Reviews of Gordon Bok's Music

Gordon Bok in Concert with Carol Rohl at Cornell University Nov.6,1999

Gordon Bok is Cornell Folk Song Club's most requested performer. For the last quarter century, he has defined the newfolk tradition and set the standard. His music includes old, borrowed, and new, all steeped in and attuned to deep-rooted folk music. No one can match Gordon's sonorous voice and masterfully understated instrumentation. Perfectly complementing his vocal work is his dextrous, soulful handling of 12-string and classical guitars and his own invention, the cellamba, a 6-string fretted cello. He's been known to pick up a whistle as well! And as you might expect from a resident of coastal Maine and someone who has lived and worked on boats for a significant part of his life, he has a special affinity for music of the sea. Gordon's songs and stories are large, seasoned, timeless as seascapes. But he's not too serious to indulge in some droll fun, as evidenced by his membership in the Camden Trash Band and the Quasimodal Chorus.

Alone, performing with the likes of Cindy Kallet, Anne Dodson, or as part of the legendary trio with Ann Mayo Muir and Ed Trickett, Gordon Bok has produced alegacy of fine recordings and a loyal audience. At any local "livingroom" folk sing, you're sure to hear more than one Bok song, with great choruses that urge the whole gathering to voice. Joining Gordon for this November trip to Ithaca is Carol Rohl, a marvelous harpist. Gordon and Carol have been touring regularly for the past two or three years and have been married for a good bit longer than that. Carol follows a family harp-playing tradition, having learned on her grandmother's Irish harp.

(Margaret Shepard and John Henderson)

Almost Acoustic

     3rd May 2003

This particular night was exceptional for any number of reasons. The appearance of Gordon Bok alone would have been fascinating enough. There was a real buzz in the air with a full house anticipating this legendary's performer's first concert in Sydney. Add Phyl Lobl and that compact package of musical fireworks, Wheelers and Dealers, and you've got a rich night's entertainment.

Phyl was the opener. She sang her own song Blackbird, a song of love and hope, perhaps more important in these times than ever before. She followed that with the Vegemite song with lots of mischief in it and a sticky sort of chorus. Phyl finished with a tribute to the late Shirley Andrews, a leading figure in the traditional dance scene. Phyl's capacity to celebrate history and maintain contemporary relevance makes her a welcome performer any time.

Gordon Bok came on stage and without the sort of local preliminaries you often get, took us straight to the coasts of Maine. His story-telling remained centred on the area and its people, and this writer was able to picture vividly the small boats and bruatl weather he drew with his yarns and song. He kicked off with [Hills of]Isle au Haut, which was known by all and drew a responsive chorus.

Several things were special about Gordon both vocally and instrumentally. He reduced his amplification to the minimum, which called subtly on the crowd to listen, rather than dominating by volume. He sang with the soft warm tones associated with him, again an inviting rather than an imposing performance. His 12-string, made in Maine by one of the locals, was something special. For 12-string fans it had a treble second string - most unusual - which gave his accompaniment a special sparkle. His instrumental work was well worth watching, and again, the low volume ensured that what the audience heard was the innate qualities of the piece of wood, rather than electronics.

When his good lady joined him, called to the stage by the simple and rather moving invitation: "Here's the light of my heart, Carol Rohl," she not only played a harp, but played an Australian harp, locally made by Brandden Lassells. This commentator is reluctant to accompany harp with guitar at any time, so the fact that it worked so well was an accomplishment in itself. In this case, it was a 12-string guitar and harp and it was absolutely and profoundly beautiful, superbly made wooden instruments, superbly played.

After a break we got a dose of Wheelers and Dealers. This was much louder, but that was no problem. That diabolical and mischievous fiddler Tony Pyrzakowski was at his wicked best, a cheeky grin popping out from his most complex passages: Paganini, eat your heart out! Chris Wheeler, a splendid voice and a fiery whistle player, took centre stage. Ged Corbin, slightly more shy in the corner, gave a solid, balanced and accomplished foundation to the work. The highlight of their performance - apart from their excellently fashioned treatment of my own song Murrumbridge Water - was their own latest composition, Freedom [Woomera], protesting the treatment of refugees in Australia. The fierce, simple chorus had the place at full volume.

