Friday, February 3, 2012

Chris Trapper in Concert--What Happens When a Philosopher Tries to Write a Concert Review

I remember Chris Trapper as a lanky high school kid with Garfunkel hair and a lovely tenor voice.

More significantly, I recall that he was a genuinely good soul, a bit shy, and something of a goofball—which suited me well when we ended up wandering the swanky hallways of the city-in-a-building hotel in the Catskill Mountains where the New York State School Music Educators Association hosted its annual All State Music Festival.

I was there playing my violin in the orchestra. He, of course, was singing in the choir. But when we weren’t rehearsing, the two of us seemed to find some kind of special pleasure in disrupting the tonsil-groping passion of high school kids cooler than us who’d hooked up at the festival. We’d practice slapstick tripping-over-our own feet in front of them. Or we’d break into the “Love Boat” theme song in two-part harmony.

Last Sunday, for the first time in more than 25 years, I saw Chris again—in concert at the Performing Arts Studio in Norman, Oklahoma, as part of the Winter Wind Singer-Songwriter series. It was an intimate venue inside a converted train station. Trains still occasionally went by.

Chris's lankiness is gone, as is the Garfunkel hair. His tenor voice, which in high school still retained traces of that boy soprano timbre, has given way to something more mature and suited to the alternative folk-pop genre he now performs. But it seems that Chris has remained a genuinely good soul, a bit shy, and something of a goofball.

The weekend of his show was, for my wife and me, bookended by concerts. On Friday night we went to the huge BOK Center arena in Tulsa to see Darius Rucker (former front man for Hootie and the Blowfish) and the new country-pop group sensation, Lady Antebellum. It was a great show, polished and energetic, filled with great songs performed by tiny little people very far away.

Chris Trapper’s show on Sunday night was, for me, the more enjoyable event—and not just because I got a hug from the performer at the end of the show. Chris’s songs tell stories, and between songs Chris shares amusing, self-deprecating anecdotes from his life which often reveal the inspiration behind the songs in ways that add depth and texture to the music. And I laughed a lot, because, of course, he’s still a goofball (as evidenced by the autobiographical song he played during the second set, “Not Normal”)

The songs he sings in a performance are a mere sampling of a truly prolific songwriting career, and it’s hard not to be impressed with just how many really good songs he’s written. I’ll confess that while I knew he’d composed “This Time” from the Grammy nominated August Rush soundtrack, and I knew he (and his former band, The Push Stars) had something on the soundtrack for There’s Something About Mary, I hadn’t known what…until he sang “Everything Shines” and I found myself humming along with a song I really liked but never knew was his.

Chris started the evening without saying a word—just picking up his guitar and drawing us in with a pair of energetic songs. Finally he paused, smiled to the too-small gathering (it should have been a packed house, even if it was his first time in Norman and second time in Oklahoma). After being on the stage and singing his songs for a few minutes, he was ready to introduce himself. Within moments, everyone in the converted train station was caught up in Chris’s spell, his charm and humor and music.

Part of that spell is cast by what I’m calling his shyness. On Friday night, Darius Rucker moved across the stage with infectious energy, as if this were the most comfortable place in the world for him to be. The front man for Lady Antebellum was effortlessly charismatic, even slick as he owned the BOK arena stage.

Chris, by contrast, isn’t slick. He’s human. He pushes past an initial nervous stutter to tell a story about his own imperfect history—and you know he’s on the stage because making music, and sharing it with others, is what he loves.

Having just recently read the Time Magazine article about introverts, I can’t help but think of this contrast in those terms. The arena performers on Friday night struck me as classic extroverts: energized by the crowds, feeding off the adulation, the cheering masses waving their cell-phone equivalents of bic lighters. But were I to hazard a guess, I’d say that Chris’s prolific songwriting abilities are in part fueled by the same kind of introversion that typically characterizes writers and academics. In our solitude we are able to focus, to process our experiences and ideas, and to channel them into words or arguments—or songs. But at some point as we move into adulthood we realize that these creations need to be shared, that their true value and meaning is born when they resonate with another human soul, when someone else hears and understands and is moved.

And so we stumble, perhaps trembling a bit, out of our solitude and into the crowded room. And there we are, in all our vulnerable humanity, blinking into the lights because we have something to say.

In an arena concert like the one I went to Friday night, the crowds are entertained—often enormously—while the performers are fed by the adulation. In Chris’s more intimate show, the dynamic is different. I’d say that it’s the audience that’s fed.

I’m not going to make any sweeping generalizations, claiming that this is the difference between performances by extroverts and introverts or anything like that. But at least in Chris’s case, that goofy shyness I remember from when he was a kid has come to shape the dynamic of his shows. Here is someone in all his complex humanity, sharing songs about humanity in all its complexity.

And all of us who’ve had the privilege to be there are a little better off because he stepped out of his solitude and onto the stage.


  1. Very cool! I wish I could have made attended with you all!

  2. Great review. I've been a fan of Chris/The Push Stars for over a decade now and you've done an amazing job of capturing exactly why he's my favorite performer. You don't get the same kind of experience in a packed venue listening to someone crafting songs primarily concerned with which ones will be picked up for radio play.