"I wanna close my eyes, rest my bones, no I don't wanna be a rolling stone." Mark Minelli is weary, and honest, and hopeful--and he is the best singer-songwriter I have seen in Chicago in many years. He is also my brother, a fact I could try to ignore and wonder what percentage of people notice our last names are the same, but what the hell, why play at unbiased journalistic criticism?
In September of 2002 Mark played his first show in Chicago as a freshman at Loyola University; long-haired and Chuck Taylored, he banged on his guitar, screamed and whispered about how life is tough and people need each other even if they don't know what for… and I was there and proud of him. Mark recently left the Windy City for Nashville, and you can hear him struggle to reach that decision on his new album, Cover Me in Moss. It is a record full of exquisite songwriting of the rarest kind--the kind of songs that sound as if they always existed, folk music for the weary, for people who have cold winters and hard jobs, and for the people who get left and the people who leave.
Mark opens his second album (a Candyrat Records release) by grabbing keys, lady and dog and getting the hell out of dodge, a fitting start to the dynamic emotional journey that is Cover Me in Moss. Accompanied on piano by Chicago's exceptionally talented Vijay Tellis-Nayak, "Leave Your Coat" has all the rambling charm of the beginning of a road trip. When Mark sings "Lord we're headed south tonight, while the snow's still white," he's fed up with pretending; he's gonna say what he has to say, and you can take it from there. Mark's country influences (by that I mean our Mom blasting Dwight Yoakam from the record player at full volume to wake us on Saturday mornings when we were kids) and folk upbringing (by that I mean our Dad drinking Rolling Rock and playing Beatles songs around the kitchen table) are evident and excellently utilized on this record. The pedal steel that begins "Another Song" welcomes listeners into what could easily be a storied and pure country and western hit of the 1950s. It is a truly beautiful song that questions the redemptive nature of the art: does a truly beautiful and genuinely sad song make a person feel better or worse?
Throughout the record one of the most irresistible aspects is Mark's struggle to be honest about how he feels and what he wants from life, but the album soars to a whole new level when he sings about other people. The song "39 or Less" is without fail the jaw dropper at his riotously touching live shows, and on the record, he slows it down and lets the gorgeous melody and simple words pour over you; it is baptism by a love song.
Mark will succeed in Nashville--as he did in Chicago--because of his understanding of how to say something simply and genuinely without sounding as if he is imitating. In the title track he pays homage to the people we wanted to be and the people our Dad wanted to be before us, while in a stroke of brilliance discovering that what he wants to be at the end of the day is actually not those folks at all anymore. Regardless of where Mark's career takes him from here, this is the record where Mark Minelli stops wanting to be Bob Dylan, or Mick Jagger, and starts sounding like Mark Minelli, and the title track is the song where it happens.
If you'll recall, Bob Dylan had a particular way of providing a slight but distinct semblance of hope somewhere in between lines that might slay you. Whether it was through clever imagery or puzzling characters, he snuck it in there. Mark grasps the necessity of that as well. Folk music didn't stick around for all of civilized man's existence because it is about giving up… it sticks around because it says, "yeah, I know it's tough, it's tough for everybody, but it's beautiful too, right? Now lets have a beer." The last song on the album is called "Call Me Jesus" and is perhaps the album's most complex and most simple; I'd wager even Mark himself would have trouble telling you what it is about. Storytellers, misconceptions, declarations? My best guess is that it is about people needing them, the stories, and Mark Minelli tells them about as well as I have ever heard.
On a hot summer night in June, Mark played his last show as a Chicagoan at the truly unparalleled venue Town Hall Pub. His hair now close cut, his style now somewhere between the Great Gatsby and James Dean, he banged on his guitar, he screamed and he whispered and he sang about how life is tough, and how people need each other, about being a storyteller, about trying to make it in this city and trying to make it out of it… and I was there, and I was proud of him.
So how does it feel? To be on your own? Like a rolling stone. Mark Minelli knows, you can hear it. But he is weary, and he is honest, and not without hope. That is what songs like those on this record are for, to help us all gather a little moss.
Below is the video for the title track off Cover Me in Moss. Mark makes his Nashville debut August 23rd at the Basement.