A few weeks ago at Providence’s Penalty Box, Cutler walked up to the mic, greeted the crowd, and signaled a downbeat from Giusti. Bam — the Courage boys were off into “Like a Rolling Stone,” and their leader brought a typically nuanced feel to lines like “now you don’t talk so loud/now you don’t seem so proud.” Performers have to be actors to some degree, and when Cutler cruises through a classic, he finds a way to personalize it without forsaking the character at hand. Rolling through songs by Muddy Waters or Television, he splices a wealth of rock and blues nuggets with his own, quite sizable, songbook. A glance back through the years reminds us that several of those originals have been on equal footing with the classics. The strongest titles by the Schemers and Raindogs boast a deep emotional clout. Ditto for those on Red (75orLess), Cutler’s latest and best solo disc. (Listen and download "Cousin Mary's New Car," from Mark Cutler’s new disc, Red [mp3]).
“Tonight let’s not talk of darkness/while we wait out the storm,” he gently sings at the record’s start. Cutler is a “lead on, MacDuff” optimist, a guy who believes good things come if you help build ’em yourself. That song, “Vampires,” is a note to his son, who suffered the usual slings and arrows engendered by divorce. It’s a poignant way to begin an album, and it’s a harbinger of what’s ahead. Red’s music is largely acoustic, and dewy with a bittersweet tone that’s long been a Cutler strong suit. Here, in middle age, he has a way with words and sense of melody that eloquently allows melancholy to bubble up without overwhelming.
“Hovering,” which he uses as a soundtrack to a YouTube clip of his first skydiving leap, is a love song with a blue, dreamy essence. “Can’t Give It Away” describes the punch in the gut when trouble unites with isolation. Even when he swaggers — and he always had a sting when it comes to muscular rock tunes — there’s something wistful about the groove. “There’s a lot of frustration in the neighborhood,” goes the clenched-fist growl in “Doc Pomus’ Ghost.” In the middle of the tune he unleashes a vicious slide guitar solo that proves how much kick he still has in him, and just how articulate he has become. Some kinds of reflection aren’t afraid to throw a few punches.
I caught up with Cutler after the dust of a recent work day subsided, and we chatted away about a number of things. I didn’t tell him that there are pieces of Red that remind me of Springsteen’s Tunnel of Love and John Prine’s Diamonds In the Rough — he gets a bit embarrassed by stuff like that. But there are. He has found a way of waxing plaintive while still flexing a few muscles. Neat trick.