Mark Dvorak,
Every Step of the Way
(Waterbug, 2006)

Mark Dvorak, a Chicago singer-songwriter, reminds me of another Chicago singer-songwriter, the late Steve Goodman (1948-1984), whose memory and musical presence have not faded on the Windy City's folk scene. Dvorak even sings like him, in the same sort of conversational, open-hearted voice. Their influences are pretty much identical: folk-revival music and Billie Holiday records, mostly.

Every Step of the Way boasts no "City of New Orleans," the destined-to-be-immortal train song that Goodman wrote around 1970 and that Arlo Guthrie made an international hit a couple of years later and Willie Nelson a few years after that. On the other hand, Goodman, whom I knew slightly when I lived in Chicago before he became somewhat famous, wrote unevenly. His finest songs ("City," "Daley's Gone," "The Twentieth Century is Almost Over") were the equal of just about anybody's; the rest were largely forgettable, some barely more than passing wisecracks, others cloyingly sentimental paeans to true love. On the evidence of this recording, Dvorak's compositions (11 of the 12 cuts) are more consistently realized and crafted. Dvorak is no Bob Dylan or John Prine, but that's all right. He's a perfectly acceptable Mark Dvorak, and that's all he needs to be.

The opening cut and title piece, Dvorak notes, was written as if a Johnny Cash gospel tune, and indeed one's ear easily hears it as Cash would have done it. "Don't Let the Blues Make You Bad" is pure Billie Holiday. The third cut, however, is the one with the most jolting emotional punch. Set to a lilting folk-ballad melody, "My Rose of Jericho" is for those of us who are fathers of daughters who have grown up and moved on to find their own way in the world. If you're one of us, it'll have you fighting back the tears. It's the sort of song that reminds you why we have songs.

"My Love Grows" sounds so much like one of Goodman's love songs that I had to check the credits to ascertain it wasn't. It's not bad, but it's hard to write an interesting positive love song. I liked the understated peace anthem "Not War" better, and "One Couldn't Run, One Couldn't See" reverently celebrates the legendary blues duo of Brownie McGhee and Sonny Terry. "That Old Man," about Dvorak's grandfather, leads me to recall that Goodman wrote "My Old Man," about his father. They're both perfectly accomplished songs, on the other hand, and surely the world has room for both.

Dvorak sets all of this to easy-going acoustic arrangements, his guitar backed by Keith Baumann's mandolin and Resophonic and National Steel guitars along with Al Ehrich's stand-up bass. A modest, unflashy exercise, Every Step delivers some unexpectedly exquisite pleasures.

by Jerome Clark
6 January 2007

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