Larry Hirshberg

 
 

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Distinctly Montana.com

Moving, Booking, and Playing: A Life of Larry Hirshberg

By Brian D’Ambrosio

On his worst days, singer-songwriter Larry Hirshberg may feel like he lives in an unjustly repressive world, an endless incursion of small, noisy crowds. On his best ones, he marvels at how much freedom and satisfaction he really does have.

“I’m super lucky to be doing it (gigging) as much as I have,” said Missoula essential Larry Hirshberg, who averages approximately 100 live events in and around the city yearly.

Hirshberg was about age 20 when he first moved to Montana from Massachusetts in the late 1970s and he hadn’t played live music until he tied to the scene in Missoula sometime around 1978. He’d been jotting down poems and writing creatively since age 10 and eventually enrolled in writing classes at the University of Montana.

“I randomly ended up living in a house with a bluegrass band and with one of the guys who was originally the bassist for Pinegrass in Missoula. I was a Deadhead, and I was inspired being around people who were making music. He’d lend me a guitar and show me a few chords, and I dropped out of college. I committed myself to a life of crappy, non-music jobs until I had the time to play. Playing guitar was the first thing that nobody told me to do, and it was something where every minute I was improving, and I was super motivated to get after it on my own. It wasn’t a job – at first.”  

Hirshberg, 60, is deeply keyed in to songwriter’s stories and the artist’s sense of swinging and shifting with the mood. He has also been personally impelled by the gnawing sense to roam. He dropped out of college and then lived in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and Eugene, Oregon, and also his hometown of Boston, and even Whitefish, MT., before finally returning to Missoula permanently in 1994. Music has since become a life of necessity.

“I would not like to live anywhere else other than Missoula,” said Hirshberg, who enables most of his catalog to be downloaded and share for free online. “I was tired of coming and going and just happy to get back. I reached the point where I needed to make it in music. I’ve had no day job since 2012 and I can’t afford the band, to split it with everybody else. Having a family, there is not a lot of time to rehearse with other people.”

The songwriter in Hirshberg is critical about his own lyrics and he’s extra vigilant about avoiding repetition, choosing to be patient in his craft rather than prolific. He can be found most nights with his guitar strumming, anecdotes firing, pedal board looper intermittently running, entertaining others, and perhaps most importantly, entertaining himself.  

Given his songwriting fluency, it may take time for audiences in buzzing venues to grasp the depth of Hirshberg’s devotion to big ideas. Original material is at the center of Hirshberg’s heart. Party music he isn’t. Though he sounds solid acoustically in the background at the brewery, he’s most potent if you can break free of the clink and clamor to listen.

“It is (original material) everything to me,” said Hirschberg. “It’s why I started and why I continue, and why I’ve given up covers. I’ve dealt with a variety of issues (in my songs) and said a lot of what I’ve wanted to say. I’ve never been an interpreter of other people’s music. My energy and my time are limited and I spend them wisely, and focused on making my own music.”

In recent months, Hirshberg has primarily played in a number of areas between Spokane, Washington, and Livingston, Montana, including as far south as Dillon, and frequent stops in Bozeman, Libby, Butte, Helena, and even Anaconda, where he’s played at least nine times. His mantra is told through personal narrative, his most effective means of establishing imaginative kinship with the world.

“I am a much happier and more useful person when I’m able to play,” said Hirshberg, who is busier now than he has ever been thanks to a steady stream of gigs at breweries and wineries. “I’m completely non-commercial, not pop or anything like that. I’m at the mercy of the people who own or hire at a place where I play, and hopefully it’s a patron of the arts. My music is not easy to assimilate or describe. Outwardly, my music seems pleasant but dig in and focus in on the lyrics and it is a challenge to figure out what’s going on. I’m at a comfortable place, art wise, content to  do what I do without worrying about who has access to it or not. The musician and writer in me can’t criticize or even review my own stuff.”

