It seemed as though a town meeting was mustering at EMBARK@EMC as the locals, family, and friends poured in from the clammy cold street to help Fred Gillen Jr. celebrate the release of his ninth studio album Wage Love on Feb. 8. From the outside, EMBARK’s space at the Energy Movement Center is just like any other small-town storefront, that evening decked out with posters and artwork for the show and a well-placed portrait of Pete Seeger to greet folks as they came in.
The show started off with a few songs from Philadelphia based street performer, Laura Bowman, who contributed vocals to the album and joined Fred and his band (also composed of contributors to the recording) later in the evening. It was the first time for many at the show to hear Bowman but its a name they’ll remember for years to come – her beautiful dynamic singing and accompanying guitar work fueled by an engaged audience is something to not be taken for granted.
A performance like this made for an exciting and enjoyable first listen to the album through a live re-enactment of it. The CD itself is skillfully composed, and hearing it first through a live performance adds a connection with the spontaneity of Fred’s style and jest – something liner notes cannot do. The first impression of Wage Love is much more vivid than that of listening at home. Fueled by a potluck-spread of snacks and goodies, the audience fed a communal energy into the room – singing along with and becoming engaged in the music – in feedback to the lyrics, soul, and music generated from the auspices of the American flag hung on the curtains behind the band.
The album itself is political yet not dreary. Fred’s style, which throughout his compositions brings a fresh sound to the traditional folk and Americana music setting, lends a net of optimism to topics (worker’s rights, war, government) that tend to sometimes stir a sense of gloom. As a token to the lesser-sung songs of the working American and undermined heroes the album starts off with “Walking Down That Freedom Highway” – written to the tune of Woodie Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land” – and ends with “I Dreamed I Saw Pete Seeger” – a hymn to the unparalleled spirit we lost in 2014 sung to the air on part of “We Shall Overcome,” a staple of Seeger’s songbook.
The setlist included Wage Love from start to finish and an encore of two songs from previous albums – “This Old Car” and “Devil’s Bluff.”
Key Tracks: Killing Machine, We The People, I Dreamed I Saw Pete Seeger