Christopher Porterfield of Field Report travels inner highways and outer byways

Christopher Porterfield on the road. milwaukeerecord.com

Perhaps his parents detected the glint of a wanderer in their infant’s eyes, then they named him. Christopher Porter is like a flawed version of Saint Christopher, the patron saint of travelers, especially in his marvelous song “Home (Leave the Lights On).” Or in “Summons” or “Enchantment,” or the Kerouac-esque “If I Knew.” In his humble way, Porterfield conveys an acute sense of place, even as locales shift. So he honors “the sacred,” as he did in his recent live YouTube performance, from Café Carpe, the quietly legendary roots music venue in Fort Atkinson, Wisconsin, which prompted this essay. He paraphrased the great poet-naturalist Wendell Barry: “There are no places that are not sacred, only some that are desecrated.” This recalls the adage “The Holy Land is everywhere,” spoken by Native American wise man Black Elk, as the white man began his desecrating.

And much of Porterfield’s traveling runs parallel to wayward inner psycho-scapes, like the one depicted on the cover of the second Field Report album, Marigolden. There, two people stand separated by crevasses, lonely, yet heart-wrenchingly close, a stone’s throw away. Beside one person is a car — with head lights projecting towards the other person but too far overhead to illuminate the other person — seems an almost plaintive failure of technology.

Cover to Field Report’s “Marigolden” album. Courtesy youtube. com

You get the feeling of risk in his wanderer’s sensibility. He conveys a distinctly American dilemma of isolation or alienation, from a desolate yet hungry heart. Yet the persona also belies the mythical Western loner cowboy narrative.

Porterfield’s slightly nerdy-hip horn-rim specs help make that abundantly clear. The UW-Eau Claire journalism major crafted his band’s name as a clever anagram of his last name, and the name Field Report posits himself as striving to be an honest yet poetic correspondent on what he finds “out there,” in still-untamed or sacred or desecrated, America, and in the craggy depths of his own heart and life.

Bob Dylan still does something comparable but less confessionally, as he did brilliantly probing modern American history in his epic Kennedy assassination song “Murder Most Foul,” last year. Porterfield’s missives, rich in autobiographical experience, seem closer to The New Journalism as Song, with the reporter playing a central role.

To back up a bit, I recently made the critical assertion that James McMurtry is probably America’s finest living singer-songwriter “south of Bob Dylan.” Of course, there are a goodly handful of others who would be that in that “best” conversation, including Steve Earle, whom I also reviewed in that blog. 1

But recently, Porterfield reminded me of his powers in his superb, often exquisite virtual concert. The front man and singer-songwriter for Field Report is a Milwaukeean (by way of Minnesota), part of the rich motherlode of creative songwriting born of the Upper Midwest, including (among many others) Dylan, John Prine, Greg Brown, Prince, Jeffrey Foucault, Peter Mulvey, Hayward Williams, Bill Camplin, Josh Harty, Heidi Spencer, and Justin Vernon (of Bon Iver), with whom Porterfield previously played with in the band DeYarmond Edison.

I first met Porterfield some years ago, when we were both employed by Marquette University. He was leading his previous band, Conrad Plymouth, at Linneman’s Riverwest Inn, a Milwaukee music venue that has long nurtured and celebrated singer-songwriters. “Fergus Falls,” destined as the opener for the first Field Report album, was already a highlight in his repertoire.

I’ve seen him open solo for Richard Thompson at The Pabst in Milwaukee, which immediately put him on substantial ground with that great artist. By then, Field Report was touring and making its mark. The band has since opened for Counting Crows, Emmylou Harris, Aimee Mann, and others. They signed to Verve/Forecast in time for their third album Summertime Songs. That label’s catalogue includes Ritchie Havens, Tim Hardin and Laura Nyro.

