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The Write Stuff

To resonate, a songwriter doesn’t have to be original -- just interesting.

I feel bad about not liking Rob Drabkin's music. I really do. He seems like such a quality individual. It would be so much easier if he were a narcissistic asshole or something. But he didn't come across that way to me.

Between sets last Thursday night at Dazzle, the heartthrob (man, you should've seen the way he made some of the ladies swoon) with the King Buzzo haircut stopped by my table -- completely oblivious to my identity -- and graciously thanked me and my stunt double for coming out to his songwriters' circle. And then, not an hour after the show had ended but by now tipped off to my presence, he sent an e-mail cordially thanking me again and expressing regret that we hadn't met. That, of course, only made me feel worse, particularly since at that very moment I was ruminating about how I'd had the same reaction to seeing him live as I'd had each time I'd listened to his disc.

Which is to say, I found his music as stimulating as watching paint dry.

So, yeah, I felt horrible, and still do. But as someone far more clever than I once pointed out, this thing of ours, it's not called show friends, but show business. And that's just the way it goes. There have been times when I've felt compelled to lavish praise on people whom I'd pay not to be in the same room with, and other times when I've taken decent folks to task, people whom I truly admire. As people -- just not as musicians.

People like Drabkin. It's not that the guy lacks talent; he's both a nimble-fingered guitarist and beyond serviceable as a vocalist. And it's not that his songs are inherently bad; they just strike me as soulless. He offers plenty of sizzle, just not enough steak for my tastes. If you're the type whose heart races every time you hear Dave Matthews, this is your guy. The resemblance is uncanny. Drabkin's meandering melodies, punctuated by histrionic falsetto runs, a percussive playing style and unorthodox chord voicings, are Matthews personified.

To be fair, Drabkin might not have seemed as lackluster had the three other singers alternating songs in the Dazzle songwriters' circle not been so, well, dazzling. They all sounded like somebody else, too, but managed to be intriguing nonetheless. Reed Foehlchanneled Heartbreaker-era Ryan Adams so convincingly that a retina scan would be required to distinguish the two; Kevin Mileskiparaphrased David Wilcoxwith grand efficiency; and Gregory Alan Isakovsummoned a rootsier Glen Phillipscovering the best Kelly Joe Phelpssongs never written.

So why the double standard? I operate under the general presumption that everybody is derivative. Show me a truly original artist working in the past two decades, and I'll show you music that tests the limits of listenability. So originality isn't a prerequisite for an artist to resonate. A lack of inventiveness can be overlooked, provided an artist either a) transcends his influences by adding his own spin to craft something unique, or b) presents music that's so damn gripping, it renders any thoughts of its origin completely moot. And all three of these guys succeeded.

Although Mileski, with his deft finger-picking style and supple vocals, was clearly the most accomplished player of the bunch, what won me over was his witty, engaging presence and incredible melodic sensibility. He introduced songs such as "Breakdown on the Side of the Road" by regaling us with entertaining anecdotes about having written the tune after inexplicably breaking down in the middle of Oklahoma (again!) and hoping to thwart the jinx. Other cuts like "Cafe Brioche" didn't need an introduction; Mileski's John Gorka-like narrative style spoke for itself.

Foehl sucked me in first with his evocative vocals, and then with incisive lyrics on songs such as "Chances Are," which boasts the lines: "Stripped of his clothes and cursing the cancer/God's only got so many prayers he can answer/With millions of bodies and millions of souls, somebody's bound to be left in the cold." The words stung a little more when I realized that Foehl -- who once upon a time fronted Acoustic Junction -- was perhaps singing about his father. (During a brief conversation, he'd mentioned that he'd moved back home at one point to help care for him.)

I'd admired Isakov's work from afar since late last summer, when I stumbled across his MySpace page and reached out to him. He responded by sending copies of his discs, which I dug immediately. As good as his pastoral songs sound on record, they're even more endearing live. Part rustic troubadour and part backwoods shaman, Isakov had us all spellbound, hanging on to every last note.

Mileski, a masterful performer in his own right, verbalized the thoughts of everyone in the room. "I never sighed so much in a show," he said, shaking his head in disbelief. "This is like the world's best open mike. I had no idea what I was walking into."

Me, neither.

At the end of the night, at the behest of a few members of the audience who couldn't get enough, the four musicians joined together for a poignant rendition of "Hallelujah," the Leonard Cohentune popularized by Jeff Buckley and countless others. I wouldn't quite call it a religious experience, but it was certainly magical -- even if they had difficulty remembering the third verse.

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