Robert Kuhlmann: Waiting for Your Singer-Songwriter Bit

In the Spring 1965, Bob Dylan committed an heretical act in the eyes of America’s, and probably the world’s, folkies.  Before then, at 23 years old, he was the leading songwriter of the American folk music revival.  Some of his songs already achieved a revered status among America’s young activists and were labeled “protest songs” by their parents and antagonists:  “Blowin’ in the Wind”; “The Times They Are a-Changin’”; “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall.”  Civil rights.  Nuclear war.  Change.  Parents and politicians losing control.  Dylan was quite precocious!

Dylan’s act of heresy:  He used an electric backing band.  Electric!  Holy smokes, the folkies were eating their young in the name of purity.  Maybe they were not as tolerant, or as committed to change, as they wanted the Great Society to be.

Earlier this year, local promoter Jerry Perry put together a 5-hour all ages show at Harlow’s.  It featured local performers singing Bob Dylan folk songs from the pre-electric era -- his catalog before the album Bringing It All Back Home.  That meant it was an all acoustic show reflecting on music made 50 or more years ago.  Given folk music’s respect for its past, some of the songs probably dated back a couple of hundred years.

Jerry Perry opened the show by announcing that the performers were “his favorites” and “hand-picked.”  Among the hand-picked favorites was Robert Kuhlmann, known affectionately as the Kool Kat to Pup fans.  Within an hour or so after Jerry Perry opened the show, Robert was going to take the stage and sing.

While waiting, I realized that I never had heard Robert sing -- truly sing.  Some backup stuff for “Monster Mash” and “Ghost Busters” did not count.  In fact, as long as I have known him, Robert has portrayed himself as a jazz musician first.  In the nascent days of my guitar playing, Robert had an eponymous free jazz quartet in which he played guitar.  When that group faltered, he shifted to bass in a couple of free jazz groups, including Chikading and Miles Now.

Even though he gravitates to the unconstrained improvisational nature of free jazz, Robert writes songs -- the kind that are prearranged and sung.  His Mac is loaded with his original compositions.  He promises from time to time to “do a singer-songwriter bit,” performing his songs solo.  So far, that promise -- tease, threat, goal -- has not come to fruition.  But that promise, etc., must be based upon a talent to sing because Robert’s professional pride will not allow him to do something incompetently.  Perhaps, he worries too much about having the perfect set to showcase his own material.

In the '80s -- last century, Robert played alternative rock.  He was a guitarist and vocalist.  A trip through Google also shows that he played some jazz.  But he was a rocker first.  Through Google, you also may find his 1987 album, My Ki El, on eBay -- mint condition for $13.12 U.S.  He played guitar for John McCrea [later of Cake] and the Roughousers, which recorded a couple of songs that Cake re-recorded later.  Robert fronted The Flying Boats, whose version of “Down by the Seaside” appears on compilation of Led Zeppelin covers.

A Newcastle Brown and a burger later, I was ready to hear him for the first time.  Robert came on stage.  His black blazer topped off his all black ensemble.  An acoustic guitar completed the singer-songwriter look.  He was joined by Tony Passarell, who was there to provide accompaniment on hand drums.  Robert started through the sound check.  “More volume in the monitor.  What’s that noise?”  His guitar cord was shorting out.  He instructed the sound engineer through a couple more adjustments and signaled that he and Tony were ready.

The first part of Robert’s stage time went badly.  His cord kept shorting out.  The mic cord was not connected properly.  The house sound was intermittent.  Robert was a bit frustrated.  Yeah, stuff happens even in a well-produced show.  Most of the problems were worked out by the second -- and last -- song.  He introduced “Baby, Let Me Follow You Down,” and he and Tony were underway.

The audience then could hear Robert’s guitar skills and voice.  “Baby, let me follow you down.  Baby, let me follow you down.  Yes, I’ll do anything in this godalmighty world if you just let me follow you down.”  His voice was a soft baritone and quite good.

“Baby, let me follow you down.  Baby, let me follow you down.  Yes, I’ll do anything in this godalmighty world, if I just had a guitar cord that worked.”  The audience chuckled.  Robert finished, and his ten minutes of doing Dylan Unplugged were done.

My first thought was, “He’s right.  Nothing teaches like playing live.”  That was replaced quickly by “with his talent, wouldn’t it be cool if he did his ‘singer-songwriter bit’ for a night or two?”


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