Chris Buhalis played the Old Town Tavern‘s regular show this past Sunday night, and I caught the second half of his set, which started at 8 p.m. I arrived during the break just as a crowd of little kids, maybe eight or nine strong, burst into the Old Town handing out cards announcing Bruce Springsteen’s Change Rocks concert on the EMU campus, Monday, Oct. 6. (Gates to Oestrike Baseball Stadium open at 3 p.m. with the show, which is free to all students and residents, scheduled to start at 4 p.m.)
“Reason to Believe,” a Springsteen tune that begins, “Seen a man standing over a dead dog by a highway in a ditch” was part of the set Buhalis played, backed by Dave Keeney on steel guitar and Jason Dennie on mandolin. The crowd for Buhalis was a mix of Old Town regulars, friends of Buhalis, and folks who appeared to have just happened into this neighborhood bar and decided to stay for the music. But the young couple smoking Camels seemed to be there mostly just to smoke their Camels.
Still they were treated to a mix of Buhalis’ own tunes – like “Big Car Town” and “Whisky Six” – plus several folk standards like “Muhlenberg County” and “John Henry.” Buhalis knows how to sell a song. Introducing the familiar ballad about the steel-driving man: “This is a song about man versus machine, but it’s also a song about love.” And it is, of course. Buried in one of the later verses is the tale of how Polly Ann, John Henry’s wife, picks up the hammer from her husband’s dead hand and finishes off the job.
When Buhalis sings these standards, he gives them their due, each and every lyric, and if you don’t believe that he believes in them, then you’re not paying close enough attention. He manages to give listeners a reason to believe the lyrics of these old songs, some of which we’ve all heard a million times, and to listen to the whole message, not just the part everybody remembers from elementary school.
Here’s the last three verses of what would have been the next-to-last song that Buhalis played:
The sun comes shining as I was strolling
The wheat fields waving and the dust clouds rolling
The fog was lifting a voice come chanting
This land was made for you and me
As I was walkin’ – I saw a sign there
And that sign said – no tress passin’
But on the other side … it didn’t say nothin!
Now that side was made for you and me!
In the squares of the city – In the shadow of the steeple
Near the relief office – I see my people
And some are grumblin’ and some are wonderin’
If this land’s still made for you and me.
This was the first song Buhalis learned to play on the guitar. He said he learned only the first three verses in grade school and it really “pissed him off” when he found out about the stanzas we’ve included above. So he’s on a mission to sing every verse now. In case you don’t recognize the tune based on those last three verses, it’s Woody Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land.”
Catch Chris Buhalis, plus a whole passel of other alums of Old Town Tavern Sunday night music, next Friday, Oct. 10 at 8 p.m. at the Corner Brewery in Ypsilanti. It’s a John Lennon Birthday Party to raise money for the local chapter of Veterans for Peace. Admission is $10.