Introducing Rob Sweet
Rob Sweet surveys the crowd at one of the bustling nightclubs in downtown Key West, trying to sort out who will listen to the music, who will ignore him, who will mockingly call out 'Free Bird!', who will really understand what he's doing. Many musicians have performed in this venerable venue over the years, some famous, some not so, some talented, some, well, less blessed. Rob figures he's in the middle somewhere, and just considers himself fortunate for being able to make a living at doing this, his chosen profession. He strums a few chords on his Martin, launches into a familiar song, and soon has most of the revelers smiling and nodding or tapping something in tempo. He's just started, but he's already well on his way into another day at work, or play, a four-hour excursion through the well-chosen covers and well-written originals that comprise his varied repertoire. He has the self-assurance of someone who has found his calling and is making it work for him. If you love what you do for a living and can do what you love for a living you have achieved a level of personal success that eludes most of us. He understands that he may never attain the sort of national, even international, recognition that some the musicians he admires have - such as Steve Earle, Todd Snider, Ben Folds, even Erin McKeown - but he doesn't let that concern him. He's glad to be able to play for people in this intimate, boisterous setting - and he really enjoys playing rather than working for a living - and feels he has been successful if he can leave at the end of his shift having received a good number of compliments, and yes, a respectable amount of tips. He can judge by these indicators that he has touched and moved peoples' hearts, an intangible yet real reward for his efforts. The average bar patron may not pick up on any of this. After all, most people go to Key West to hang out, carouse, have a loud rowdy good time, and probably don't pay too much attention to what the skinny guitarist over in the corner is doing until he plays a favorite song or fulfills a request. They'd be missing out on something special, though, and would seem to have completely forgotten that playing gigs just like this is how their beloved Jimmy Buffett got his start. Of course, they're on vacation and understandably not too interested in digging deeper than what is immediately apparent. That is what makes them tourists and not travelers, and maybe that's alright in this context - though even sitting still and listening intently for even ten minutes might bring them a little closer to realizing the potential rewarding experience close at hand. Even if they weren't interested in maintaining a higher level of attention for very long, they could buy a copy of Rob's new CD, "Introducing Rob Sweet," listen to it at their leisure later, and finally get an idea of what could be theirs for the asking - an introduction to a valuable and evolving musical resource in the guise of a charming rogue and talented troubadour. The album begins with the self-explanatory "Me Like Everybody Else." Over a catchy chord pattern he delineates some of the thoughts he has during a gig. He readily and self-effacingly admits, "I don't do this for fame, don't do it for no fortune, just try to make an extra dime/ When I get hit with the notion got to do it over and over again, just to get it right one time." This is an honest and pragmatic appraisal of what drives a singer/songwriter to keep playing for inattentive audiences - the urge to connect with even one appreciative listener, make enough money to keep going, and to "get it right," even one time. This song is a subtle, understated masterpiece that anyone who has ever wondered why he has kept going despite overwhelming odds and underwhelming support can relate to. He touches on this theme again later in "Live As Much As You Can," in which the repeated refrain "You gotta keep on keepin' on/ Live as much as you can" functions as a reminder to himself as well as the listener that the road is still leading onward. The next song, 'Getting Strange,' is a bit more direct, an homage to his beloved, with a bit of levity mixed into the heartfelt emotionality to leaven it. A catchy chord pattern interwoven with an alternating bass line serves as the framework for the verbal mixture of imagery and expression of feelings, and a style begins to emerge. This technique appears in nearly half of the songs, from the samba-inflected 'On The Rocks' to the Lovett-like 'Only If Only' to his masterpiece 'Another Generic Song.' While it may seem a little too inside to start an album with two musings on the life of a singer/songwriter, people who have seen Rob perform and bought the CD at a gig will understand them immediately. As the album continues, Rob pays his respects to some of the musicians and genres he loves in some of the songs: 'Silver Hair '49' sounds so much like Steve Earle it's scary; there's social commentary in 'Mass Confusion' and 'The Political Thrill;' he puts his unique twist on the blues in 'Bleedin' The Blues' and 'Devil Music' as well as his funky take on Robert Johnson's 'Crossroads;' he even goes country in 'Only If Only' and 'Live As Much As You Can,' which would fit in well on a Todd Snider collection. These serve to show his breadth and depth as a performer and give the listener an idea of how enjoyable seeing him live would be. But his true value as an artist is most readily apparent on his originals which defy easy categorization and glib thumbnail sketches. In the closer 'Another Generic Song,' he uses his facility to tell stories through a mixture of imagery and insight to another level. While he strings together a few tales of people going through the paces of their day-to-day lives to illustrate concepts like normal and average, what he's really going after is something that transcends these notions to become anything but generic. On the surface the subject matter, chord structure, and melody are similar to scores of other songs, but through some deft wordplay, adroit timing, and nearly Zappa-like trompe-l'oreille he challenges conventional expectations. This is done very subtly yet effectively, and after the listener is through chuckling he may find he's learned a thing or two about the human condition. Rob's diction is clever, subtly building until he is being self-referential about being self-referential while being (admittedly) self-referential, but it's so tongue-in-cheek that the listener can't help but be amused. This is a smart, witty exercise in songwriting craft, one that is made even better by his relaxed and unpretentious performance. While of course Rob would like to play in more areas and larger venues, for now playing in intimate settings suits him - or at least he's made it work for him. He enjoys the interplay with attentive listeners, and finds endless amusement, even inspiration, in those who are oblivious. He appreciates how fortunate he is to have realized some of his dreams, and hopes to continue on his chosen path for the foreseeable future. Not many are so lucky. Fortunately, as he himself is concerned, he is able to take life in stride and not take things too seriously. To end by going full circle and arriving at words to live by, as he says, 'When the show is all through, I like to laugh at myself/ Just following the clues, and be Me Like Everybody Else.' - Steve Bornstein.
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