John Gorka is from New Jersey.
And he sings about that fact in “I’m From New Jersey.” It’s one of the numbers – which appeared in the No. 2 slot of his stellar Feb. 22 Columbus gig – Gorka likes to play for first-timers at his concerts and one he asks the veterans, “returners,” he calls them, to endure; an easy assignment. He goes on to mention the recent study that suggests attending concerts can extend the lifespan. If the “new people” become “returners,” it’ll extend his lifespan as well, Gorka said.
The veteran folk singer is a consummate entertainer – spilling over with songs both heart-wrenching (“Let Them In,” about soldiers killed in war) and hilarious (“People My Age”).
“People my age/are showing some wear/there’s holes where their teeth was/and their heads have gone bare,” Gorka, who at 61 has a thick shock of white hair, sings before adding a wordless Ewwww where an Ooooohwould typically belong – a subtle but important difference.
Always engaging and happy to banter with the audience, Gorka’s like a grown-up Todd Snider – just as funny, but never profane and apparently not a drug user. It’s a different kind of humor, but just as effective.
Wearing jeans and a black sports jacket, Gorka ambled on stage inside Speaker Jo Ann Davidson Theatre as Amelia K. Spicer wrapped her 30-minute opening set. Accompanied by an electric guitarist who added essential color and pristine vocal harmonies, Spicer played acoustic guitar and piano as she showcased songs from 2017’s Wow and Flutter. She would return several times during Gorka’s 40- and 70-minute sets to sing beautifully on numbers such as “Love is Our Cross to Bear” and the finale, “Gypsy Life,” which contains this lyrical gem: “People love you when they know you’re leaving soon.”
Blessed with a resonant baritone singing voice, Gorka plays piano – reserved for sad songs such as the farmers’ lament “Houses in the Fields” – and is a deceptively fluent guitarist, whether he’s peeling off Latin-tinged riffs on “Arroyo Seco” or squeezing out gritty blues and playing slide on a Gibson Les Paul Pee Wee – “I’d like to play a little guitar for you now,” he said – on the traditional “Wayfaring Stranger” and his own “Lightning’s Blues,” which he credited to his alter-ego, Slow Blind Driveway.
He dedicated the balladic “True in Time” to the truth because it’s “having a hard time these days;” joked that his bittersweet love song “Mennonite Girl” caused his wife to write a retaliatory poem titled “Amish Boy;” sang an ode to Martin Guitars on “Nazarene Guitar,” which is not religious “unless you’re really into guitars;” and presented himself, as he always does, as an artist who wants to be exactly where he is doing exactly what’s he’s doing.
And Gorka makes the audience feel exactly the same way.
The evening concert was preceded by an afternoon taping of the PBS program “Songs at the Center,” during which the Rev. Robert B. Jones Sr. joined Gorka and Spicer, who played four songs that would also feature in their main sets, for a round-robin of interviews and performances. Jones, an unknown quantity to many when the show began, quickly enlightened the few dozen lucky people who were present.
Jones is one of those performers who (not figuratively) can put tears in your eyes and bumps on your skin as he delivers uplifting numbers of resiliance like “This Old House,” “Arnesia’s Song,” “The Darkness of Blackness” and “I Wrestled with the Angel,” on which Gorka, Spricer and the audience added harmonies, and the recording session morphed into a revival.
The first song was about a 102-year-old home in Detroit, the family who lived in it and its demolition. But the house lives on in the custom-made guitar, which contains wood from its floors and joists, Jones performed it on. “Arnesia’s Song,” like “Darkness,” is an epic tale, this one about his grandmother and daughter and the name and familial threads they share. These are songs that make listeners gasp as they’re played, forcing them to look inside themselves in the process. Why he wasn’t on the bill for the evening performance is a mystery – like the spirituality Jones sings about – that’ll never be solved.
The show is slated to air in early 2021.