Block Thirty Seven Derek Luttrell

See Derek Luttrell, the Future

Friday, June 27, 2014 Rob Samuelson

The realization anvil fell on my head with an earthquake's force. I am a sorcerer, I said to myself.  No, scratch that. I am the Nostradamus of Chicago.  Wait, he got a lot of stuff wrong, didn't he?  Okay, how about that nun who picks the Superbowl winner every year?  Cool, premise chosen. Either way, between repairs to a couple of broken guitar strings and 90 minutes of dusty, world weary tunes, I learned I could see the future.  And it's all thanks to Rockford singer-songwriter-troubadour Derek Luttrell, who played yesterday's edition of Block Thirty Seven's Stage 37 summer concert series.

Courtesy of http://www.derekluttrell.com/

Luttrell, who built his songwriting style through various busking trips around St. Paul, Minnesota, walks the same paths forged by the singer-songwriters of the 1970s, particularly "Randy Newman and Townes Van Zandt," he says.  His songs are mud-splattered travelogues, both literal and through crummy relationships.  His bourbon voice bubbles up from down below and filters through the proverbial pebbles in his throat to tell stories littered with stark imagery of the fading industrial land America finds itself to be these days.  He keeps his eyes shut.  His shoulders hunch over his guitar, uncut strings dangling from the tuners like a stray cat's whiskers.  The enterprise has a melancholy joviality, a way of saying, "Sure, bad stuff happens, but it's beautiful in its own way."

"I've always strived for [melancholy]," he says.  "I don't know if I've hit it."

Now playing at Block Thirty Seven at 108 N. State.


That bashful modesty was what threw me off my fortune telling for a while. He busted a string and had to take a break from playing to fix it.  He kept conversations with the audience, mostly about the ice cream being sold behind us and how excited he was to try it.  I had some downtime here, so I collected my impressions in my notes, "Bruce Springsteen's Nebraska would be a great comparison for his style and tone."  That's when I began to understand where this guy is coming from, and I was able to start putting my thumb on why he wasn't just another sensitive guy with an acoustic guitar.  It is that E Street Band-less Springsteen album, with its stripped bare arrangements and anguished Americana, that have soundtracked who knows how many plaid wearing guys' road trips since 1982.  Luttrell has the same fondness for boosting the blue collared downtrodden as the Boss on that record.  He tells me it's not all fatalism and gloom poetry about sad people, though.

"I'd like to think my songs are warm," he says.  And he's right, because there's a playfulness amid the somberness.  His song "Better Days" has a tongue-in-cheek quality brimming with a Newman-style acerbic wit but a minimalism that resonates with him.

"I think you can convey a lot of things with just a couple chords," he says.  "I think you can overcomplicate things and sometimes it's just better left alone."

"[Music is] most beautiful that way, in its simplest form," he says.

In keeping with those thoughts, I wrote, "I keep expecting him to cover 'Atlantic City' [my favorite Springsteen song that is equal parts playful, austere, and sad from the Nebraska album, about hoping against all logic that a casino could solve one's problems]; if he does, I'll be a fan for life."

He quickly hopped back onstage.  I thought he may have restrung his instrument in haste.  He played a few songs, including a cover of The Faces' "Ooh La La" that upped the humor of the hopelessness of "wish[ing] that I knew what I know now when I was younger."

And there it was.  20 minutes after Luttrell's last foray into playing his own roadie, I was proven right when yet another string broke.  He began to restring again and I chalked up my prediction as a frustrating coincidence for him and the audience.

"I just changed them, I swear," he said to laughs from the crowd.  "I'm going to my local music store and getting my five dollars back."

He thanked everyone for sticking around, because "people usually just leave," which added to the lonesome troubadour mystique.

He started finger picking a familiar tune.  The capo puts it in the distinct key I had heard hundreds of times while driving through the corn fields of Northeastern Missouri during college.

"Holy crap, he's really doing it!" I said out loud to the confusion of anyone in earshot.

That's right, he launched into a sober version of "Atlantic City".  I swayed my head and tapped my feet, which for me counts as emotion in its purest form.  I was a wizard.  Anything I wished could come true.  I did not want to become drunk with power, for my Napoleonic frame would and self-righteousness would spell disaster for the world.  I made one last prediction before abdicating my powers.

I said, "This kid's got a great career in front of him."

So, Mr. Luttrell, your success will not be due to talent or perseverance.  It will be because of the soothsayer in the red flannel who interviewed you that one time.  You're welcome.

Derek Luttrell's latest album, Tired Dogs, Old Trees, is available now from Rotown Records.  Block Thirty Seven's Stage 37 free summer concert series runs through September.

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