The Tales From the Tavern concert series is celebrating its 10th season. On Wednesday at the Maverick Saloon in Santa Ynez, this provided a chance to bring The Refugees to town for the first time and Michael Smith back through for a return visit.
The evening began with a charming set by the charming women that make up The Refugees. And not only are they charming, but they are also super-talented, each having a notable resume from before the band came together five years ago.
Cindy Bullens, who was celebrating her birthday and who sang, played mandolin and sometimes played acoustic guitar, at one time sang background vocals for Elton John and did lead vocals for three songs on the Grease movie soundtrack. Deborah Holland, who sang, played bass and sometimes played accordion, was the singer and primary songwriter in Animal Logic with ex-Police drummer Stewart Copeland and jazz bassist Stanley Clarke. And Wendy Waldman, who sang and played acoustic guitar, has written hits for various artists and was one of the first female record producers.
Their set was a showcase for their beautiful three-part harmonies and songwriting craft. The first eight songs came from their recent album, Three, which is “storming up the folk music charts” and currently resides at No. 2 in the nation. Their main set ended with “Unbound” from the band’s first album, and for an encore they played “Save the Best for Last,” which Waldman co-wrote and which was a huge hit for Vanessa Williams.
Between songs, the ladies cracked up each other and the audience with stories and jokes, often about their age, such as their goal being to make it onto the cover of AARP Magazine. You can insert your own comment about fine wine here, and it’d probably be spot on.
The evening’s headliner was Smith, who got a heartfelt, enthusiastic introduction from Tales From the Tavern co-coordinator Ron Colone, who has been a fan of Smith for decades. It was Smith’s sixth appearance in the series, including one in the first season.
Smith is best known for his moving tale “The Dutchman” — more on that later — and as a newcomer to his music I didn’t realize that he is also one of the funniest songwriters around.
His set’s first song started harmlessly enough with the lyrics “I hear your old girlfriend Melanie made the Newark Star-Ledger the other day.” But it unfolded to be a darkly hilarious song about suitcase murderer Melanie McGuire, who killed her husband Bill, then chopped him up and put him into suitcases, which were dumped into Chesapeake Bay. He noted that Mrs. McGuire was “Kind of like Lizzie Borden, if Lizzie Borden had a car.”
Other songs included “Dead Egyptian Blues” (“all wrapped up in them dead Egyptian blues”), “Ballad of Elizabeth Dark” (“We all wanted to be existentialists, none of us knew what the hell it meant”) and “Zippy” (“Life gets pretty damn zippy when you quit doing weed”).
Smith also told extended stories about being disappointed with finally meeting Roy Rogers, and his experiences growing up Catholic. He also told of going up to Irish singer Liam Clancy after a show to see if Clancy was interested in Smith’s song “The Dutchman.” It turns out that Clancy was, and he recorded it multiple times over the decades. Smith surmised that Clancy’s recordings led to the recent recording of the song by Celtic Thunder, which has been particularly good for Smith because he gets a small royalty every time one is sold, and their CD is available at the shopping mecca Walmart.
“The Dutchman” is a truly remarkable song and is rich enough that it can be interpreted in different compelling ways. I tend toward seeing it as an amazing display of love shown by a wife for her husband who is suffering from dementia, but the husband could instead be shell-shocked after returning from war, or some even think that it is about a daughter taking care of her ailing father. However you interpret it, the song is timeless and incredibly moving.
Once again, Tales From the Tavern brought songwriters of the highest caliber to these parts, introducing me — and probably many others in the audience — to some new favorites.
Setlist for The Refugees
Catch Me If You Can
Can’t Stop Now
Chain Stores, Malls and Restaurants
5th of July
My Favorite Joe
Green Rocky Road
Save the Best for Last
Setlist for Michael Smith
song about Melanie McGuire
Dead Egyptian Blues
The Princess & The Frog
Ballad of Elizabeth Dark
Famous in France
song about Roger Maris
I Brought My Father With Me
— Noozhawk contributing writer Jeff Moehlis is a professor of mechanical engineering at UCSB. Upcoming show recommendations, advice from musicians, interviews and more are available on his Web site, music-illuminati.com.