I’m pretty sure that Peter Mulvey’s teachers must have written on his first report cards “plays well with others,” because he still does it better than just about anyone I know. His annual Lamplighter holiday shows at the Carpe gather a diverse group of musicians over a span of several weeks for songwriter in the round sessions. No matter who the guest, Mulvey jumps right in on every song whether it’s a well-known cover or something he’s hearing for the first time. Tonight’s ensemble was dubbed “The Occasional Quartet” for reasons which should be self-explanatory, and this was their third sold out night at the Carpe. The best known name of the group is Wisconsin native Willy Porter who has achieved some moderate nationwide success, a wickedly fast guitar player he also excels in this environment. Even better is multi-instrumentalist Randy Sabien who not only knew exactly what to play but what instrument to play it on. Unless it was his turn, Carpe owner Bill Camplin seemed content to sit back and observe the interplay between the musicians, adding the sporadic backing vocal or snide comment.
Camplin, Mulvey and Porter each took turns with Sabien getting a song of his own every couple rounds, “Randy time” as Mulvey called it. On his second round he covered Blind Willie Johnson’s “Keep Your Lamp Trimmed and Burning” simply because Mulvey had mentioned Johnson in his first song. It was pointed out that it was lucky he didn’t start with the song he wrote in Spain, “because then you would have had to kill somebody.” They were referring to a song he had written as part of a weekly songwriting challenge, this one told from the perspective of a man having a recurring dream, and yes someone did die. Despite the fact that I’ve seen Mulvey dozens of times and have all his records, he usually plays several songs I don’t know, whether it’s from the vast library of covers he has in his head or because he’s writing a new song every week. One cover I did recognize was “I Wanna Be Like You” from Disney’s The Jungle Book. Since he led into it with the legend of Prometheus, I was expecting something more highbrow, but that is Mulvey’s charm.
Mulvey kicked off one of the rounds with a song that Porter had requested, and since they have a combined “94 years of touring together” he was honored that there was a song he wanted to hear. Porter chose wisely, “If Love Is Not Enough” is a terrifically infectious song which showcases his hypnotic voice and distinctive jangly guitar style. He said he hadn’t played that song in over a hundred shows, “which means it’s been at least a couple months.” One of my first favorite songs of his, I hadn’t heard it years. I didn’t know any of Porter’s songs, but as always he was terrific. He has a captivating voice and an impressive guitar style. He also had a very unique instrument, a nine string guitar. The only one I’ve ever seen, the top half is single strung while the bottom is double strung, for a total of nine. It combines the crisp sound of a six string with the jangle of a twelve. Sabien also had an impressive arsenal of instruments, each of which he was as adept at as he was the violin, his primary instrument. Whether it was violin, mandolin, guitar or bouzouki, he knew which instrument went with the song. For Camplin’s Dylan-esque epics, he often went with the latter, while Porter’s songs were more likely to bring out the violin.
For two hours the quartet traded songs and stories. After three nights they didn’t seem weary of this arrangement at all, in fact I have no doubt they could keep doing this every night well into summer. They were having as much fun as we were.