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Personalizing the universal and universalizing the personal
It’s not easy being a multi-hyphenate. But singer-songwriter-guitarist-radio producer/host-author-journalist-record producer-photographer David Gans at least makes it look like loads of fun. That he can juggle so many balls in the air is nothing short of astonishing; that he does it with such skill, passion, assurance, wit and grace is even more remarkable.
Known far and wide as the light behind the widely syndicated Grateful Dead Hour radio program, several books on the Dead and a number of intriguing CDs relating to the band and its music (see below), David has in recent years blossomed into a compelling performer in his own right, touring nationally and releasing several albums, the most recent of which is the critically acclaimed Twisted Love Songs. The seventeen tunes on Twisted Love Songs offer a wonderful glimpse of the breadth of this modern troubadour’s musical gifts.
Armed with his sturdy baritone, an electro-acoustic guitar and a pedal-controlled looping setup that allows him to layer multiple guitar parts into a complex contrapuntal weave, David makes the term “solo artist” seem woefully inadequate – surely we’re hearing other unseen guitarists in this glorious stew! But no, the folks who were witness to the live performances from which the album was culled can tell you there were no other players in the shadows or pre-recorded tape legerdemain involved – just a marvelous right brain-left brain synergy that allows David to conceive of and execute his loop collages in real-time and in perfect rhythm; no easy feat, to be sure. On the instrumental “Cassidy’s Cat,” he deftly interlaces melodic figures from a trio of beloved Grateful Dead songs – “Cassidy,” “China Cat Sunflower” and “Bird Song” – to fascinating effect: it unfolds like some steadily moving audio collage. Other songs on the CD use looping to different degrees, some not at all. This isn’t the gimmick of some one-trick pony, but a carefully conceived approach to song construction that has evolved with David’s own songwriting.
And it is the strength of his large and impressive body of original songs that has earned him his ever-growing devoted following. As he says, “My presentation might be novel and intriguing with the loops and all, but the song’s the thing.” Those songs are impossible to categorize or pigeonhole. He writes tunes that are clearly autobiographical and ones that are like finely rendered fictional short stories. A gentle, lilting love ballad that seems to radiate a golden glow might be followed by a dark, sardonic indictment of some human folly. “I think the mission of art is to personalize the universal and universalize the personal,” he says.
Indeed, his journey is our journey, and the characters in his songs are like all of us: asking questions, looking for answers, amused, confused, outraged, amazed, engaged, cynical, indignant, loving, lonely, on the run, hiding out, waiting and wanting and hoping and praying that, as he sings, “it’s gonna get better.” Yep, it’s the whole human ball o’ wax, a compassionate everyman’s take that combines the charming simplicity of classic American folk tunes with rare literate incisiveness. You gotta love a songwriter who can write lines like “Narcissistic cathexis is my ex’s pathology/ She hooks ‘em and crooks ‘em and cooks ‘em with impunity,” as he does in “Desert of Love,” a truly twisted love song.
But “skilled solo performer” fills only one page of David’s artistic resumé. As so many concert- and club-goers have seen, he is also is a supremely sympathetic musical collaborator, always up for adding his voice and/or guitar (electric or acoustic) to any kind of tune that calls for it. Besides playing in all sorts of bands through the years, from the fondly remembered Reptiles to the recent Honky Tonk Hippies, he’s also sat in with an amazing range of fine musicians, such as Phil Lesh, Railroad Earth, Donna the Buffalo, Henry Kaiser, New Riders of the Purple Sage, Peter Rowan, Ollabelle, the late great Vassar Clements, Jim Lauderdale, The String Cheese Incident, Peter Rowan, and moe., to name just a few. He has also written songs with a host of others, including Jim Page, Lorin Rowan, and Grateful Dead lyricist Robert Hunter. And his live repertoire is peppered with an incredibly broad (and unpredictable) range of cover tunes by old and new musical heroes.
Check out a video: