The world of the theater has a long history of traditions and superstitions (we’re thinking of you, “The Scottish Play”). But one that’s taken on more prominence and meaning during the pandemic is the story of “the Ghost Light.”
Usually a single illuminated electric bulb at the top of a tall fixture and placed front and center on the stage, the Ghost Light is said to give comfort to the spirits that seem to haunt every theater when there’s no performance happening. Others believe its function is to ward off evil spirits. And more practical souls planted on terra firma just want to see and prevent inadvertent tumbles off the precipice of the elevated stage lip.
In any case, it gives off an ethereal and otherworldly glow with plenty of atmosphere, which perfectly describes the songs on Bob Bradshaw’s new album The Ghost Light (Fluke Records). It’s the ninth studio effort from singer/songwriter/guitarist and native son of Ireland (but current resident of Boston, Massachusetts) Bob Bradshaw.
Before he went full-bore into music, though, the native of Cork Bradshaw was a journalist and short story writer. And it’s this writing background which greatly permeates all of his work, but especially The Ghost Light.
“My last record was a concept one and it got nice reviews, but it didn’t get any airplay. And some DJs didn’t know what to make of it,” Bradshaw says. “So for this one, I decided to do a collection of individual songs, ones that tell little stories that stand on their own. Each one has its own world.”
As for the title, he says it came very late in the recording process, supplanting many other potential candidates like Zona Diva. “I'm very interested in the theater, and the title seemed almost too good to be true!” he laughs. “I can’t believe there weren’t hundreds of other albums with that name! This may be the only one. But then again, I didn’t look that hard. And I really liked the cover.”
Thematically, the songs which blend the folk, jazz, blues, country, and Americana genres, do sound like mini-stories. And usually with characters taking stock in romantic relationships, be it with nostalgia (“Songs on the Radio”), problems (“Sideways,” “Dream”), regrets (“Come Back Baby,” “She’s Gone for Good”), fantasy (“Dream”), and uncertainty (“In the Dark”).
There’s also the tale of sailors beckoned to their demise by the songs of sirens (“Light of the Moon”), a daredevil having second thoughts about his escapade a bit too late (“Niagara Barrel Blues”), and one very contemporary song about modern news media (“21st Century Blues”).
The 11 tracks were recorded mostly with his regular band, Andrew Stern and Andy Santospago (guitars), Ed Lucie (bass), and Mike Connors (drummer). But the reality of the pandemic and the ability to record parts separately and remotely also allowed him to bring in a number of guests. This includes Francisco Martinez Herrera, whose bandoneon adds a sultry and spicy tango flavor to “Sideways.”
“I just went online and found him. He’s like the best bandoneon player in Argentina, and I got him for $100!” Bradshaw says. “But the whole thing got pieced together more than I’m used to.”
As for the lack of live shows during the pandemic, Bradshaw say surprisingly that it’s not a huge loss for him. “I don’t need to perform in front of people. My band are performers and all lead their own groups, so it was harder for them,” he says.
“I don’t get my energy from being in front of an audience, so I was kind of fine with it. But one thing is that we never played or tried out any of these songs live before [recording] them.”
In fact, Bradshaw doesn’t see himself performing either with his band or solo until September or October of this year. But it falls in line with his writer/author’s approach to telling stories about others and not himself, likely aided by observational travels as he’s been both a busker on the streets of Europe and a graduate of the Berklee College of Music.
“I’m not all that terribly interested in raw emotions or people’s and songwriter’s feelings. I write songs with a beginning, a middle, and an end,” he offers. “‘Blue’ is probably the only song that’s a meditation, but it’s more about the word than a feeling. I don’t really express my heart or anything, but what my characters are dealing with.”
That outlook gives him a lot in common with the songwriters he most admires—both Texans, and the latter with Houston roots—Guy Clark and Townes Van Zandt. “My favorite is Guy, and I love Townes. I’m always fascinated by both of them,” he says. “They were probably both bipolar, and their songs are sort of the yin and yang. Guy is an extraordinary storyteller and Townes is a bit more raw. I’m obsessed with ‘Pancho and Lefty.’ There’s no real indication those [characters] even met each other!” Bradshaw says. He also admires Rodney Crowell (another former Houstonian) and, more recently, Aaron Lee Tasjan.
Bradshaw says that he’ll continue to write new music, either based on experiences he’s been part of or characters he creates. He even wrote a one-act play based on his brief time in 1989/90 as the doorman of a luxury apartment building on the upper east side of New York City, where tenants included sportscaster Howard Cosell, actor Tom Selleck, and singer/actress Liza Minelli.
“Howard Cosell was a very charming guy. But Liza, we weren’t allowed to address her or even directly look her in the eye!” Bradshaw laughs. He does recall one time that Minelli was getting a larger-than-usual amount of floral deliveries in recognition of her then-recent work on Broadway, so Bradshaw got a peek into her foyer. “She had these huge Andy Warhol lithographs up…of her. They were enormous!”
That play Bradshaw penned was called A Fairytale of Manhattan, itself a nod to the much-loved tune by the Pogues, “Fairytale of New York.” In this unlikely Christmas song, a battling couple (sung by Pogues lead singer Shane MacGowan and guest Kirsty MacColl) trade very non-P.C. insults about each other’s behavior and traits surrounding the man’s residency in a New York police drunk tank on Christmas Eve.
And while it seems that MacGowan and MacColl own the song, last year Jon Bon Jovi released his own version, singing both parts and at times using a fake Irish brogue. Needless to say, the result was as bad as it sounds on paper, and reaction was swift and unforgiving. Even back in the Land of Eire.
“Oh yeah. Bon Jovi got a lot of [criticism] in the Irish media!” Bradshaw laughs. “Shane is a considered a secular saint in Ireland. Even though he’s a mess!”
For more on Bob Bradshaw, visit BobBradshaw.net
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