Noel Paul Stookey

At McCabe’s Guitar Shop – Santa Monica, California – May 24th, 2019

By Art Podell

Noel Paul StookeyWhen I hear the name Stookey, I’m immediately transported to another place and time. Greenwich Village – The Café Wha? and the tall slender chap who ruled the room with his comedy and his music. Stookey. Noel. Oh sure, Peter Paul and Mary were there in the Village too, but they hadn’t connected yet and they hadn’t yet discovered the destiny that was waiting for them, the times, and all of our lives. Noel would host the shows from his stool on the stage, and tickle our funny bones with his routines – like the one that described the differences between winners, losers, and “near winners.” He would keep us entertained and laughing and then he would surprise us with his heady baritone and guitar accompaniment and sing a folk song of the day. It was the late fifties – early sixties and yes, folk songs were the order of the day and Noel Paul Stookey stood tall among the giants who graced the stage under that awning and down that flight of stairs at 115 MacDougall Street.

And so it was no small wonder that as I sat in the audience at McCabe’s in Santa Monica California on Friday evening, May 24th, 2019 and watched the tall figure stride down the stairs to the microphone, that I knew what to expect and I was prepared to listen to what experience, seasoning and a lifetime of events had done for a performer who had always put me at ease and made me smile… I wasn’t disappointed. The voice had matured, the guitar playing had leaped light years ahead and the familiar sense of humor, good cheer, and hospitality guided our packed house through an evening of sheer pleasure, effortlessly weaving the old with the new.

Noel set the tone immediately with a new song written by him, Standing On The Shoulders (taken from a quote by Sir Isaac Newton), an anthem to the giants of folk music who came before. The song gracefully morphed into another Stookey classic, Not That Kind Of Music, Noel’s tribute to Pete Seeger and the gentle guitar accompaniment was our first signal as to how he has matured and developed as an instrumentalist over the years. Stookey explains this song in his notes on his CD One & Many:

Some songs are for listening, some for dancing. Some are as ubiquitous as wallpaper and others become soundtracks for spectacles. But the songs that move us most are the ones whose melodies invoke a passion and whose lyrics inform and inspire our lives; songs that transcend the moment because they are the articulation of our hearts.

I suppose that it is a requirement for an artist to revisit their “hits” periodically and true to form, the crowd chortled with pleasure and a sigh rippled through the house when the first strains of Puff The Magic Dragon were sounded. But with deft, a wry smile and some good-natured commentary as the song unfolded, Stookey was able to rise above the music and deliver a pleasant memory without trying to recreate the past. Does that make sense? Sure, it was Puff The Magic Dragon, but by the time it was done, Noel had chaperoned us through yesterday’s innocence without departing the present. That stuff takes a pro to pull off.

Not to dwell in the past, the next song was the Jim Beloff classic Charles Ives, a contemporary whimsical ditty about the composer who sold insurance during the week but who wrote symphonies on the weekends. Again, Stookey’s creative guitar work, loosely based on Beloff’s unique ukulele-style accompaniment demonstrated how far Stookey has come.

A complete setlist appears below but some of the songs beg to be singled out. The show was laced with enough comedy to keep a smile on our faces. Right Field, the saga of the kid who is relegated to right field on the neighborhood baseball team was welcomed with cheers and laughter. Equally bittersweet was Noel’s rendition of I’ll Never Forget Whatshername later in the show.

His voice remains the same voice we’ve listened to since Peter, Paul and Mary entered the scene in the early sixties. It’s unmistakenly Noel Paul Stookey, smooth and accurate as a clarinet or a cello. No harsh edges and comfortable as heck to the ear.

There was no shortage of music that reflected the passion for social change that Peter Paul and Mary championed throughout their career. Some old, some new, like One and Many, Love Rules, In These Times. It is important to note that through it all, the message coming from the stage at McCabe’s was one of inclusion and unity. No political partisanship was forced onto the audience and the audience responded to the music with enthusiasm, spirit, and joy, singing along, often passionately, on songs like Where Have All The Flowers Gone. Stookey’s personal arrangements of songs like America The Beautiful (with some new lyrics penned by him) and John Lennon’s Imagine were executed with grace and the unique guitar style that Noel has developed as his own. That style was clearly on display on songs like Jean Claude a deeply moving and powerful piece co-written by Stookey, Lan O’kun and Richard Unsworth, about an event during the Holocaust. A complex pattern of guitar harmonics in odd sequenced time signatures punctuated the chronicle and brought the audience to a hushed silence.

His maturation as a musician and singer were obvious throughout. He openly expresses his fascination with jazz chord structure as evidenced in songs like Cue The Moon, which echoed a guitar treatment worthy of Jobim, and The Cabin Fever Waltz, both of which derive from his experiences living in the state of Maine, where he and his wife Betty moved their family early on, after discovering that they needed respite from the intensity of stardom in the big city. And oh yes, some clever humor about life in Maine.

Of course, no evening with Noel Stookey can be complete without him singing his iconic Wedding Song, originally written to honor his partner Peter Yarrow’s marriage, and Noel didn’t disappoint. When he claims that the song was divinely inspired by a “higher power”, he means it. Perhaps one of the arresting qualities of this performer is that he means what he says. Stookey assigned the song copyright to a charitable foundation he created. In his words:

“It’s been 22 years since the Public Domain Foundation was created to receive royalties from Wedding Song. Two million dollars has been distributed to charitable organizations all over the United States – from soup kitchens for the homeless, to research into computer interaction for hospitalized kids. Every year I turn down requests to sing Wedding Song at services around the country. “It’s not my song,” I can honestly say. It belongs to every bride and groom who ever had a good friend strum a guitar and sing at their wedding. God gave me a song. It was mine to give away.”

The show closed with Blowin’ In The Wind which segued to Stookey’s composition In These Times. If I Had A Hammer was the spirited encore with the audience singing along at the top of their lungs.

The entire show lasted two hours, and when it was over, it was time to return to the present. I left McCabe’s and stepped into the Santa Monica mist on Pico Boulevard for the three-block trek to where I had parked my car, but I was really back on MacDougal Street, guitar case in hand, heading for the Subway uptown.

Noel’s latest CDs are available on iTunes, Amazon Music, etc. Samples and access to all of his music can be found at this link.

His newest CD, FAZZ2020 is due out in the fall of next year.

Setlist for the May 24th show at McCabe’s Guitar Shop, Santa Monica, California:

Standing On The Shoulders

(segue to) Not That Kind Of Music

Puff The Magic Dragon

Charles Ives

Playing Right Field

The Winner

Imagine/Revolution

Where Have All The Flowers Gone

Love Rules

Intermission

What’sHerName

Cabin Fever Waltz

Cue The Moon

(Love) With a Capital L

The Wedding Song

One & Many

Jean Claude

America The Beautiful

Blowin’ In The Wind

In These Times

Encore:

If I Had A Hammer

Art Podell was one half of the iconic Greenwich Village duo Art and Paul before moving to L.A. in 1961. An original member of the New Christy Minstrels, Art wrote songs for many of the artists of the day. He continues to perform and write and he rotates as a host of KPFK’s Roots Music and Beyond.