There have been some great American comedy duos over the years: Martin and Lewis, Hope and Crosby, Burns and Allen, Tom and Dick Smothers to name a few. After last Saturday’s show at the Birchmere in Alexandria, VA, I’m thinking maybe we should add folk music icons John Gorka and Cheryl Wheeler to that list. Rarely have I been to a concert featuring two such wickedly funny people. And, oh yeah, they are pretty awesome musicians as well.
An avid Cheryl Wheeler fan, I have seen her live a dozen times or so, and I am well aware of how truly funny she is. Never having seen a John Gorka show before though, I had no idea Wheeler might have a rival in that department, but after about ten minutes, I realized she does. Their humor complements one another; she is ribald, brash, and often sarcastic (the highest form of humor in my book), while he is dry, subtle and understated. Both have a very well-developed sense of how to poke fun at the absurdities of life, yet neither loses sight of its wonder. Through their storytelling, both spoken and in their music, they open up a window not only into their own lives, but into the lives of those they observe around them. It is a compelling and very entertaining combination.
A joint concert, they shared the stage, alternating in performing numbers from their extensive catalogues. Rarely, one provided harmony for the other. There seemed to be no preset arc to the show; each played what moved them with little regard for what the other had just performed. This could be jarring at times such as when John Gorka performed “Semper Fi,” a hauntingly moving tribute to his WWII veteran father, followed by Cheryl Wheeler’s side-splittingly funny “tribute” to her least favorite insult, “Shut Your Pie Hole.” Oddly, after a while I began to like these weird juxtapositions.
Both Gorka and Wheeler are firmly ensconced as part of the “New Folk” movement. Respecting the traditional roots of folk music, they are part of a generation of musicians who have worked to make it relevant to more contemporary audiences—with considerable success, as the nearly sold out Birchmere demonstrated. Gorka’s warm baritone carries a slight, gravelly edge that adds a poignancy to many of his songs, most particularly “Semper Fi,” “I Saw a Stranger With Your Hair” (a devastatingly beautiful piece lamenting lost love), and his moving cover of Prince’s “When Doves Cry,” with which he opened the show. My favorite of the night was his brilliant cover of the Eddy Arnold & Cindy Walker classic “You Don’t Know Me.”
Cheryl Wheeler possesses one of the most gorgeous voices of anyone in the folk, or any, genre. With an unbelievable range, her tone is so rich and expressive there is almost no lyric she cannot make interesting. Add her skill as a songwriter and you have one of the most talented folk musicians of the last 30 years. Based on her performance last week she hasn’t lost a step. This was on particular display on songs such as the “Northern Girl,” “Mrs. Pinocci’s Guitar,” and a surprising beautiful tribute to the relationship between dogs and their owners, “Leaning Into Me.” My favorite of the night was the spine-tingling tribute to her father written for his 75th birthday, “75 Septembers.”
Folk music wouldn’t be what it is without an (often humorous) political edge. Neither John Gorka nor Cheryl Wheeler are shy about expressing their opinions through their music. Aging and death were the subjects of Gorka’s “People My Age,” and Wheeler’s “If I Die Before You.” Gorka’s devastating take on white privilege, “Ignorance and Privilege,” was reinforced by Wheeler’s satirical cover of the sexist Burt Bachrach hit “Wives and Lovers.” And of course humorous observations of some of life’s absurdities are a staple of folk music, and part of what made this show so entertaining. Gorka’s “I’m From New Jersey,” looked at some of the funny stereotypes people have about his birth state, while Wheeler ended her part with fan favorite “The Potato Song,” her tribute to the ubiquitous tuber set to the music of the “Mexican Hat Dance.”
I recognize the high opinion I have of Cheryl Wheeler made me predisposed to enjoy this show, and it is possible that mindset has caused me to overlook flaws in it, but they aren’t coming to mind. I expected to love the show, and I did.