I first encountered Peter Mulvey at the 2003 Green River Festival, where he appeared as part of lo-fi folk covergroup Redbird along with folk blues artist Jeffrey Foucault and his recent bride, the full-voiced Kris Delmhorst. Though at the time I was more impressed with the others, it is Mulvey's interpretations I keep coming back to -- though Delmhort's work is sweet simplicity, and Foucault can play the blues like nobody's business, it is Mulvey who has the versatility of the true cover artist, and the knack of bringing new meaning to a wide breadth of song.
Peter Mulvey fans speak mostly of his songwriting and guitarplay, which play off the similar strings but equally defined style of his constant sideman and collaborator David "Goody" Goodrich to create a rich slackstring sound; Mulvey's voice falls more into the Tom Waits and Dylan camps, full of feeling but hardly melodic. As a member of Redbird, this lends a rough edge to harmonies. As a solo cover artist, though, the spare voice recasts lyrics powerfully.
Nowhere is this more evident than in Ten Thousand Mornings, a 2002 album of covers -- the up-and-coming folksinger's bread and butter -- recorded live in Mulvey's old stomping grounds: the Davis Square subway station just outside of Boston. It's a neat concept, designed to call to his roots as a struggling busker, and it works exceptionally well: the echoes of the brick and tile underground lend an air of realism, and the trains and passersby screech and shuss, becoming part of the music, making the experience -- and the songs -- truly live.
It's hard to pick just two cuts from this album, both because there's so many gems and because there's a surprising diversity among them, given that most are just a guy and his guitar (and his guy, and his guitar). In the end, I decided to save his best covers of folk artists for other posts, so you'll have to wait for his amazing interpretation of Dar Williams' The Ocean, and his Elvis Costello, Gillian Welch, and Dylan covers. Two of my remaining favorites from the subway series, the second with backup from
Jennifer Kimball Anita Suhanin (thanks, anonymous fact-checker!):
Ten Thousand Mornings is one of many fine Peter Mulvey records from folk label Signature Sounds; Mulvey sells them directly through his website, so you know where he prefers that you buy them. And now you know why you should, too.
Today's bonus coversongs: