It would come as no surprise that crowds would fill local venues to peak capacity simply by a band’s name alone—especially if that band happens to be Michael Burgin’s cleverly monikered The Drinker’s Union. While the name brings to mind the Oscar Wilde quip, “Work is the curse of the drinking class,” there’s much more to Burgin’s brand of protest-oriented folk rock than mere boozy revelry.
Burgin’s easygoing style is a draw in itself. At a recent Fred’s Speakeasy show, it was almost 11 p.m. and band members were still adjusting and tuning before they took the plunge into their first number. Unfortunately, the sound system was gremlin-possessed to the point where the slogan proclaimed boldly on Burgin’s MySpace page: “A most ARTiculate drunk” didn’t ring true. But even poor sound quality didn’t dim the enthusiasm of the fans; one woman in particular swayed eagerly to the music.
If the live show doesn’t make this apparent, Burgin’s Web site does: This local musician has a quirky sense of humor coupled with wistful, raw, stirring vocals. But the true centerpiece of Burgin’s passionate songs is the political message of the middle-class struggle, and Burgin gives voice to those under-represented woes. In “Folk Singers Don’t Start Riots,” he sings: “What’s going to happen the next time I get sick, and I can’t afford your premium coverage?” If this fall’s presidential election could have produced “Joe the Plumber: The Musical,” this song would have topped the score.
The Drinker’s Union concocts folk music in the tradition of social-activist troubadours Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger with the rocker teeth (and electric guitars) of Neil Young and Crazy Horse. Burgin’s political jargon is plentiful, tripping in and out of his lyrics with all the bitterness and sinewy musicality of early Billy Bragg—though sometimes Burgin’s own penchant for cynicism flies in the face of recent hard-won and widespread hopefulness: In “Talkin’ Trick Mirror Blues,” the singer whammies his audience with, “I don’t want to hear about the liars they’re electing.”
It’s probably fair to say that listeners who aren’t interested (and preferably pissed off about) politics will find little to endear them to Burgin. Yet, the singer/songwriter presents his material with such forthright earnestness that it’s hard to discount him—this he aptly proves on his breviloquent, soon-to-be-released solo disc, Death Will Tremble to Take Us. Burgin writes adroitly, his wit shining through his rancor. In “Awkward Tuesday Night Blues” (a song title that would surely meet with approval from political-poet-folkie Bob Dylan), Burgin tells a would-be paramour, “You might be a piece of work but it’s a work of art.”
Is it a burn or simply an apt turn of phrase? Either way, the song works—as does most of Burgin’s material. Death‘s dozen tracks balance brilliantly on a precipice between anger and beauty; between aggressively strummed acoustic folk and Clinton Wetherill’s jangly Byrds-esque guitar solo on “The Camera Man”; between the dull thrum of a hangover and the sudden clarity of sun through storm clouds. No mere drinking songs, these. Nor are they strictly aimed at undermining “the man.” Chances are, Burgin—whose songs are every bit as personal and heartfelt as they are socially biting—will eventually transcend both pints and pundits.
Learn more about Michael Burgin and The Drinker’s Union at www.myspace.com/michaelburgin.