David Rovics took the stage at the Flying Squirrel Community Space, in jeans and an ill-fitting t-shirt, looking nothing like a beloved quasi-rock star. Midway through the first of his two sets that night, he asked for the lights in the room to be turned down, so that the stage lights would illuminate him while the rest of the room sat in semi-darkness and watched him strum his folk ditties on his acoustic guitar. “Basically, I’m a shit anarchist,” he said. “I like to be the center of attention.”
That’s right, last week we went to see a folk concert, not our customary musical milieu. In fact, when I walked in an older guy by the door teased me about my mohawk and my Doc Martens, asked me if I thought I was going to a hardcore show. Well, of course not, but I like to be ready in case a hardcore show breaks out.
For those of you who don’t know who David Rovics is, please let me explain. You know those guys with the buttons pinned all over their jackets you hear wailing out tunes at every anti-war rally, the Bob Dylan impersonators who you see strumming their guitars at every Occupy encampment and every anti-fracking demonstration? David Rovics is basically the king of those guys. For the last two decades, he’s been travelling the world, playing at protests and for coffee shops full of left wingers, inciting the occasional riot, and amassing an impressive library of original songs.
After the show, he told me that he had over three hundred songs in his catalog, encompassing all of the typical leftist topics, and a few others that seem to be the idiosyncratic interests of Rovics himself. That night’s set included recently-penned tunes about the government shutdown, ballads about activist movements in other countries, songs covering obscure episodes in history, and a tribute to a Greek activist dog with the courage to stand and fight in the center of a teargas cloud. Besides all of that, there was at least one song about pirates.
With so many songs about so many different things, there came a point at which they all started to sound more or less the same. I went home that night with the entire David Rovics persona stuck in my head, wishing I had a guitar to strum as every thought that passed through my brain took on the cadence of an Irish folk tune, all delivered in his folksy nerd voice, like They Might Be Giants doing Pete Seeger.
David had a great, self-deprecating sense of humor and an easygoing attitude that made him a blast to spend a couple hours with, even if I was in a musky community room filled mostly with respectable, aging leftist strangers, and no booze. On the way home, Shandi commented that he made politics entertaining and interesting, “unlike most political events.”
For me, the highlights of the evening came when he stopped trying to impress us with the new stuff and just played the hits. It was a giddy thrill to shout the chorus to “I’m a Better Anarchist than You” or to belt , “Burn it Down,” at the top of my lungs with all of the local insurrectionists. After the closing refrain of “Pirates of Somalia,” I told Shandi, “I like it when he plays the sing-alongs. It’s like church.”
And the way I said it, it probably sounded like I was being ironic. But the truth is I wasn’t, not even a bit. Especially in times like these, when the world around us seems to be so irretrievably locked in the clutch or ignorant right-wing backlash, I’m always hoping for some kind of church service to break out. Or like a riot, or a hardcore show.