Saturday, July 5, 2008

Down The Tracks, Real World, Mark Wright

Some artists embody America’s rich music history in the strangest and most surprising ways. As a big Springsteen fan I first learned about Mark Wright when he announced a cover project of Springsteen songs. When I decided to investigate a little further I stumbled in one surprise after another. Aside from covering Springsteen, Mark Wright turned out to be an Elvis impersonator extraordinary, a former opening act for Ramblin’ Jack Elliot and a solo artists signed to Universal UK, as which he brings his own interpretation of Americana with original material. Intrigued I sought Mark out for an interview to find out how a lad from Brighton UK manages to tie all these seemingly disjointed personas together.

From seeing Springsteen at Villa Park in 1988, it was the Boss that became Mark’s first and foremost influence. The first song learned was ‘Glory Days’. The Elvis thing just kind of happened after that as a joke that got out of hand. At 17 Mark did an impersonation at a party. It went over better than he though, “before I knew it I was performing up and down the country at various corporate functions as well as casinos, weddings etc. it’s a crazy way to make a living!,” Mark says today. It was the Springsteen connection however that got Mark his first big brake as a solo artist. When the Light of Day foundation put together a charity CD filled with Springsteen covers, to raise money for the research of Parkinson’s disease, Mark’s cover of “Two Hearts” got to be on it. Mark suddenly found himself on the same release as Elvis Costello, Nils Lofgren and Billy Bragg “One of the greatest moments of my life was walking into the Virgin Megastore in Times Square, New York and seeing a whole rack of the Light of Day: A Tribute to Bruce Springsteen CDs facing me as I walked into the store,” Mark remembers now.

Revolver, backed Universal's distribution, who released “Light of Day”, approached Mark to sign them to their label. “It was a dream come true really,” Mark says with modest pride, “What was apt was that it was seeing Bruce Springsteen in concert that inspired me to pick up the guitar in the first place. Years later it was my version of a Bruce Springsteen song that led to me being signed. So, really, I owe Mr Springsteen a lot. If he ever wants an Elvis impersonator for a party I’ll certainly offer him a cheap rate! Ha ha!” Revolver released Mark’s first genuine solo album, One Way Ticket in 2007, even though he had already recorded in the Sun studios years before. Looking back Mark says today, “Perhaps the highlight of the [sessions] for me was recording ‘Johnny Bye Bye’. To be recording a song written by Bruce about Elvis’ death in the room where Elvis made his first faltering steps that would eventually lead to his passing was incredibly moving. It was a moment I’ll never, ever forget. It may sound clichéd but I felt that in a sense I’d brought the two of them together somehow.”

In preparation of the album release Revolver send Mark on tour with Ramblin’ Jack Elliot as an opening act, eventually joining Jack on stage regularly on for the encores, sharing the mic on Dylan’s “Ill be Your Baby Tonight” or Lead Belly’s “Stewball”. Mark remembers it as one of the most thrilling experiences in his short career. “I’m not sure that Jack himself releases quite how significant he is in the scheme of modern music history.”Mark told me, “Here was a man who not only played Woody Guthrie songs, he was friends with Woody and travelled with him. He was the bridge between Woody and Greenwich Village. You take Jack Elliott out of the equation and our CD collections would be sounding very different today. I know people always say that Dylan was the heir to Woody but the truth is that Dylan only met Woody when Woody was very ill and could no longer play the guitar. Dylan learnt all the Woody stuff from Jack!”

Mark became quite good friends with Ramblin’ Jack and approaches him with respect. He’s cautious to tell me stories from the road. “I felt privileged that he felt me enough of a friend that we could talk about a lot of things but I don’t feel it’s my place to tell any part of his story” Mark explains. One story on Bruce Springsteen he felt comfortable enough to pass along though. “Bruce apparently went backstage during one the ‘Rolling Thunder revue’ shows in the mid-70’s where he asked Jack his autograph” Mark relates to us now, passing the tale in the best of Folk traditions,.” Years later when they performed together at the Guthrie tribute in ’96 Bruce asked Jack is he remembered him asking all the years before. Jack did and Bruce gave him a bottle of Jack Daniels as a gift. The truth is that Jack isn’t too fond of JD as his whiskey of choice is Maker’s Mark but he didn’t have the heart to tell Bruce and accepted it graciously. So next time Bruce gives him a bottle (which is always gratefully received!) he just needs to make sure it’s ‘Maker’s Mark’!”

Following up a solo album with original material with a Springsteen album, may sound like an odd move. Yet Mark manages to put his own personal stamp on Springsteen’s music by crawling into the songs. Quite the opposite from his Elvis impersonations where he crawls into the persona. "I couldn’t really sing the songs as Elvis!" Mark says with a laugh, "Although maybe it’s something I should consider for the future!" Mark is very conscious of the influence Elvis had on Springsteen fantasizing, “I think in his heart Bruce is a bit of an Elvis impersonator himself. There’s no way he hasn’t practiced all the Elvis moves in front of a mirror! No way.” Although he stresses an important difference as well, “Bruce is about the journey. I get the feeling that he’s always been very conscious of that journey in everything that he writes. He seems to know where it’s going and where it may end up. I don’t believe Elvis had that sort of perspective on his music. I truly think there was a real artist struggling to be heard but he didn’t necessarily have the tools, or the advice, on hand to make those decisions.” Of course Mark offers us an interesting journey through American music in his own right these days, where his seemingly unrelated projects all come together much like the strange and thrilling melting pot that America is today.

"Real World"

Available on "Real World" through the Backstreets shop

"One Way Ticket"

Available on One Way Ticket

Visit Light of Day to see how you can support their foundation.

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