Review by East Chapman
The Bottom Line.
In case you’re in a hurry, Chris Ross, a young man from the coast of Maine, who is drenched in songwriting talent, could go somewhere in the music industry. If we’re lucky, we can hang out with him for awhile as he cuts his teeth in the local New England clubs. We can be the ones who remember him when he played the place down the street. Live, this twenty something young man’s clever lyrics pull you in, making you wish you could bottle the stuff, so you can listen again later and maybe sort out why you have such a gut reaction to his images – his twists of common truth. When you see him, buy the CDs he has in that brown paper bag. It’s better medicine than anything else you’re going to find in a brown paper bag. Speaking of the CDs, he has two, both full of love songs, desolation, intelligence, and adept social commentary.
Get busy. Clubs – book him. Music fans – start talking.
The Whole Show.
We attended a 4th of July benefit concert at Bangor’s Waterfront Pavilion mainly because Chris Ross was on the bill. I’d repeatedly missed chances to hear him, so I finally just went on YouTube in hopes that something was there. It is. Ross has videotaped himself singing covers and originals in an effort to get his talent noticed. Good idea. A couple of minutes into a video I was more than ready to head down and sit in a hard chair to see him.
With little fan fare, Ross took the stage, acoustic guitar in hand, accompanied by a man referred to only as Fiddle Doug. For about the next 40 minutes, the stage was fully suspended in a web of intelligent lyrics and sparse, yet effective, musical arrangement.
About 30 seconds into Ross’s performance, I grabbed some paper and started taking notes. I knew that everyone interested in New England’s talent base, and more importantly good music, needed to be briefed. The set started with “Stay a Little Longer” from Ross’s first CD, “The Steady Stumble.” This is a road song. Anyone who grew up farther than 45 miles north of the Massachusetts border knows what it is like to make the trip back home, covering ground on back roads and up the white lines of the highway, filling in the time on your mind with lost loves and all the regrets. I could still make that drive up north with my eyes closed, “Stay a Little Longer” riding shotgun.
It was during the next song, “Mostly Sober,” this time from his second CD, “Halfway to Wonderland,” that I wanted to stand up and yell “Stop! Let me catch up. I’m missing the details, the nuance in your writing. I need a bottle of wine and a honky tonk to take this in, man. Give me a minute, please.” But I didn’t. Ross is a lot of songwriter to take in on initial listen. There is depth and antithesis that entertains and evokes old memories, and you’ll need to keep up.
“Your America,” a song penned about a veteran facing the juxtaposition of the red, white, and blue we are sold, and what is real. Tough, to the core, able to maintain reverence to the believers, this song is painful and liberating in the face of these wars. While I haven’t made it an academic pursuit to catalog all the songs about Iraq and Afghanistan because they break my heart, “Your America,” gently and firmly unfolds the American bill of goods.
Covering Springsteen’s “Atlantic City,” Ross shook up the song with country fiddle, but didn’t lose one tick of the honesty written into the song, circumventing the mournful tone of Springsteen with a clear “this is how it is” voice. Thinking about it, times in 2012 are as rough, if not rougher, than when the song was published in 1984. The more things change…
Up next, “No More,” from Ross’s first CD. Driving hard with the acoustic, “No More” burned up my memory bank of hitting that wall between the cocky confidence of youth and how the world really works. “I used to be a king, but no more. Because every girl wanted something, a little piece that I won’t get back. I used to be a king, but now I’m just a jack. I rode in regal, high upon my steed. I ruled the ground beneath my feet, but no more.”
Ross covered “Wagon Wheel” before pulling out one of his many love songs, “Fallin’ Apart.” I had to laugh. This song’s lyrics are soaked in seemingly everything women wish men were capable of thinking as well as articulating. No offense, guys, but if your lover is complaining that you just aren’t cutting it in the pillow talk department, you might want to memorize some of Ross’s lyrics. Try it. Let me know how it goes.
“Jack and Jill” hit me right in the face. Maine, the way life should be, is nationally known for its prescription drug abuse issues, and it is common to know someone in jail for trafficking or in line daily at the methadone clinic. “Jack and Jill” drove home this reality with Ross’s tragic storytelling. Wrapped in a great rhythm, it is also a toe tapper, reminiscent of some of Steve Earle’s tales.
I’m sorry but I missed the next tune. It was rowdy and full and rocked the stage, but I didn’t catch the name or enough lyrics to backtrack, however wrapping up the set list was a cover of Johnny Cash’s “Folsom Prison Blues.” Personally, I think a singer has to have some balls to cover Cash, and evidently Ross has some because he sang dangerous and growling, rolling this song along and reaching out beyond Cash’s mournful tone. He cut straight to a matter-of-fact, serial killer growl. I liked it. It was Cash without backing down, but it was free and wild. Go big, or go home!
Chatting with Chris briefly after the show, he is a quiet young man with wit and charm. I didn’t keep him long, because fans were ready to buy his CDs and forming a line. I’m not one to get in the way of commerce and promotion.
I can’t stuff Chris Ross into a nice, neatly-defined genre box. I can hear country fiddle, I can hear folksy guitar, I can hear some funky beats, and I can hear songs that could easily be stiffened up a bit and be rock. Truthfully, I don’t want him labeled and sitting in a box. I want to see where life takes him, and what he decides to explore musically. Ross has been compared to Ray LaMontangue, a Maine native to make it big with lonesome tunes, but I’m not convinced that is where Ross will stick. In fact, Chris, don’t “stick” anywhere, just keep playing and rolling out those lyrics, intelligent and full of storylines that need to be told.
The two CDs available are:
2011’s “The Steady Stumble” is sparse but effective in accompaniment and features Ross’s great, thoughtful songwriting skills and acoustic guitar work.
2012’s “Halfway to Wonderland” is again a collection of well-written songs with more studio accompaniment for a fuller sound. Both CDs were recorded and balanced by Ben Strano at The Hat Factory VI and produced by Jack Sundrud and all songs are written by Chris Ross.
Contact Chris Ross at www.chrisross.net. YouTube has several selections, just search under his name.
Get busy. Clubs – book him. Music fans – start talking.