By John Adamian
12:05 PM EST, November 27, 2012
Dec. 1. The Katharine Hepburn Cultural Center, 300 Main St., Old Saybrook, (860) 510-0453, katharinehepburntheater.org
The singer/songwriter and bandleader Howard Fishman is an energetic omnivore of Americana and beyond. Fishman has delved deep into obscure corners of Tin Pan Alley, into the absurd genius of Bob Dylan's "Basement Tapes" songs, and into his own songwriting and compositional projects about American history and his personal travels in Eastern Europe. When Fishman plays at the Kate he'll be fronting the Biting Fish, a recent project of his that spotlights New Orleans brass band music.
Fishman was born and raised in West Hartford. And he lives in Brooklyn now. But it's the music of the Crescent City that he's most closely associated with, in part because that was where he got his start as a performer, playing on the street in New Orleans in the early '90s not long after he finished college. (Even his covers of Dylan seem to point back to the Gulf; listen to his version of "Crash on the Levee" to see how Fishman adds layers of gravity and portent to the track.) Fishman, who spoke by phone with the Advocate not long ago from New York City, says he'll emphasize New Orleans brass-band music — with his Biting Fish band featuring tuba, horns, drums and him on guitar and vocals — including second-line rhythms and gospel-inflected songs. But that doesn't mean he won't veer off into one of the other corners of his vast repertoire. (In true troubadour fashion, Fishman guesses he has somewhere over one thousand tunes: "I can't remember what I'm supposed to do tomorrow, but I can remember the lyrics of untold songs," he says.)
The Old Saybrook audience can probably expect to hear tunes from Moon Country, Fishman's 2011 album of Hoagy Carmichael songs, along with a mix of other material. "I've kind of become this one-man repertory company," says Fishman about his various projects and the way that he can take different lineups showcasing different songbooks on the road, or he can just mix them up in a kind of 21st-century shuffle.
"The projects are all in constant rotation," says Fishman. "It's great for me. I love it. I never get bored. I don't have to do the same songs and the same set every night."
Fishman has also written and continues to polish an oratorio on the ill-fated Donner Party, and he's now engaged in something involving the songs of little-known '50s singer and songwriter Connie Converse. Don't expect to hear that music this week. Fishman is mindful that not all listeners have the same wide-ranging and eclectic tastes. On some nights he'll cover a broad variety of material "without giving the audience whiplash."
As a singer, Fishman has a mellow weathered touch, with depth and resonance. He focuses more on delivering a lyric with insight and clarity than on, say, exploring a melodic line. If you've never savoured the pleasures of Hoagy Carmichael gems like "Two Sleepy People," "In the Cool Cool Cool of the Evening" and "Memphis in June" — all of which evoke wonderful, varied shades of dusk and laid-back grogginess — Fishman's renditions offer a nice introduction.
In the wake of Hurricane Katrina and the other storms that have since hit the Gulf Coast, there's a new focus on preserving the region's rich culture and heritage. Shows like HBO's "Treme" have made the music of New Orleans a central focus. Though Fishman is from Connecticut and lives in New York now, his time in New Orleans was formative, and like many he feels an obligation to contribute something to the city.
"It had a tremendously profound impact on me to live and play music there," says Fishman.
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