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Ballroom bane... The International Ballroom and Pace Concerts didn't win themselves a lot of fans with their handling of Soundgarden's November 26 performance. The problem wasn't the show; it was the fact that a couple of hundred people who had purchased tickets from legitimate ticket outlets weren't allowed in to see Chris Cornell and crew. It seems that after trouble with overcrowding at a Tool performance early last month, the city's fire marshal lowered the Ballroom's legal occupancy limit from 4,000 to 2,400 people; unfortunately, well more than 2,400 Soundgarden tickets had been sold by the time Pace Concerts got word of the fire marshal's action.

Even so, a source at Pace indicates that the promoter knew about the situation the day of the show, but opted not to make any announcements until fans began arriving at the concert, a move the person (who declined to be named) admitted was "not that smart." After the Ballroom reached its legal capacity, concertgoers were sent away with an abrupt apology and Soundgarden sampler CDs. That didn't sit well with many fans, who started hurling the CDs around the parking lot in disgust. A few choice obscenities began flying around as well. To try to make up with those who didn't get in, Ticketmaster is offering refunds and vouchers for "priority seats" to the next Soundgarden appearance in Houston (assuming the group wants to come back following last week's minor debacle, and assuming it's soon enough that anyone remembers the priority seating offer). They're not, however, offering to refund the $3.75 "processing fee" that was tacked onto the price of tickets ordered by phone. Apparently, that's just the going price for assuming you can trust your authorized ticket seller.

Reluctant ways... John Gorka has been called a lot of things. He's been tagged quaint, smart, uncompromising, aloof to fame. He's been dubbed a neo-folk ambassador, a purist, a stickler for the most discreet, least figureable details of his craft. He's been hailed as a singer/songwriter's singer/songwriter.

But there's one label Gorka often sees and hears in close proximity to his name that continues to perplex him: troubadour. "I'm not really sure what that means," says Gorka, phoning in last week from a tour stop in Wooster, Ohio. "Troubadours have been around since, what, the 11th century?"

More like the 12th century, but he's close enough. Despite his confusion over the term, Gorka -- on-stage, at least -- fits nicely into the traveling minstrel's garb. For one, he's on the road almost constantly. Asked how long he has before his latest tour ends, he offers this rather strained response: "It's ... ah, umm ... I guess it's ... [slight pause] ... it's toward the end of the first part of ... well, I kind of tour all the time. I call it the 40-year tour, but it's not something I have a lot of trouble with."

Whether he cares or not, Gorka is genuinely funny; the singer/guitarist's bone-dry wit frequently teases giggles out of the most serious members of his audience. And he's a master storyteller in song and in conversation -- if, that is, you can get him to relax to where he isn't feeling the proverbial heat of the interrogation lamp. Rest assured that takes a while: Gorka isn't so much a coy and elusive interview subject as he is painfully modest.

On his last visit to Houston, Gorka took the stage at McGonigel's Mucky Duck to expertly lull a small audience into a blissful sense of well-being with his humbly hilarious asides and detail-ridden, melody-driven acoustic tales of hard-won love and hard-luck misery. After the show, he headed to the back of the club to meet his fans. But surrounded by his admirers, Gorka -- from what I saw -- could barely manage a few sentences. The clumsiest exchanges usually began with a compliment from a fan. Gorka's not real good with those; he just shakes his head, says "thanks" and smiles, slightly embarrassed.

Really, Gorka is just a regular guy -- one who's lately been tugged along by the momentum of his most successful release to date, this year's Between Five and Seven. Richly recorded (by producer John Jennings) and subversively tuneful, if somewhat dense and involved, the CD did surprisingly well this summer on Americana radio. And the irony that perhaps the least accommodating of his seven efforts has received the most attention is not lost on Gorka.

"On this record, I was not interested in writing for the radio, and it ended up getting more play than any of my other records," he muses.

Gorka honed his unassuming, folkie-sophisticate mien at a coffee house called Godfrey Daniels in the industrial hamlet of Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, where he resided for almost 20 years before pulling up stakes last year and moving to Minnesota. Gorka says Bethlehem's strange duality -- part urban sprawl, part small town -- provided him with a surplus of material for his songs.

"Bethlehem had a layout that made sense to me. There's a downtown, a south side and neighborhoods. It seemed like when I started to write about the neighborhood around Godfrey's and some of the local characters, that's when people started to take notice of the songs," he says. "I was inspired by that. I wrote a lot about Bethlehem, and I probably will continue to."

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