Out of time: The strange case of roots renegade Howard Fishman

Howard Fishman (photo by Carole Cohen)

The super-prolific touring songwriter and NPR darling Howard Fishman registers on the category meter as an “American roots singer/songwriter” of a swingcentric stripe, but the real story is quite a bit more complicated than that. The words “retro” and “purist” tend to stick together; and if Fishman’s debut, 1999’s The Howard Fishman Quartet, were a life sentence, it would be easy enough to fix Fishman as a serious swing revivalist, originally more Django/Grappelli, ultimately more New Orleans backline and bayou. But maybe the title of 2002’s odd rock record I Do What I Want was Fishman’s not-so-gentle FU to puristry in general. A master of all conventions, he has never been exactly as reverent and convention-bound as the purists would have him.

Fishman’s somewhat-wry retro persona and his old-tyme range of swing, blues, gospel and jazz reference are as easy and natural as can be, neither forced nor stylized: just the way he hears it as a writer and a singer, the Ground Zero of his style. They’re the result of aesthetic impulse and of intensive study. But his musical and musicological restlessness upsets all the carts eventually. He is at times quite a punk, for example; and when your survey of his career finally reaches the dark, Balkan-colored brooding of 2011’s No Further Instructions, your time and place coordinates have been scrambled beyond reconstruction. You now live in a place, and an age, called Fishman.

Brassy, quiet, spiritual, swinging, touching and touched, Fishman’s latest Uncollected Stories feels like a bit of a return to his default settings – but that of course is an incomplete and misleading assessment, a false comfort, which is actually kind of the theme of the record. It’s a reflection on impermanence and our common doom, presented in a musical and lyrical voice of such worn-in and familiar comfort, you probably won’t even notice how dark and dread it can be – until some line or other zings you, like the last words of the gently swinging “Letter One”: “I’m yours, farewell.”

Howard Fishman and his band (which features former New Paltz resident and frequent area performer Scott Barkan) return to the Falcon in Marlboro on Sunday, October 4 with James Hearne kicking the evening off at 7 p.m. Per usual, there is no cover charge at the Falcon, but generous donation is encouraged. The Falcon is located at 1348 Route 9W in Marlboro. For more information, visit www.liveatthefalcon.com.
Fishman & Co. will be also be appearing on October 2 and 3 at Caffe Lena in Saratoga Springs: www.caffelena.org.


Howard Fishman, Sunday, October 4, 7 p.m., The Falcon, 1348 Route 9W, Marlboro; www.liveatthefalcon.com.

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