The Incredible, Flexible Tom Chapin
“It’s hard for people to know what to make of me,” singer-songwriter and stalwart folkie Tom Chapin says with a laugh, alluding to his remarkably varied five-decade career as a troubadour for adults, a multi-Grammy-winning children’s entertainer, Emmy and Peabody-winning television personality, and tireless activist. If Chapin confuses people, however, it’s only prior to captivating them with a charisma that is equal parts homey and intense. He commands whatever stage he alights upon, connecting with the room, employing a hard-won expertise any entertainer of any age would admire. Chapin brings that considerable bundle of talent to the Towne Crier on Saturday, April 27, returning to the Pawling club for the first time since 1996.
“The great thing about playing a folk club like the Towne Crier,” he says, “is I can do the whole canon. The show will be a ‘grown-up’ show, where I’ll play my songs and some of my brother’s, like ‘Cat’s In The Cradle,’ and ‘Taxi,’ but my ‘grown-up’ shows are kid-friendly, too. We’ll see who comes, and tune it from there.” In other words, for once, you can bring the kids. But be advised: they are just as likely to walk away singing “Go Away Sarah Palin,” or his dark, sexy folk chestnut “Once When I Was Young,” as Chapin’s irresistible — and adult-friendly — kids’ songs like “Puppy At the Pound,” and “Two Kinds of Seagulls.” “A great song,” Chapin says, “if it really works, it works across the board.”
Chapin comes from a remarkable musical family. His father Jim was a renowned jazz drummer whose seminal Advanced Techniques for the Modern Drummer Vol. 1 — simply called “The Chapin Book” by the cognoscenti — is still in print. While Pop Chapin was out touring, his sons Tom, Harry, and Steve heard the Weavers’ seismic 1958 album “The Weavers at Carnegie Hall,” which inspired what Chapin only half-jokingly calls “the folk scare of the 60s.” Emboldened by acts like Peter, Paul & Mary, The Kingston Trio, and the Weavers’ own Pete Seeger (who quit the Weavers after the group licensed a song to a cigarette ad) the Chapins formed the Chapin Brothers. This act launched Harry’s tragically short-lived career as one of the pre-eminent singer-songwriters of the 1970s, and set Tom on the twisting, turning ribbon of highway he still travels. His daughters Lily and Abigail (below) have followed in his footsteps.
Tom Chapin began touring when TV was still a three-channel affair. With infinitely more distractions available nowadays, has the quality of the audience attention span changed? “No,” Chapin says. “For those who come, no. The hardest thing is to get bodies there. There’s so much on the tube, so much streaming. But with kids or anybody else, when you get ‘em in a room, it’s a very magical thing. As I get older I realize more how rare it is to perform live. Your job is to tell stories, and to lead. Your weapons are the words and music, and the real weapon is the music with words, which touches people in a way nothing else quite does. We’re pretty inured to words, to people talking at us, but there’s a power in song that never ceases to amaze me. People walk away feeling like they’ve connected with something. It’s a remarkable gig.”
If it’s a Tom Chapin gig, yes, it is remarkable. If you go, be sure to check out the merch table. Two of Chapin’s more recent CDs are characteristically diverse and excellent. Broadsides, his sharp-witted 2008 collaboration with cabaret writer John Forster, includes the viral anti-No Child Left Behind anthem “Not On The Test,” while brand new The Incredible Flexible You, written with hit maker Phil Galdston (1990s totem “Save The Best For Last” is partially his), focuses on helping kids with social skills, kids who, Chapin says, are “more apt to be playing with an iPad than playing with their friends.”
In the unlikely event an iPad is in the house at the Towne Crier, it’ll probably be taking a picture or a video of a man with an old machine called a guitar, a device dependent not on batteries, but on human energy, and thus, much, much more powerful. —Robert Burke Warren
The Towne Crier Cafe
Saturday, April 27, 7:30 p.m.
130 Route 22,