If that seems like an odd trinity, consider this: Friedman —who studied classical painting at RISD and worked for years as a cartoonist for the New Yorker— was, at the time, touring coffeehouses, bars and art galleries with a couple of acoustic musicians in support of his self-published book of poetry, Future Blues.
That’s right. A book of poetry. However, there were musical aspects to his shtick, as well as visual ones. Branding himself a “slideshow poet,” Friedman half-spoke/half-sung blues and folk-inspired ruminations on life, love and loss, accompanied by an old-fashioned slideshow of his own drawings, paintings and Polaroids.
That’s right. A slideshow. No PowerPoint for this unrepentant anachronist! And, virtually everywhere he went, audiences and critics alike swooned for his brokedown, rattletrap, Nighthawks At The Diner vision of what has come to be called “Art Country” (“their term, not mine — but it works, so I’ll take it,” says Friedman).
A bewitching and almost misty-eyed hodgepodge of Luke The Drifter-style recitations set to acoustic backing amid projections of achingly beautiful two-dimensional artwork of his own creation, Friedman’s shtick dared audiences to imagine a nexus where the troubadour tradition interfaces seamlessly with the fine art crowd.
However, for all those who “got” the big picture of what he was trying to do, there were plenty of folks who, well, just didn’t.
“People still call what I’m doing a reading, because I’m not holding a guitar,” he mused in January of 2005, just before his packed and rapturous Savannah debut at The Sentient Bean Coffeehouse, where he’ll appear again this Saturday night.
“But it’s not a reading or a one-man play, or a monologue,” he insisted. “These are songs.”
Since that time, he’s packed away his slides, and devoted himself to learning the basics of guitar. He’s also released a CD entitled Live At The Bowery Poetry Club on his own City Salvage Records. Tracked on the final night of a triumphant seven-week residency at visionary performance poet Bob Holman’s eclectic NYC venue of the same name, and backed by an expanded, seven-member lineup of his longtime road group The Other Failures, it captured the imaginations of most all who heard it, and showcased Friedman’s latest guise — that of a songwriter who’s easier for the average joe to pigeonhole, instead of being confusing to those for whom visual art, poetry and live music seem at odds.
It’s this new approach to his art that Friedman brings to town this time around, and he says that despite many audiences’ affinity for his previous incarnation, he innately felt it was time to ditch the slides.
“It’s like putting down my guitar and picking up the piano. The slides were an instrument I used for a couple of years. Now I’m focusing more on the music, and I couldn’t help but think the images would get in the way. I’m still fascinated with that format. Who knows? I might bring back my old slideshow and no music! Now I can create colors with a guitar — which I couldn’t even play last time I was there.
“It’s weird. People used to think what I was doing was insane! (laughs) They’d say, why don’t you just learn guitar and sing, without the slides. Now, after all this time, I’ve done just that, and a lot of the same folks are mad that I’m putting away the slides. (laughs) But basically, I’m having a lot of fun. As a painter, I could never collaborate in the way I do with my band. You know, it’s four guys on the road in a van. A pedal steel guy who also doubles on electric guitar, a drummer and a bassist, and me on acoustic guitar.
In the end, though, Friedman says he’s thrilled when people enjoy his work in any medium, but like any true artist, he’s not about to stop if the critics turned on him.
“My feeling is art has nothing to do with anyone’s reaction to it. It comes from a need to sort out the pieces of my life, just like everyone else. Some do it through fishing, I do it through art. If nobody comes to the shows, or they say that my way of fishing is shit, it’s cool. I’m still leaning up against the tree, fishing.”
Andy Friedman & The Other Failures play The Sentient Bean Coffeehouse Saturday at 8 pm. The show is ALL-AGES, with a suggested $5 donation