So I’ll put him in the bigger-name conversation. Porterfield isn’t as outward-looking or social commenting as a McMurtry or an Earle. But on the premise that “all politics is personal,” you might accordingly contextualize this far more introspective artist. He lacks some of the musical range and variety of those artists (He’s not really a rocker, as those two often are, even if the last two albums albums delve into pop-rock textures and elevated production.).

Porterfield is essentially a lyrical brooder who can raise his emotional temperature as high as a rocker’s, as a lonesome howling wolf, though not in a bluegrass sense. So, even if McMurtry often expresses regret and doleful sentiment in a funky rock groove, it’s often couched in ironic attitude — he can walk that fine line superbly. But until Porterfield proves otherwise, him in a hard-rocking backdrop seems problematic.

Chris Porterfield, lead singer-songwriter of Field Report. Courtesy npr.org

Though Earle certainly has strong and tender singing moments, Porterfield is actually a more gifted vocalist than either he or McMurtry. His songwriting catalog can’t compare to those prolific veterans, but his voice is how Porterfield often catches you, as sharply and powerfully as an ace fly fisherman. But instead of comparing him too closely to others, for now, I’ll mainly strive to take him on his own terms — looking at the world from inside-out, and poetically, while often mining the quotidian, and being easy to connect with. His extraordinary singing emanates with stunningly affecting power, and unassuming poignancy. His points of emphasis often teeter along a gravelly vibrato that virtually bleeds vulnerability, and other times as startling upper-register bursts of emotion. These two stylistic aspects combine in the listener’s memory like a vivid, very human sonic silhouette.

Porterfield is a bruised, contemporary romantic, who directly admits he’s struggled with alcohol, who often sounds like a man dredging limpid thoughts from the depths of his innards, often with a starkness that feels naked, yet perfectly expressed, in the tender grain and surge of that voice. The emotion’s exposed moment often compels the outcries, but tempered by a man’s eloquent sense of self, uncertain as he may be of his situation.

Among his most affecting works is the aforementioned “Home (Leave the Lights On),” from Marigolden, which captures the longing of being “homeward-bound” as well has the famous Paul Simon song named for that phrase.

Among Porterfield’s most vivid, apparently recollected landscapes is “Fergus Falls,” the song resurrected from a 2010 Conrad Plymouth EP, for the self-titled debut Field Report album. Fergus Falls is a small town in Otter Tail County in Western Minnesota, his native state. Of the song’s inspiration, Porterfield told me: “My family used to have a cabin in northern Minnesota. We would drive through Fergus to get there. It sprung from my subconscious when that song appeared, mostly for the alliteration.”

The first Field Report album opens thusly: “This is the one in which I miraculously pulled out of a freefall dive over Fergus Falls, Minnesota.” It is the first of many struggles for equilibrium and grace in his lyric storytelling and brings to mind another gifted Minnesota writer, F. Scott Fitzgerald, also a drinker who died at 44, and who, as Elizabeth Hardwick wrote, “had in the midst of chaos the rather cross-eyed power of gazing upon his deterioration as if he were not living it but somehow observing his soul and body as one would watch a drop of water slowly drying up in the sun.” 2

Porterfield emerged from his early vertigo less fatefully, but comparably, with both a sharp-eyed self-insight and sense of inhabited landscape. Recollected landscapes, real and metaphorical, are a key to his sensibility. As The All-Music Guide has noted, “Some albums are about mood more than anything else, and on Marigolden Porterfield shows he’s a master of creating an ambience that’s cinematic in its strength and emotional impact.”  In fact, I can easily envision a Porterfield song adorning one of the new breed of Western movies being made by women directors (eg. Chloe Zhao’s Oscar-winning Nomadland), which court America’s sprawling, rugged spaces but understand the vulnerable smallness of the wandering or wayward soul, alienated from community. 3 “Enchantment” from Marigolden opens on “Easter morning in New Mexico: the Son is risen on another day.” The spiritual wordplay replaces macho Old West gun play.

Porterfield’s is a gift he shares with the Texan McMurtry, as well as not many others. It has to do with how he imbues such perfectly wrought details resonating with  psychological utterance, so they breathe ultimately as song lyrics even though they’re impressive even on paper.

