Music Review: “Of Great and Mortal Men” at Sixth & I Historic Synagogue

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Monday, January 19, 2009

Over the next few days, plenty of tunes will be sung to, for or about almost-president Barack Obama. But what about Millard Fillmore, Martin Van Buren or William Howard Taft?

Actually, those three didn't make the cut Saturday night at the Sixth & I Historic Synagogue, where J. Matthew Gerken, Christian Kiefer and Jefferson Pitcher performed slightly more than half of their three-CD project "Of Great and Mortal Men: 43 Songs for 43 U.S. Presidencies." But Zachary Taylor, Rutherford B. Hayes and James Buchanan did rate the set list, along with Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln and most of the POTUSes of the last 100 years.

Gerken, Kiefer and Pitcher, who wrote the historical ditties, were joined by a few other out-of-towners and many locals. While the latter contingent included a fife and drum corps, the evening's default mode was a noisy brand of folk rock. That was problematic, since too many numbers emphasized feedback over lyrics.

The wordy material was better served by folk or cabaret renditions. D.C.'s Laura Burhenn belted "When Ike Walked the Land," and New York's Nellie McKay crooned "A Great Beam of Light," a tune inspired by Jimmy Carter's UFO sighting. The Reagan-mocking "Such a Marvelous Dream" was rendered surprisingly pretty by Middle Distance Runner, another local act.

The most theatrical -- and effective -- performance was by Tim Fite, who used nothing more than a recorded folk-blues track and a few simple gestures to turn the tale of Grover Cleveland's marriage into an amusing burlesque routine.

Two area bands, the dance-punk Jukebox the Ghost and the country-punk These United States, were so lively that it hardly mattered that the words were lost. And Gerken, Kiefer and Pitcher's "Malice, Charity and the Oath of God," a bluegrass dirge, benefited from having taken its text from well-known Lincoln speeches.

The tension between overstuffed lyrics and over-amped instruments was banished by the final song, an ode to Obama that exulted, "Everything's all right." That seemed overly optimistic, but the simple chorus did match the raucous tune. There's a reason more rock bands gravitate to "Louie Louie" than to the Gettysburg Address.

-- Mark Jenkins


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