Mark Erelli’s Milltowns: A Tribute to Bill Morrissey at Stone Soup Coffeehouse

Years ago, I narrowly met Mark Erelli. We were two of three finalists in a songwriting competition. I say narrowly as we were both backstage, pre-performance, practicing – no time to talk.

I do not remember the winner’s name, but I do remember Mark Erelli. I remember Mark Erelli because Mark Erelli works very, very hard – music is his job. He has a remarkable stick-to-itiveness, and an I-won’t-give-up attitude about his position in the music scene.

Mark has completely woven his god-given gifts into the fabric of the acoustic performing songwriter community: songwriter, performer, recording artist, noted side-man and producer. Now, years later, he is hitting his biggest stride.

He has recorded too many CDs to count and if his past recordings have been overlooked or forgotten, his most recent, Milltown, will certainly float him to the top of the charts and encourage listeners, old and new, to review his full catalog.

Milltowns is Erelli’s tribute to the late Bill Morrissey, a performing songwriter whom he admires and respects so much it warranted putting his own writing aside to delve into recording this collection.

Men have difficulty expressing themselves – Bill was no different. Quiet with a hard finish and emotionally sensitive core, Bill’s lyrics are the voice of every man. Erelli’s selections for Milltown cover such emotions and more.

The CD opens with classic Morrisey – “Birches.” “Birches” takes a heart-warming look at a couple in the winter of their years. Harboring emotion that extends far beyond its 3-minute song frame, Mark’s rendition is every bit as passionate as Morrisey’s.

Erelli’s cover of ”Letter from Heaven” truly captures Morrissey’s keen sense of humor. This cut is so good it has you wondering if Mark received a bit of Bill’s coaching from on high.

“Long Gone” sings of a traveling man, fueled by thoughts of home and his love still waiting. This song is very nicely produced with Anais Mitchell’s rich backing vocal and Charlie Rose’s rambling banjo and pedal steel parts. Charlie will also be the supporting act for this performance.

An album of this type can be a hit or a miss – a cheesy shot at trying to sound like the real deal. There is absolutely none of that here. Erelli captures a few of the cracks and crackles in Bill’s voice, a raspy affectation here or there, yet never overdone. This might best be noted in “She’s that Kind of Mystery,” which is nicely arranged with Rose Polenzani’s delicate backing harmony.

If you were to buy one cut from this selection, this author’s pick would be “Handsome Molly.” It just embodies all that Erelli is trying to achieve with this tribute. There are also beautiful backing vocals by Kris Delmhorst.

The final cut, “Milltowns,” was written by Erelli. It opens with a personal retelling of a night Mark spent drinking and playing songs with Bill, moving on to share reflections of a performing songwriter as he passes from town to town.

Bill Morrissey has a long history with Stone Soup Coffeehouse; he was a returning favorite of the late Richard Walton. When they found Bill in his hotel room, the police dialed the last number he had dialed, hoping it might be a family member, and instead reached Stone Soup. Bill had called that evening to confirm his next booking.

Morrissey was a songwriter’s songwriter; his legacy will be carried on by those who follow in his footsteps. Milltown may just be the result of Bill’s passing along of a musical torch to Mark Erelli.

Come listen to Mark Erelli  (and maybe Bill) at Stone Soup on Saturday, Dec 6 at 7pm.

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