Like the aforementioned songs, “If I Knew,” the best-known title from the third album Summertime Songs, is also a road song, but more like a DUI-fueled misadventure, that probably left old St. Chris forgotten, way back in the dust: “You were bouncing off the guardrails shouting at the wind/ we were off our meds, drinking again.”

Album cover for Field Report’s “Brake Lights Red Tide.” Courtesy bandcamp.com

On the latest Field Report album, 2020’s Brake Lights Red Tide, Porterfield is still on the road and still searching for equilibrium but with an enhanced sonic vision, that seems to suspend him from deterioration or harm, and allows listeners to share such uneasy atmospheric heights.

The album cover photo (above) seems shot from the window of a car stuck in traffic on a large bridge over a large body of water in Asia. And musically the group employs synthesizer, played by Thomas Wincek, much more than previously.

For me, this first seemed like a calculated detour and throughout Porterfield’s singing is more restrained than previously. But the effect ultimately beguiles in its open waywardness. The sonics elevate the thrust of the album on a woozy arc, until finally the penultimate track, “Whulge,” which is essentially a synthesizer instrumental, rippling in sonic waves, buoyant yet immersive. “Red tide” refers to a dense kind of sea algae. So, between the atmospheric synth and that metaphoric “tide,” Porterfield still faces mysteries he dares to dive into, especially with such watery themes as “a river’s love” and “Puget Sound.” Finally, the closing track, “Begin to Begin,” suggests a certain sense of being, a psychological condition he describes which seems like falling back into a pre-natal state, a refrain in sighing descent: “Begin to begin to begin to begin…” Only a session with his therapist, he sings, can pull him out.

But the whole notion of receding from a troubled lifetime back into pre-birth, the swallowing or drowning of full experience, is a profound abandonment, a healing re-immersion into imagined innocence. Perhaps it is the impulse toward literary critic Ihab Hassan’s famous concept of American “radical innocence”: “The disparity between the innocence of the hero and the destructive character of his experience defines his concrete, or existential, situation.” 4

Somehow, after life’s vagaries, cruelties and suffering, perhaps it’s a longing we all subconsciously share, to reset our course for unrealized happiness and beauty, a place we may never reach unto, perhaps, only death’s passage.

Earlier on Red Tide rebirthing hovers, as this sad saint sings, “My heart begs to be light but my mind gets dark. Can’t push us into love.”

Can’t push us into life, and its inevitable losses? Thus are the risks taken, by an artist as honest as he dares to be.

_________

  1. Or should I say, “younger than Willie Nelson”? The great critic Mikal Gilmore reminds us that, at 87, the godfather of “outlaw” Texas singer-songwriters, remains vital and in the game. https://legacyrecordings.medium.com/willie-nelson-first-rose-of-spring-1ae9f6eed41f Nelson’s long legacy (His 2018 album was aptly titled Last Man Standing), reinforces the research and statistics that show that marijuana is a far safer drug of pain or psychological management, or even indulgence, than booze (Among gifted singer-songwriters, see: Hank Williams, dead at 29; Steve Earle’s son, Justin Townes Earle, dead last December at 38; and his namesake Townes Van Zandt, dead at 50; Tim Hardin dead at 39; Phil Ochs dead at 35, Gram Parsons and Jim Morrison, both dead at 27, primarily with alcohol abuse or hard drugs central to their demise. Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain’s gun-shot suicide, at 27, was preceded by substantial drug abuse. The brilliant Brit singer-songwriter Nick Drake overdosed, at 26, on a prescription anti-depressant drug, amitriptyline.)
  2. Elizabeth Hardwick, American Fictions, Modern Library, 139
  3. See Jordan Kisner’s essay, “The Western Rides Again,” The Atlantic, May 2021, 86 https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2021/05/zhao-nomadland-women-western/618403/
  4. Ihab Hassan, Radical Innocence: The Contemporary American Novel, Princeton University Press 1961, 7

Caitlin Canty and enchanting Three Brothers Farm radiate myriad shades of romance

 

Singer-songwriter Caitlin Canty and pedal steel player and guitarist Eric Heywood perform beside the still-strong sunlight of early evening and below the “field halo” at Three Brothers Farm, outside of Oconomowoc, Wisconsin. 

