On September 10th, 2009 I walked to the National Arts Centre with an excited pep in my step. I was off to see my newest favourite shiny musical thing at the tiny 4th Stage venue, a hip-hop folksinger I call Cravery but the rest of the world calls…well, the rest of the world doesn’t really know him, but that small fraction that does calls him C. R. Avery.
(The first time I saw the man perform* – in Wakefield at The Black Sheep – I sidled up to him at the bar after his set to chat. I opened by asking him if I could call him “Cravery” and he said “sure” so I always do.)
I don’t know how far in to my Cravery fascination I was at the time but it was probably pretty early. I do know that I went from a rabid fan to pretty much done with him in a fairly short time so this was somewhere when I was still in that little pocket of adoration. And to have the show at the 4th Stage? It was the closest we could get to a classy jazz club in Ottawa since the long-ago demise of places like After Eight and Take Five.
Cravery mounted the ten-inch tall stage in his suspenders and troubadour hat and with a vocal hiss that was meant to sound like he was changing the channel on an old television set he launched into his first down-and-out Tom Waits-style story of living the rough life of the insightful, loving hobo. His records are scratched, his cigar has burned low, his best friend is a prostitute who loves him too much to stick around; heck, even his dog has found an owner who loves him more.
In other words, he sang about everything Tom Waits has already said, and without the heartbreakingly beautiful melodies. And that’s the main reason I quickly became unenamored with Cravery: No matter who you sound like, you’ve got to stop sounding like that person. I used to have a student who could do the John Mayer thing so well that I begged him to stop. It’s all well and good to copy your heroes if you have no chance of sounding like them – it could easily be argued that unsuccessful mimicry is the best way to “find your voice” – but if you sound just like someone else you’ve got to switch it up, and quick.
That’s what Cravery didn’t do. He wore his admiration for Tom on his sleeve and it didn’t serve him well. It doesn’t help that he has a combative personality and a rebellious streak against the music industry at large, which does him no favours.
But back in mid-2009 I was smitten and I tell you, I had a swell time at this show. When Cravery introduced a singalong he had me champing at the bit waiting for the audience part to come around so I could sing my soul out, and I never do that. He closed with the first-time performance of a new song called Read Over My Shoulder or something similar and the guy had me almost in tears. Speaking to him afterwards he told me he was doing a solo tour hoping to make enough money to record his next album with a full orchestra and choir as his backup band and I was seriously rooting for him.
It’s not like I could just walk down the canal and see Tom Waits for twenty bucks.
*For some reason I remember several Cravery shows as being the first time I saw him but I recently stumbled across a paragraph that I wrote the day after seeing him at the Ottawa Bluesfest in 2005. That was definitely the first time I saw C. R. Avery.