Tunes and Tales concert blurs the border between music and poetry

Peter Boyle

Last week saw the return of the Fox Cities Book Festival, an annual celebration of literature on a local level. The festival has a fairly broad scope, with events held across the area that feature authors of all manner of prose and poetry. Lawrence has hosted several of the festival’s events since its inception, and this year was no exception, with Q&A sessions and even a convocation occurring on campus in conjunction with the festival.

Lawrence also played host to what was likely one of the best-attended and intriguing events of the affair — the “Tunes and Tales” Benefit Concert, last Friday’s fundraiser for the Festival. Held at the Warch Campus Center’s Esch/Hurvis venue, the evening raised over $5,000, and treated attendees to a set by Appleton troubadour Cory Chisel and the Wandering Sons, along with Obvious Dog and Cathryn Cofell and a brief reading by Ellen Kort.

Obvious Dog began the proceedings, largely drawing on their 2010 collaboration with Cofell, “Lip.” Spurts of jazz, blues and some lightly distorted rock bled into Cofell’s rhythmic ruminations on sex, love, and family. Bassist and harmonica player Bruce Dethlefsen interspersed witty blues lyrics throughout the performance, acknowledging his talents as Wisconsin’s Poet Laureate, but the focus was on the light, syncopated verse Cofell developed. Though the group was not necessarily a stylistic match for Chisel’s band, Obvious Dog offered a tangibly poetic slant on American music, underscoring the value of literary explorations like the festival.

Kort, a former Wisconsin Poet Laureate herself, gave the audience a more somber take on poetic performance, reading unaccompanied and delving into more emotionally weighty material. Chisel came to the stage before her performance, and took the opportunity to perform one of her poems as a haunting acoustic ballad.

When the Wandering Sons arrived, however, Chisel wasted no time delving into his Nashville-flecked rock. The band has been gearing up for a new album and just finished making the rounds at SXSW, so the arrangements were rock-solid across the old and new songs. Though Chisel himself stuck with the acoustic for the whole set, Adriel Harris’s slick organ and plaintive harmonies added depth to the performance, filling out the melancholy that crops up in much of Chisel’s songwriting.

True to the name of the event, Chisel regaled the audience with stories of nearly every song the band performed. “Never Meant To Love You” accompanied a recollection of a speeding ticket out on the Wisconsin highway; “Tennessee,” where the group recorded, involved an anecdote of meeting Bob Dylan. It’s rare to hear the context along with an artist’s music, but Chisel’s upfront banter was more confessional than humorous, and it put the performance in a more meaningful light.

The set ended on Chisel’s moving acoustic version of Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come,” indicating that his focus on musical storytelling moves beyond the personal; the recent call for Occupy and Madison protest footage on his Facebook page indicates a focus on the political struggles both locally and globally. Afterwards, Kort finished on a sillier piece about telemarketers, sending the crowd out in laughter. Though the pieces varied drastically, their emphasis on human conflict and connection was not lost. The Fox Cities Book Festival means to connect literature with an audience, bringing writers to readers, and their “Tunes and Tales” drove home the value of a community rooted in story. Such an admirable goal will always be worth the price of admission.