Local Folk

It's around 10:30 on a Monday night in Joe's Grotto, a bar at 32nd Street and Thunderbird. It's open-mike night, and the guy currently onstage is Christophe Leininger, former U.S. national judo champion, and Ultimate Fighting Challenge contestant.

Leininger sits with an acoustic guitar on his lap, and finger-picks gently as he sings two of his own songs. His musical style clashes with his look; it's strange to see a big, intense-looking guy, whose entire life has been devoted to fighting, singing plaintive, mournful songs whose reference point is somewhere between Leonard Cohen and Joni Mitchell.

Usually, "open-mike night" is a polite way of saying "amateur night." Usually, such events attract only those who suck so badly they can't get a real gig anywhere.

The open-mike night at Joe's Grotto is unusual.
It attracts its share of amateurs and novices. But it also brings in veteran folk musicians, and it certainly benefits the beginners to play alongside such people. The atmosphere is laid-back, and the performers are diverse enough for the mix to be near bizarre. No one shows any attitude. In addition to Leininger, on this particular night members of the band Honeychild play. The guy taking names and generally keeping it all together has nine albums out there. He has an air of gloomy cheerfulness about him. His name is David Grossman.

It's 3 in the afternoon, Saturday, March 21. A beautiful day. Encanto Park is mobbed, and as I park my car, I imagine it's because of the Phoenix Folk Festival.

It isn't.
The park is huge, and there are so many things going on that it takes me a while to find the folk festival. Other attractions have tents and raised stages with sound systems that carry for miles, but not this one. After I've walked around and checked out Encanto Kiddie Land (which is celebrating its 50th anniversary this weekend), a labor-union barbecue and a birthday party--but no folkies--I wonder how many roads must a man walk down. I wonder if I've come on the wrong day.

Then I find it. It's over by the boathouse, and the atmosphere is the same as Joe's Grotto. For every performance on the program, there are a couple more that just seem to happen naturally. There's no real focus to it, and it doesn't feel like there has to be. Folksiness is breaking out in the boathouse and the clubhouse and outdoors in the sun. It has the feel of a market or a fair; you just wander around and see what you like.

"Folk music" is a catchall term. In Great Britain, a folk song is usually defined as a song that is more than 100 years old and by an unknown composer. But not that many songs performed by "folk" artists in any country meet that criteria. Most, in fact, are songwriters, and their work tends to be deeply introspective (Ani DiFranco), political (Bruce Cockburn) or both (Bruce Springsteen in his Nebraska period).

Even Bob Dylan, the quintessential singer/songwriter, was at first defined as a folk singer because he accompanied himself on an acoustic guitar. When he started playing an electric guitar, he was heckled at the Newport Folk Festival, and Pete Seeger, the godfather of American folk music, allegedly tried to pull the plug.

The Phoenix Folk Festival is one of the most eclectic I've been to. To the organizers, "folk" apparently encompasses blues, Celtic, country, cowboy, old time, bluegrass and traditionals as well as original work. But the best performances today are from those who write their own songs, and the poorest from those who cover popular songs by contemporary artists.

I drift into the boathouse, and find a solemn-faced woman playing a Nanci Griffith song to about 20 people. I slip out. As I reach the outdoor stage, I find that this gig has even more in common with Joe's Grotto than I realized--the artist performing is David Grossman.

Several people tell me that Grossman pretty much embodies all that's good about the Phoenix folk-music scene, in terms of both his talent and the way he behaves. So I waylay him when he finishes his half-hour set. As a cowboy yodeler takes the stage, I ask Grossman if he knows where I can get a hot dog. We walk across the park, over a bridge to Kiddie Land. As we walk, he tells me he thinks he must have slept on just about every bench in the park. I get some food, and we sit at a wooden table and talk.

David Shepherd Grossman is 32 years old. He released his first album while still in high school. His ninth, In Sight, came out recently. He's written about 300 songs. He's worked with such artists as Clarence Clemons (Springsteen's sax player) and Michelle Shocked. Four Non-Blondes have opened for him. But he really doesn't want to be a rock star, and it shows.

One Tempe venue wouldn't let him play there because he didn't have "the look." He smiles bemusedly as he remembers it. "I don't know what 'the look' is," he says. "But I know I don't have it. I mean, look at me." He points to the corduroy pants and heavy shirt that contain his chubby build. "I just don't look like . . . whatever."

Not that he doesn't get gigs. To describe Grossman as a "working musician" is an understatement. He plays 30 gigs a month.

Such stability was hard-earned. Grossman is a magnet for bad luck. Problems with record labels, problems with his family, other problems best left unmentioned . . . and he still found the time to write all those songs.

Sit in any fashionable bar in Phoenix or Tempe, and you'll find any number of people who'll tell you what great musicians they are, but how the local music scene is cliquish and political and they just can't break in, can't get a gig at Long Wong's or anyplace else known for its live music.

When Grossman found that all the doors were closed to him, he decided to spend his energy doing something other than whining about it. He wasn't interested in competing with other musicians for gigs. One former friend still won't speak to him because he played at her regular venue and she felt he was trying to squeeze her out. It makes him sad, but he doesn't blame her. All the same, he sees the squabbling over turf as pointless.

"Phoenix is booming," he says. "There's enough work for everybody."
But he found the work by going outside of the established scene. He went to places that didn't feature live music.

"I'd go in and talk to them and ask them if I could play. I'd say, 'I'll play tonight, and if it works you can pay me.' Sometimes it wouldn't work, but sometimes it would. Some of these places had wanted to have live music, but just didn't know how to do it or where to get it."

And now, when you look at Grossman's schedule, you know he gets around. Michael's in Scottsdale on a Friday. Keegan's in Ahwatukee on a Saturday, and Michael's again the next day. Balboa Cafe, Ruby Tuesday's, Coffee Plantation. This is a man who doesn't spend many evenings at his home in New River.

"I'm happy. I make a living playing music, and I don't hurt anybody or take anything away from anybody."

Doesn't it get tedious, performing every single night?
"No. If it does, I just play a song I don't usually play, and that makes it fresh for me again."

Grossman was once told by someone at Geffen Records that he had to be more upbeat and stop sounding "dated." Someone else told him that he didn't sound like he'd suffered enough.

"What am I supposed to do?" he says, chuckling. "Send them a resume of all the bad things that have ever happened to me?" He doesn't get uptight about it. He seems particularly happy with his new album. "I just did it the way I wanted to. I hope it's not too depressing."

In fact, it's far from depressing, unless you find thoughtfulness depressing. Although the songs are accomplished, their effect is subtle.

The album shows why major labels aren't falling over each other to sign Grossman. His songs contain few easy hooks, and his style is honest and undramatic. You can listen to the songs and just think they're okay. Then, later, you find you can't stop thinking about a particular song. "It Takes Love," perhaps the best song on the new album, is a perfect example.

Despite what his critic told him, he sounds like he's suffered plenty. He just isn't crying about it.

We leave the carnival and walk back to the folk festival. Grossman seems to know everybody. We go into the boathouse to see what's going on. The gig is over, and there are only two people left in the room--the old man who was playing, and a hauntingly beautiful young woman he's now singing to.

"He's great," observes Grossman.
The woman has played at Joe's Grotto before, so we stand outside and talk with her. She tells me she plays around town, at open mikes and anywhere else they'll let her. Then Grossman says he has to go. He's got another gig today. And tomorrow. And the day after that.

Contact Barry Graham at his online address: [email protected]