With former Bongos frontman and solo artist Richard Barone making so many intimate local appearances lately (and performing winningly, by all accounts), I find myself having to open my ever-volatile, shapeshifting, silicon-based Book of the Musical Past to make some annotations and hierarchical adjustments, if not an entirely fresh entry. Regarding hip scenes and first-responder creds, my life story is nothing but wrong place/wrong time (which should be New Paltz’s official slogan) and late-to-the-disbanding-party, so never use me as a gauge of cultural importance. You’ll listen to way too much early Kansas if you do.
I don’t remember if I remember the Bongos. I might…n’t. As for Barone’s early solo efforts, for which (it is claimed) Rolling Stone had to coin the term “chamber pop,” there is no such doubt; I wasn’t aware of them at all. Forgive me my ignorance; I know I do. I am always willing to hip up and acquire new pasts. I see no crime or shame in not having been there at the original site of a vanishing coolness. Our responsibility is and can only be to get around to it eventually, and at that I am pretty good: a kind of ADHD, omnidirectional tortoise who will conquer everything cool as soon as the monkeys finish Shakespeare.
Up now: the lucid, stunning “chamber pop” of Richard Barone’s first post-Bongos effort, Cool Blue Halo, which is being rereleased in expanded box-set form on its 25th anniversary, and which occasions Barone’s September 29 visit to Backstage Studio Productions (BSP) in Kingston, accompanied by his formers Bongos bandmate and hyperactive Hudson Valley bassist Rob Norris (East of Venus, Living with Elephants, Tulula).
Cool Blue Halo was an odd way to launch a solo career. First, it is a live album, and a pretty spare one at that: acoustic guitar, electric guitar, cello, miscellaneous percussion and of course vocals – the high, soaring, crystalline vocals that are Barone’s trademark. It contains three covers, two of which – “The Man Who Sold the World” and “Cry Baby Cry” – could hardly be described as undiscovered gems. (The third, T. Rex’s “The Visit,” can be so described, but only because Marc Bolan is one of those rare passengers who made the ass-backwards journey from pop star to cult figure.) Finally, a few of the choice originals are self-covers – songs that Barone had already recorded with the Bongos. How, then, did a live date, clearly intended to be a casual, “an-evening-with” survey of a songwriter’s influences and achievements, become a career-defining work and a cult classic?
The answer is all in the vibe: luminous, spare and special. The intimate setting lifts Barone’s best songs out of the big, square-beat jangle of the Bongos and into a space where their subtler charms, their quiet defiance and injured melancholy, really shine. The soft jangle approach foregrounds Barone’s exceptionally strong lyrics. Barone is a smart writer who resists the temptation to write too finely – a smart writer who accepts the populist challenge of pop: to write about big subjects in broad strokes, but to be original and keen about it, as he certainly is in poetic winners like “I Belong to Me” and “Sweet Blue Cage.” Efficient, emotive lyrics with a streak of weirdness abound on this record, and their delivery is a pure pop injection.
My experience revisiting this place where I had never been before is not unlike my comically after-the-fact discovery of another late-‘80s classic, the Pixies’ Doolittle. It is an “Oh, now I understand everything that came after it a little better” moment. For, with Cool Blue Halo, Barone really did cut a template for small, lustrous and de-powered power pop. One imagines that it still plays pretty well live.
Henceforth, I will speak of Cool Blue Halo as if I were there: not there at the Bottom Line on the night when it was recorded, but “there” in the cultural moment. In culture-time, there is always here and then is always now. I was there now. And it was/is great.
Richard Barone and Rob Norris will perform at the Lounge at BSP in Kingston on Saturday, September 29. Lindsey Webster with Keith Slattery will open. The show begins at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $8. For more information, visit bsplounge.com. BSP is located at 323 Wall Street in Kingston.