By Bree Davies
By Emerald O'Brien
By Gina Tron
By Jon Solomon
By Drew Ailes
By Courtney Harrell
By Kyra Scrimgeour
Patty Larkin is sitting in a hotel room in Grand Junction. It's cold there, she says, but not any colder than it gets on Cape Cod, Massachusetts, where she lives and, when she can, records in her home studio. The hotel of the moment is pretty typical of those she's seen and lived in during her career: It has a bed, a TV, a small couch and a coffeepot. On a good day, her rooms come equipped with a refrigerator and an ironing board, maybe some free stationery in the dresser or pastries in the lobby. In the almost fifteen years that have passed since she released Step Into the Lighton the Philo/Rounder label in 1985, rooms like these have been the rule and not the exception to her domestic life. Still, like most working musicians, Larkin is an artist first and a traveler second. Nights of endless gigging necessitate a certain adaptiveness so that those rare chances to take a walk or a nap or to just hole up and bang out the chords of a song that rattled around her brain during hours of restless Interstate sleep don't vanish like roadside towns in the rearview mirror.
Larkin doesn't want to grumble about the rigors of the road, because she's comfortable with where it's taking her -- to yet another stage, another audience. In the past few years, since her seventh album, 1997's Perishable Fruit(High Street/Windham Hill) received critical acclaim and a modicum of commercial success, her name and her music have become more familiar to fans around the country. Praise for the album was unanimous. It was a challenging, fluid work that established Larkin as not just competent, but as a creative and resourceful songwriter. The album was recorded without any live drums and featured percussionist Ben Wittman and others using mallets and various implements, including fingers and the palms of their hands, to work percussive sounds out of the bodies of guitars, mandolins and other stringed instruments. Many of those emanations were then sampled into loops, which Larkin played over. It was her first embrace of the sampling technology and computer effects that are popular with pop, hip-hop and electronic artists but that many makers of "adult" music have been slow to incorporate.
Though she's been compared ad nauseam to every female musician from Bonnie to Lucinda to Tori (at least she has an instrument -- the guitar -- in common with Raitt and Williams), more apt comparisons place her in the company of Bruce Cockburn, Richard Thompson and Shawn Colvin. Yet Larkin has yet to rise to the profile of any of those artists, maybe because it takes time -- lots of it -- to be discovered by fans who aren't content to extract bits of meaning or talent from more commercial ho-hummers (Jewel springs to mind). Larkin's the kind of player whom people often describe as a "musician's musician," which is either wonderful praise or a backhanded compliment. "It probably means that I'm not famous, but I know how to play a guitar," she laughs. "But I think it also means that I'm meticulous, that I'm always working on technique and trying to improve. I think that there might be a depth or a breadth to the music, which is something that other musicians appreciate."
Today the halls and theaters where she plays are bigger, the audiences are composed of more and more new faces. More important, she says, the challenge of performing nightly has had a profound effect on her musicianship. Her guitar work has become more exacting, her vocals stronger, her instincts more fine-tuned.
"I try to learn something new about the music every night," Larkin says. "I recall reading about a famous cellist who said he never picked up his instrument without completely concentrating on it. He didn't just pick it up absentmindedly, while watching TV or something. I've tried to do the same thing. When I'm playing, I'm as musical as possible. I try not to be distracted by anything, not even the fact that I'm performing."
Larkin's approach to her live performances was captured recently on à gogo, a fourteen-track live album compiled from a nation's worth of shows in 1997, which was released last fall on the Vanguard label. The album features what Larkin considered to be the best samples of a 25-city tour in which she performed solo and recorded every moment of every show straight to ADAT. Listening to the disc, it's clear that while Larkin may not be distracted by her crowds, she's certainly attentive to them. There are occasional jokes made (and laughed at, heartily), pieces of stories told (and listened to, quietly), and songs performed, expertly. Throughout, à gogo encapsulates the unique and symbiotic relationship that exists between an audience and a performer and vice versa. You hear an acoustical echo here and there, the raw sound of a finger sliding down a guitar string, an occasional cough -- and you're reminded of what it's like to witness a performer trying to connect with strangers.
That vulnerability scares many players away from making live albums, and it might have frightened Larkin, too, if it weren't for one little fact: She's damn good and she knows it. So good, in fact, that, over the years, she's won eleven Boston Music Awards -- more than Aerosmith or any other area musician ever has. In 1995, Boston's mayor called for Patty Larkin Day, which she spent singing the National Anthem at Fenway Park ("with my nostrils up there on the huge scoreboard screen"), performing a benefit concert for AIDS research and musing on the early days when she busked in Harvard Square for the benefit of anyone who would listen or maybe drop a dime in her guitar case.