Then the softer tones returned and we were drawn back to the snowy, weatherbound coasts of Maine by Gordon Bok. He also took us to Ireland, lamenting the loss of myth and legend in a piece of poetry accompanied by Carol on the aching harp. The couple ended up doing two encores.

Truly a night of fire - the fire of the sparkling and sometimes blazing heat of Wheelers and Dealers, contrasted by the softer, kitchen-fire warmth against the snow and wind, of Gordon Bok. I went home contented.

- John Warner

Review from Mount Desert Islander October 19, 2006

Gordon Bok in Concert

Gordon Bok's performance Saturday at The Grand in Ellsworth served to solidify a case for the Camden singer and guitarist to be named a national treasure. And, judging from the response of the nearly sold-out crowd, Mr. Bok would have plenty of support if such an honor came down to a vote.

Perhaps best known as the voice of those who make their living from the sea, Mr. Bok speaks eloquently for all who eke out a hardscrabble living in unforgiving northern climates like Maine, Maritime Canada and Scotland. He tells their stories in a warm bass-baritone that evokes the strength, resolve and sense of humor necessary to survive in harsh environments, where one step can make the difference between success and tragedy.

What sets Mr. Bok apart from many folksingers is that he has actually lived the life he sings about. He grew up around the Camden boatyards and worked on fishing boats and passenger schooners. Along the way, he collected songs from their sources and composed many of his own.

These life experiences lend his music a credibility not often found outside of acknowledged folk masters like Woody Guthrie, Leadbelly and Jimmy Rodgers.

At The Grand, Mr. Bok split his performance in two, taking an intermission before returning to the stage to complete the 90-minute set. The scheduled opening act, Mustard's Retreat, did not perform and no explanation was given. [One of the performers was recently diagnosed with a brain tumor, forcing the group to cancel its performances.]

Throughout the evening, Mr. Bok switched between 12-string and 6-string acoustic guitars, both Maine-made instruments and bearing a rich, open sound that complimented his deep, heartfelt vocals and gave him the opportunity to demonstrate his masterful guitar technique.

Mr. Bok began the concert with a song about the sailor's life, which he jokingly described as "predictable."

"They come ashore, get in trouble and run off to sea again," Mr. Bok quipped.

He followed with an a cappella tune about rounding Cape Horn. Unaccompanied, Mr. Bok's voice is every bit as satisfying and accurate as when he sings with instrumental backup. His dulcet tones expand to fill every corner of the auditorium, resonating with the courage of those who have sailed through one of roughest sea passages on earth.

Like all true poets, Mr. Bok has a keen ear for finding art where others see only the mundane. An example is his song, "Pretty," which is based on a radio conversation he overheard between two lobstermen. The song details the attempt of one fisherman to aid the second, who finds himself in a bit of a jam. The first fisherman uses tact and typical Maine understatement in his attempt to convince his reluctant and proud counterpart to accept the help, illustrating "diplomacy where you don't often find it," Mr. Bok said in his introduction.

After the intermission, Mr. Bok began with what is perhaps his best-known song, "Hills of Isle au Haut." The tune concluded to generous applause from the audience, some of whom were singing along to the chorus.

Mr. Bok is every bit as entertaining a storyteller as he is a musician. Whether telling about the time he learned a ballad from a woman in northernmost Scotland or introducing a song about the merits of a cheap Australian red wine called "plonk," he is able to create an aural image of the encounter, adding humor without being disrespectful. In fact, given Mr. Bok's wealth of experiences, one imagines he could hold an audience's attention through an entire evening without once singing a note or picking up a guitar.

After being called back for an encore, Mr. Bok ended the evening with a song appropriate for the season, "These Are the Best of Autumn." The melancholy tune was a fitting conclusion to the concert and, at Mr. Bok's urging, the audience sang along before leaving their seats and entering the crisp fall air.

by Mark Good, Mount Desert Islander