Cameron McGill | AJ and Jonas Mason
When: 8 p.m. Monday; 8 p.m. Nov. 25
Where: Schubas, 3159 N. Southport
Tickets: $6 ($5 with canned food donation)
Info: (773) 525-2508; www.schubas.com
Updated: December 12, 2013 6:19AM
With all the consultants, public officials and talking heads immersed in the policy debate on health care this year, one voice puts the critical issue in perspective with less the time and half the words.
“I got health insurance that only works if I die,” Cameron McGill sings. “But what if I live?”
That opening line sets in motion “American Health Insurance,” a song that establishes the tone of his latest album, “Gallows Etiquette.” The album, his sixth, continues to illustrate why McGill is one of this city’s most eclectic and accomplished songwriters.
The new album, his sixth, was written on piano and is layered from there with the help of bassist Rodrigo Palma and drummer Charles Koltak.That is shown in songs like “Albatross,” a pulsing opener that sounds epic but throws tiny daggers, and “That Los Angeles Mouth,” with its midnight piano chords.
McGill says many of the songs were written during the last presidential election cycle, a time of “political vitriol at a fever pitch” that made him ask, “How do I even fit here anymore?”
That alienation surfaces in new songs like “The Tourist,” where McGill and vocalist Rachele Eve combine their vocals, the song’s echo and sashaying melody putting them on a dusty road in the middle of nowhere.
“What am I doing here?” I don’t know,” they sing as a pedal steel guitar dots each syllable.
McGill moved to Chicago after studying political science and English at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana (he grew up in Champaign, a town where there was “a good counter-culture” scene). In Chicago, he fell into a city where the music he was interested in flourished. Folk troubadours like John Prine and Steve Goodman preceded his arrival, labels like Flying Fish and venues like the Old Town School of Folk Music helped establish an emphasis on singer-songwriters, and the alt-country scene associated with Bloodshot Records was heading forward in full steam. McGill fit among these worlds as a singer-songwriter who crisscrossed genres but united them all through a love of poetry, and a lyrical sense of meter, images and a love of words.
“Poetry is the other love of my life,” he says. Working as a bar doorman also helps — those short stanzas are particularly helpful to absorb in-between the door hinges swinging open.
Writing lyrics came before he ever picked up a guitar; in high school, he always found himself with a notebook writing things down, unsure of what they were or what they might become.
Music gave them a home: “I was always trying to figure out ‘what am I trying to get at,’ ” he says. “Music gave me a vehicle for expression.”
Up to that point in my life, I had not found, or had not known, what was possible. It was a way I could both experiment with the written world and also emotions about things I would feel, but wouldn’t know what to do with.”
At Schubas on Monday and on Nov. 25, he will finish out the second half of a four-week residency where he is presenting new songs with old, and collaborating with an alternating circle of musicians, and even a horn section on the final night. He is also paying homage to another long-honored Chicago tradition: spoken word poetry.
This week’s show will include the dean of the Chicago slam style, Marc Kelly Smith, performing his work between sets.
McGill logs many months outside Chicago, touring under his own name and also serving as a multi-instrumentalist for the Indianapolis roots-pop band Margot & the Nuclear So and So’s. In true troubadour style, McGill says he is most comfortable logging miles in his car on his way to the next gig. “In a perfect world, I’d be touring more … I just like to get out there and play shows,” he says.
He relishes playing in his adopted hometown, too,— he lives in Ravenswood — but finds the prospect of attracting crowds daunting.
“Chicago is a huge place and if you can get 100 people to care on a Monday night, that doesn’t seem like a lot, but in a city of 3 million, it is,” he says.
To the rest of you 2,999,900 people, if you fail to head to Schubas on Monday, you’ll regret it.
Mark Guarino is a Chicago freelance writer.