song; all open chord melancholy using the destruction of old Mill Avenue as metaphor for a relationship gone south. But the song's power-positive "Still Survivin'" stamps out some of the subtlety by the end.
"Bands are just made to make people hate each other," Kvaran says. Being in a band with somebody can be a very high-stress way to know somebody. After 20 years I still love him. And . . . we are still really good friends after all this time. The chemistry wouldn't work if we didn't like each other. I wouldn't be interested in playing with him if it wasn't personally worthwhile.
"A lot of his father's side comes through and it always has," he continues. "He goes to church a lot. He's an interesting mixture of his own kind of spiritualism. And on the other hand, he's very traditional; going to Catholic church you can't get much more traditional."
Back on Mill, I ask Richardson what he would say if he were accused of cleverly masking self-promotion in the guise of goodwill.
"I've never had confrontations with people like that because I have never really put myself in a spot to have to defend myself," he says. "I've always felt that in staying open, you're allowing people to have their opinions. So there have been people who have had opinions that differed from mine. When I feel like I can help out, it doesn't mean that I help out to a point of suffering, by any means. It just means that I can help push the car when it breaks down, one more hand pushing the car. I really don't have to do anything, I could just play my guitar, come home and be through with it."
Could he really?
Richardson hops on his bike and rolls south, a blur of dreads and shadows bouncing behind him. Somebody calls out his name, but Richardson is out of earshot. He circles around a corner and is gone. If nothing else the man is rooted.