 As I haven’t done justice to Eric Heywood’s artful moans and whorls on the pedal steel, I relate that a man approached me after Ms. Canty’s performance, having heard I write a blog, and told me the pedal steel player created “3-D musical romanticism.”

The romance of Three Brothers Farm radiated even before the early Saturday evening sun flooded into the rustic barn that serves as a concert space. Chicken and sheep wandered around in their spacious areas. For that matter, romance, such as it is, involves the feathered creatures. The hens have virtually free roam of a pasture, with room for mating privacy with roosters and other well being, which helps produce the quality eggs the farm sells, at its events and in area grocery stores. 1

And by concert time, the sun had burned off the rain from the early morning, and overcast clouds had fled. But sunlight couldn’t chase away the rue of my gal pal, Ann Peterson, who was unable to come to what she describes as “the most romantic place I can think of” for a concert. She was babysitting for her very first grandchild, so I took in the show with my friend Steve Hackbarth, an assistant professor of English at Milwaukee Lutheran College, who lives nearby in Oconomowoc. Besides being a Medieval and Renaissance literature scholar, Steve is an acute appreciator of well-crafted song storytelling lyrics and vernacular-music style which, among its various roots, can be traceable to Medieval plainsong.

A cantor like Caitlin knows how to craft a story, whether in the artful form of a song or a confessional anecdote, clearly inspired by this very special place.

Three Brothers helped facilitated her musical relationship with The Punch Brothers, which includes mandolinist and singer Chris Thile, now the host of the beloved NPR radio program A Prairie Home CompanionThe Punch Brothers were performing at Milwaukee’s Summerfest a few years back, when they got wind of her playing not too far away at Three Brothers, near Oconomowoc, Wisconsin. Punch Brother Noam Pickelny found time to come to see her and sat in with her at the enchanted venue.

If he or the Punch Brothers fell under a Three Brothers spell, it has continued and enhanced Canty’s evocative artistic endeavors on her latest album Motel Bouquet. One thing led to the next and Pickelny ended up playing lead guitars and banjo, co-writing several of the songs with Canty, and producing the album. Two fellow Punch Brothers also assist on the album: Paul Kowert plays upright bass and, on two tracks, Gabe Witcher plays fiddle.   

She did share some anecdotes about her life on the road that enhanced the romantic atmosphere. This all unfolded with her wide, beaming Julia Roberts-like smile, which also graces her unassuming, self-deprecating humor. She loved the idea of playing while sunlight could still enhance the atmosphere. Then she related, “Somebody said to me, “you are so pale.’ And I said ‘Well, I lived the life of a vampire, also I’m Irish.”

 These were reasons why this was her favorite place to play, perhaps a romantic exaggeration.

“But I normally play in small, dark clubs that smell like year-old beer on the floor,” she explained, as a gentle breeze, sunlight and rustic aromas filled the barn. She also marveled at what she calls the “field halo,” a large, ingenious circular construction of grain grasses bedecked in festive lights, which hovers over the space in front of the stage. (see photo at top). It felt almost like the golden ghost of a hoary, prehistoric buffalo that might’ve once wandered wild in these parts. Meanwhile, the farm’s pet dog wandered eagerly among the seated guests, sniffing for droppings of the delicious stone oven-fired pizza they sell at concerts. But her primary offering was Motel Bouquet, and this felt like an ideal setting to share the complex aspects of romance entailed in the album’s songs.

