Local sightings of Black Mountain’s most famous ambassador of peace are disappointingly rare, even by those of us who count him as a close friend. E-mails are returned from Sidney, Chicago, Hamburg, Paris, Antigua, Belfast, Tokyo, Copenhagen, the left coast, the Great Plains, the front seat of Dan the Van or a jet cabin above the Pacific. But the peripatetic musician is never long out of mind — partly because his bumper stickers are everywhere.
David LaMotte’s answer to 9/11 was to design and print thousands of sky-blue bumper stickers reading “God bless the people of every nation.” In his typically unassuming manner, he didn’t put anything on the sticker citing its source. Now you know.
When world events well up in LaMotte’s lyrics, the political turns rapidly personal: “A picture is fading inside of a wallet, inside of a pocket, in the pants of a man/ soggy with saltwater, there in the dark, in a dead submarine from a faraway land,” he sings. The Kursk captured headlines as a more-than-usually united world launched rescue efforts for the sunken Russian vessel. But LaMotte zeroed in on the human tragedy as he continued with his saline theme: “Saltwater runs down the face of a woman as she sees that he can’t be all he could be.” It may be the third listening before you catch his ironic twist on the old army recruitment slogan, filing a political edge on the pathos. But all that’s just a vignette, a portrait in miniature, set within the larger story of “Spin,” a 2000 composition on the manipulation of news and the people who watch it that became the title track for LaMotte’s 2003 release.
And then the chorus asks the most pertinent question of all: “Give me the headlines, tell me again, tell me the difference between us and them?”
There are those who maintain that music is a universal language which transcends nationality, race and culture — and LaMotte’s worldwide following speaks to that truth. It isn’t particularly hard for a rock band, a jazz trio or a classical instrumentalist to successfully cross linguistic borders, but it’s a bit more difficult for a lyric-driven North American folkie to touch people who speak Danish, Dutch, French, Japanese, Magyar, Mayan or Spanish — even one with a working vocabulary in at least four languages and a smattering of phrases from the rest.
LaMotte told me about his participation in a peace concert in Germany last March, on the anniversary of the U.S. invasion of Iraq. “I felt strongly that I should speak to those folks in German, so I typed up about five pages of text, had it translated, went through it with the translator and practiced until I could deliver it.” He added, “The audience was moved by the effort, I think, and very enthusiastic. They said they could understand me fine, but that I speak German with a French accent.”
Christian Doerr, LaMotte’s German promoter who often acts as a translator at his shows, told me, “People are very interested in David’s message as peacemaker, but also enjoy his special humor as storyteller.”
LaMotte’s on-stage humor is often the biggest surprise for those familiar with his recordings, and it’s the element that makes his recently released DVD worth watching. Yet, like the schtick perfected by Leo Kottke and Arlo Guthrie, it’s humor from the heart: Even the lightweight patter always seems to lead back to something truer, infused with love.
Humor cracks our shells, exposing kernels of truth and admitting light, another constant theme in LaMotte’s work — and no surprise. As a Quaker and a photographer, light suffuses his spirituality as well as his work. He told me, “It’s been fun lately to stretch a bit into photography, which is another passion for me. There are a bunch of things I want to do while I’m alive, and I don’t know that I’ll always have room to do this, too.” By “this” he means the life of a touring musician, and he added, “This doesn’t define me.”
LaMotte has self-produced, promoted and distributed tens of thousands of CDs — a reputable output for a one-act indie label. In the past seven months, LaMotte’s Lower Dryad Music has released a live concert DVD (One Night in North Carolina), a peace-and-justice compilation CD (This is My Song), a children’s book based on his award-winning song collection (S.S. Bathtub) and now a 10th album, Change.
The new release is instrumentally spare, relying only on vocals, guitar, cello and percussion, but, as ever, lyrically and thematically rich. From the title song’s subtext of an over-tip to the profound questions raised by the politicized plight of Terry Schiavo in “Let Me Go,” LaMotte once again delivers insights that resonate. LaMotte is joined on the record by Stephanie Winters on cello and Derek Murphy handling percussion, with vocal contributions from Holly Figueroa, Tish Hinojosa, John Gorka, Beth Wood and Tom Kimmel and the Dreamsicles. For this week’s CD release at The Grey Eagle, LaMotte will be accompanied by Mike Alexander on cello and bass and River Guerguerian on percussion as well as the hip-hop dance trio 3 Def.
Reached by e-mail, New Zealander Jared White, a fan turned song-writing collaborator, told me, “My impressions of David are that he spreads light wherever he goes. His caring nature, warmth, sincerity and generosity shine through in his performances. I think people leave David’s shows feeling inspired and ‘filled up’ — knowing they have participated in a special evening.”
This Saturday’s show is unlikely to prove otherwise.
David LaMotte plays The Grey Eagle (185 Clingman Ave.) with Mike Alexander, River Guerguerian and 3 Def on Saturday, Oct. 7. 8:30 p.m. $10. 232-5800.