Neal McCarthy makes the most of any given Monday
By NICK TAVARES
STATIC and FEEDBACK Editor
A random text from a friend led me out of my apartment, across a busy intersection and eventually winding down the cobblestone streets that make up the majority of the historic downtown in New Bedford, Mass., past some construction and eventually into Cork, a wine bar overlooking the city’s working waterfront and, at the moment, a boulevard half-dug up due to construction.
I walked in, it was dimly lit, but I spotted my friend, who was drinking a beer and taking notes while Neal McCarthy jammed on an acoustic guitar, accompanied by a stand-up bass and some light drums. He pulled out covers, reworked classics and joked with the audience, all while sliding up and down the metal frets.
This could have been any Monday night, or Tuesday night. Or Thursday, or Friday, or Saturday. McCarthy is one of the more recognizable musicians in the Southcoast region of Massachusetts. He plays everywhere, and he plays everything. And though he keeps a stack of lyrics nearby, he doesn’t typically work off of them. Instead, he reaches right into his note-filled brain, pulling out words and chords, changing keys, keeping the band sharp behind him, whoever might be behind him that night.
Unlike a good number of musicians who frequently work these intimate settings, McCarthy understands his audience and his place in that setting. This was a quiet wine bar, and he plays it accordingly, channelling the spirit of the Grateful Dead’s Reckoning album rather than blowing away the crowd with inappropriate volume, his expert guitar playing shining through all the while. His voice is perfectly suited for this, too, a shade deeper than Stephen Stills but with the rough edges intact. Soothing but rough, funny but serious. He has plenty of sides of his personality, and they all shine through.
Of course this isn’t his only side. I’ve seen him on plenty of nights playing to rowdy crowds up and down Massachusetts, where he plugs in and channels his inner guitar hero, burning through originals and classics, jamming and stretching songs out, and playing anything at the drop of a hat.
Shortly after I got out of college, I was writing the occasional entertainment feature for The Standard-Times in New Bedford, and I got to write a few stories about McCarthy, happily interviewing him in the process. What sprung from that was a near-weekly trip to see him at certain venues, along with accidentally stumbling into him in a random club or restaurant even more often. The man always has music on the mind, and when he’s playing, it’s obvious that it’s what he cares about most.
By the end of this night, my friend and I took up one table, a couple on a night out occupied another, and the bartender surveyed the scene along with another collapse by the New York Jets on a muted Monday Night Football game. And there were the musicians, long past feeling caught up in particulars and playing for themselves and the moment. It’s those snatches of time where the true nature of musicians are revealed, where there are no distractions beyond the music. And McCarthy has always thrived in pulling the most out of that moment.
On this random quiet night on the waterfront, he and his friends played because that’s what they do. They pulled songs deep from within the American and classic rock songbook. They riffed on lyrics and whipped songs out from the conversation of the crowd. They turned their heads and they joked and they laughed. But through it all, they played.
It’s an under-appreciated thing, the role of the musician in artistic society. But the ones that understand their value and their role in keeping people entertained and, above all, happy, are rare and should be treasured.
Neal McCarthy understands what he brings, and he obviously enjoys the process. Not every city has their own Neal McCarthy to keep them entertained and enthralled by the idea of the career musician, and that’s a shame. Those cities are missing out.
E-mail Nick Tavares at firstname.lastname@example.org