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  Santa Barbara News Press, Friday May 23 2003
 

"Singing For the Sake of the Song"


     In recent years, Santa Barbara's music scene has become somewhat of a mini-haven for the singer-songwriter scene. national talent from the network of loosely descibed folk and pop songwriters pass through town, playing in the comfy brick lined confines of SOhO and, more formally, in the "Sings Like Hell" series at the Lobero Theatre.
     And now comes yet another new venue, the monthly "Trinity Backstage" series, monthly concerts in the amicable ambience of the Guild Hall at Trinity Episcopal Church. The series was launched by two singer-songwriters in their own right, recent emigres to town, Kate Wallace and Douglas Clegg, who sought to create a casual, ongoing forum for notable songwriters to express their often parallel,if not downright secret, lives as performers.
That scenario neatly sums up the story of Larry John McNally, this Saturday's visiting performer. If the name rings a bell, it's probably because McNally has had his songs recorded by Bonnie Raitt ("Nobody's Girl"), Don Henley ("For My Wedding"), Joe Cocker ("Long Drag Off A Cigarette"), and Aaron Neville ("Somewhere, Somebody"). Neville was his first big connection as a song supplier after McNally had moved to New Orleans in the early 1980's.
McNally, who lived in Los Angeles in the 80's and New York for most of the 90's, recently spoke on the phone from his current home in Pacific Palisades. Writing is still the bread and butter and his work pops up in interesting places; he has written lyrics for two songs by the late Polish pianist-composer Wladyslaw Szpilman (the subject of "The Pianist"), including one on the concept album,      "Wendy Lands sings the Music of Wladyslaw Szpilman."
But McNally yearns to heat up his performing career which has included releasing the 90's albums "Vibrolux" and "Dandelion Soul."
"For whatever reason, the things that have made my writing career, so to speak, haven't kicked in, in terms of my performing career," he explains. "It's just serendipity or whatever. I wish they would, because I absolutely love to perform. The more, the better." "The performing feeds the writing, for me. I think my thing has started to speed up in recent years because of the performing. It completes the circle. You perform the material and you can feel how people are receiving it. They give back to you, and that fills you up, and then you give more. It's a circular flow."
     In a peripheral way, McNally's voice has been heard in town before. In 1997, he collaborated on an intriguing jazz-cum-folk song set with guitarist Leni Stern, which resulted in the unique album, "Black Guitar." Supporting that project, Stern brought her song craft, and guitar craft to SOhO a few years ago. The connection wasn't as far-fetched as it might seem: McNally is an avowed jazz fan, who briefly studied at the Berklee School of Music in Boston, and whose songwriting vocabulary leans toward the jazz and soul end of the musical spectrum.
     "I love jazz (chord) changes," he says, adding that, when pressed for a stylistic description, "I sometimes call it 'folk-Hendrix.' 'Singer-songwriter-guitarist,' too. I just love songs. I can't get away from that. The beauty of of when a lyric and a melody meld and the moods that that creates is probably my favorite thing."
When the Bangor, Maine-born McNally was a music-obsessed teenager, he say, "the section at the record store that always interested me was jazz, blues and folk. That's still where I'm at. Mose Allison is a singer-songwriter. Bobby Womack and Allen Toussaint are singer-songwriters. Even though you don't think of them as singer-songwriters, those are the guys I aspire to. That's the kind of singer-songwriter I want to be. I want to perform, sing, write and play. I don't feel by being a singer--songwriter that that has to equal Buffy Sainte-Marie or something."
     For instance, McNally says he doesn't feel compelled to "limit my use of chords. I just wrote this cycle of songs about Chet Baker that I'm excited about. I was in Amsterdam a bunch two years ago and on the days off I read Chet's biography. I'm a fan of his anyway. I went by the hotel where he died, and it really got me going. I ended up writing five songs, sort of about him and myself, being on the road and just getting lost, that's certainly not singer-songwriter-y music. I'm trying out some different ideas."
As much as he likes to think of his songs as his own private creative outlet, McNally is by now also resigned to, and hungry for, the....

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