A view of the farm fields is as clear as a view of the stage at Three Brothers Farm

“Motel Bouquet” cover courtesy americansongwriter. com. All other photos by Kevin Lynch

Which brings us to the music. Her performance consisted primarily of material from Motel Bouquet, which trafficks in plenty of romance but in no simple or facile terms. The cover image conveys the transitory nature of life on the road for a touring musician, and such a person’s romantic prospects. A photograph of a bouquet of vased roses appears to sit on the table of a moving bus or a train, an unsteady situation in itself. At Three Brothers, a similar bouquet of short-lived roses sat right before her microphone, as Canty performed (see photo below).

With the extremely able backdrop of Eric Heywood’s pedal steel guitar, she meandered through the album, almost inverting the song order in a sort of shuffle sequence, like rose petals blown backwards, falling into a trail of memories. The album’s penultimate song, the country twanger “Basil Gone to Blossom,” a metaphor for short-lived romance, came early. And the album opener, “Take Me for a Ride,” closed her concert’s set list.

Her voice is effectively expressive – especially with the sort of swallow-a-word emotional quaver, and the wistful, high-pitched sigh in a phrase: “You-hoo-hoo take me for a ride,” – that disarms the listener, while arming her against further deceit.

Otherwise, her voice has regular-girl qualities and its straightforwardness helps to frame her lyrics without distraction. As a Vermontian, she says she writes from a “cold weather perspective.” Her north country girl’s sensibility arose quickly in “Time Rolls By” which alludes obliquely to Joni Mitchell’s classic “River”: “Time rolls by, another day washes away/with my heartbeat counting the/ time rolling by slowly/ like a frozen river winding to sea.”
She rightly claims the centerpiece of the album is a remarkably spare, almost existential questioning song, “Who.” She had considered it for the album’s title, although she jokingly noted that it would have implied the question mark: ‘Caitlin Canty Who?”  Here, her voice seems engulfed in a cloud of uncertainty, hanging low like a haunting.

You took the salt from my lips

you took the love from my fingertips

you took the red from my mouth

you put the light out

 

Who put the moon in your cry

Who put the wind in your sigh

Who put the sun in your eyes

Who

Then, with Heywood’s steel pealing in the dark, she picked up the tempo, hardened the edge and toughened the hide on “I’m Onto You.” The vamping Lucinda Williams-like lament also references one of that songwriter’s famous images: You pull up the driveway in the following night/ familiar crunching gravel underneath your tires/ wonder why no one bothered to leave on a light/ fumble with your keys blindly step inside/ feel the cold air rush from an empty room.”  

Perhaps this pregnantly hollow scene left Canty fleeing to Motel Bouquet. But this night the troubadour had found a high, embracing barn roof, blessed with long shafts of sunlight, beneath a room full affectionate and engaged listeners. And to the degree such songwriting may be confessional, we can only give thanks she’s finally found a room in a home with a fiddler who can pluck her strings, and stay right beside the fire in her heart.

Several notable singer-songwriters lingered in the crowd, including Peter Mulvey and Hayward Williams, who came up to sing harmony with Canty on a cover of Neil Young’s “She Rides a Harley Davidson,” a perfect love ode for a Milwaukee-area crowd. 

Totally struck by a night that was so “sparkly and beautiful,” Canty changed her final encore to a waltz. The sauntering 3/4 time of “Tennessee Waltz” allowed sparkle into the tempo and the sadness, as she firmed up her tough romantic’s bonafides. The seminal country refrain provided fuel aplenty to roll on down the road, to a blinking-light in the fog, and a low-slung place in the dark, for her to lay her head.  

I left for home with a copy of Motel Bouquet, enchanted memories, and a dozen of the farm’s pasture-raised eggs.

_________

1 I wrote about Tree Brothers Farm as a concert venue in an illustrated survey feature of upper Midwest roots music venues in the “Heartland” issue, of ” No Depression: The Journal of Roots Music, which included quotes from Caitlin Canty. The article and journal are only available in print form. The coffee-table quality book can be ordered here:

Heartland – Spring 2017