Friday, January 10, 2014
I’ve had the pleasure of having a ringside seat in Stewart Francke’s career. As he gets set to release his 14th full length release I cannot help but marvel at the incredible amount and quality of work he has assembled over the years. I have never been disappointed in any of his records, though I must confess after hearing his latest, “A Familiar Fire” it did not meet my expectations.
It exceeded them.
It’s not often that I get to toot my own horn about my brushes with greatness and delicate geniuses (one of my many jocular nicknames for him) but after being blown away in the early 90’s by three cassette only releases, it was me who got him out of retirement in 1995 to make his first “real record.” The rest has been a body of work that has only become stronger with time as he has done what very few songwriters can do; compose and perform in several different styles, combining Motown, Bob Seger, Springsteen, Brian Wilson, Marvin Gay, Van Morrison and a little bit of Sondheim to round things out.
His first recordings were really nothing more than 4 track demos, but they embodied a sound and vision of a learned young man living life on rock and roll’s terms. Once he started making records and devoting himself full time to his art, he no longer had to make excuses or explain what he was really trying to say with his songs because their musical and lyrical prowess spoke for itself.
Early in his career Francke was taken under the wing of Boogie Bob Baldori, who was playing with Chuck Berry. He called Francke to play bass on some of Chuck’s gigs as a teenager and was schooled in Rock and Roll. Many people may not know this but Stewart is always writing music and constantly drawing on influences like those days playing with Berry. There are a lot of songs that have never been released while others have stuck with him and morphed into something else over the years. I always tell people that Stewart is one of the few people who is constantly ripping himself off musically and is not afraid to borrow a line, phrase, chorus or verse of a previous song and reinvent it. The opening song “Wave” on his new record is proof.
Through the years I’ve heard rough mixes over the phone, bits and pieces of songs played on piano or guitar in his living room or in mine as they were being written. Each one of them would leave me wanting more. In addition to the hundreds of live performances, I’ve been with him for long nights at the studio, in our homes, or on the phone talking about something important even when the talking doesn’t come easy.
The most recent example of this was being parked in my driveway listening to the final mixes of the new record earlier this week in the middle of the worst snow and frigid temps to hit Michigan in 20 years.
On this record Stewart returns to the sparse instrumentation of his earlier recordings (Where the River Meets the Bay and Expecting Heroes) and he recorded many of the guitar and bass parts himself. Co-Producer B. Rilley did a great job of putting the vocals to these poignant narratives up front in the mixes so nobody will miss a word; and you won’t want to. His voice is clean yet rugged; strong and honest and these new songs will stir your soul.
Unlike so many of his contemporaries, Francke has never been a songwriter who cheapens things like faith and love with thin, fluffy words for the sake of a perfect rhyme. There are no clichés and no fan is ever cheated when they shell out their $15 for a CD.
"Starlings gather in the yard the way they always do when they feel a storm is breaking
Darling this is very hard, that you & I are through, and I fear my soul is aching
I’m getting to know this loneliness. . .I guess."
-From “Love’s Very Marrow”
His story is not woeful, but rather empowering; something the national media could really sink their teeth into but won’t and something the Detroit area music media could sink their teeth into but hasn’t in several years and when they did they only gave us a taste. That’s the sad price we pay when editors are beholden to Kid Rock, Eminem. Jack White, ICP or whatever the new sound of the day may be. The people I just mentioned may have the numbers of Hollywood stars in their I-phone, but how many of them have Bruce Springsteen as a fan? Springsteen recorded with Francke on his record “Heartless World” in 2011 and it was virtually ignored by AAA radio and the Detroit media.
Stewart was an ambassador of Detroit music long before most of today’s Detroit stars were making music. He reunited the legendary Funk Brothers for their first recording session in decades (recording his music) back in 2004 after the release of the movie “Standing in the Shadows of Motown,” but has remained largely shut out of the Detroit Music Awards for years. I guess that happens when you’re not young enough or hip enough or don’t have enough “likes” on facebook. . .so much for possessing artistic acumen.
But for Francke, it’s not about awards and it never has been. It’s about the connection with his audience; one that has grown with him over the years and remained steadfast amid the clutter of people who have suddenly become musicians with drum loops, ephemeral writing and free downloads.
There’s a song on the new record called “Raining in Saginaw” which to me is more about the spirit of Detroit than it is the city by the bay. Let’s hope someone in the Michigan media picks up on it because Detroit could use something beautiful and uplifting about now. All the songs that make up “A Familiar Fire” have heart, guts and significance. They present something courageous and dare I say, “Poetic.” But they are not just a bunch of pretty ballads where “love” rhymes with “of” and “from the heart” rhymes with “from the start” like we’ve heard a thousand times on the radio. They possess something greater, which is the ability to change the way we think; which ultimately leads to how we accept this world and how the world accepts us. Within the songs are the secrets about how we live, what we keep, give away and the amount of grace we maintain when we lose.
"Now you say you’ve lost your faith;
You say you’ve lost love for the human race
You’ve had too much to carry and grief too large to bury
Suzanne this town is hard but you've gotta play your card
Your beauty's your lock and key; it still can set you free."
Francke weaves beautiful and unpredictable melodies that soar with story lines that go head to head with some of the great songwriters of our generation. They are created for the people who have followed him on his journey and allowed their journey’s to include him. He may not have moved units like Eminem, Kid Rock or the White Stripes, but instead he gives you something you can hold onto in this beautiful, messy and often slippery world.
"We are not what we were when but I’ve got this feeling that we’ll feel that way again.
Kiss me and I’ll whisper to ya what I’ve learned
Oh it’s nothing next to what I’ve burned."
–From “The Pylons”
Stewart Francke is one of Detroit’s most reliable gems and with each new record his story becomes fuller, richer and more deserving of wider recognition. Through his music he tosses questions into the wind that most people are afraid to ask, much less answer with honesty. And though some answers are implied, you’re going to have to discover that implication for yourself when the record comes out sometime in March.
Francke would not ask us to follow him into the pain-filled, joyful and mysterious places he’s been without first returning from them himself. “A Familiar Fire” is proof that he has.
Thursday, January 2, 2014
My house is small by Royal Oak standards, but I love it. It was built in 1922, has a subtle old Royal Oak charm to it and Jack and Needa have no problem stretching their legs in the yard. I also like my neighborhood. My goal is to have homes, cottages or cabins in four different places but first I need success and a woman standing next to me who can replace the shocked look on her face with her smile.
Yesterday we had a significant amount of snow. Much of it was shoveled away from driveways and sidewalks, but today’s blowing, drifting and additional accumulation made it reappear as people came back home and found it had moved. Not fair.
Since last night through today I’ve seen neighbors clearing snow for other neighbors, a resident using his own truck and plow to clear a path for someone stuck and other neighbors thanking him for his selfless act. This is the world I want to live in.
I love my neighborhood. Five miles south of me people are killed for no reason. In mine, we face the same wind but don’t shoot each other. I'll stay here as long as I can.