How far can I go? What do I want? The eternal asking of those questions, frustrating as they can be, is their own answer. He measures himself by having others take the measure of him. Indeed, music appeals to Hirshberg’s earnest desire to be liked, listened to, and, above all, respected as an artist, and his naked sincerity elevates him to exactly where he needs to be. He says that it took him a while to figure out that fame doesn’t make you successful. Not as a human being, not in any real way. He’s spent ample time adjusting his aspirations to reality. It helps him to see himself. It also helps him see beyond himself. Learn how to forget himself.

“It’s always been those five or ten people here and there who appreciate what my deal is and it’s consistent enough to keep going. I prefer to be real than anything else. I’m a better guitar player now and I’ve got a lifetime of songs to be drawing from. I can pull out a song I wrote at 25 and back it up with song I wrote a couple of months ago, and everything in-between.

“The making of songs is an amazing thing to me and when the song starts to come, I’m happy to be alive, and it justifies everything for me. More shows, the better you are at the psychological game. You’ve got a room full of people and sometimes nobody cares and there is a certain acceptance that it’s hard to get to the place where you have an audience digging what you are doing.”

Staunch and dogged, Hirshberg seems intent on satisfying and spreading his horizons. At a recent performance at the Symes Hot Springs Hotel, Hirshberg said that he played without a set list and that the watchful crowd appreciated the sound of his long, bold jams, and that the warm responsive feeling in the room was exactly the kind that he’d been craving as a performer. 

“That was the show I’ve been waiting for. It all came together and I was filled up with the joy of doing a solo show. Keep moving, keep booking, and keep playing, and you do it to randomly arrive at the room where it’s going to happen like it did that night.”

Missoula Independent

Robbie Fulks is a good example of an underrated musician, a brilliant songwriter who doesn't usually color in the lines. What makes him great is the same thing that keeps him from showing up on mainstream country charts. Vocally, Missoula's Larry Hirshberg actually sounds a bit like Fulks at times (or vice versa). But mostly what they share is that they won't (or can't) blend into the mainstream. Hirshberg has released several albums, some of which are experimental noise, others that are more singer-songwriter folk and even some rock music. His latest, Power Down Devices, is a no-frills, acoustic solo album. Part of what makes Hirshberg interesting is that he never seems to be trying to make the listener feel something. He takes a simple idea, sometimes a trivial one, and expands on it until something magical happens. In "Put the Kettle On" he lists all the reasons for putting a kettle on the stove including, "You're alone at home and the house is old, put the kettle on." But then as the song progresses it becomes stranger. Suddenly you've got lines like "Residue of a dream, it makes you cold, put the kettle on," and "In the dark you think you need air. Light a fire underneath your stairs." What are we talking about now? There's never a menacing tone to Hirshberg's songs, but stray ideas creep in that start to push them into wonderfully uncertain territory. There are a few tracks that don't rise to the level of others. The repetitive riffs and chorus of "There It Is" feel uninspired, though it might actually make a really good punk rock song. Hirshberg's unapologetic tone has always made me think he could write a good three-chord, Partisans-style anthem. I don't know if that would really work or not. What I do know is that Hirshberg is a poet, in that he knows how to build tension through words rather than worrying about the plot. In "Pony or a Hearse," he imagines life in the womb, a robbery and birds "singing like dessert." He sings, "Now it's up to you to write your own verse. Are you going to ride a pony or a hearse?" You don't know what he means exactly, but you might sort of understand. Those are the murky waters Hirshberg swims in. That idea of writing your own verse is a pervasive theme in Power Down Devices. Like the poet Elizabeth Bishop, Hirshberg uses his songwriting skills to talk about words. In "She's Singing about Whiskey," it's not the whiskey he desires to sip but the chorus itself. In another song, he looks for a word he should use to rhyme with "awake." It's all so meta, but not in a pretentious way. You can enjoy this album absentmindedly if you need to; Hirshberg knows how to pluck pretty chords and be engaging. But if you really listen to what he's doing, you'll see the ways in which he's breaking rules, deliberately or not. It might keep him from appealing to everyone, but it will always make him worth listening to.

Tom Catmull Himself

From an email Tom Catmull sent out to his promo list on 7/21/09 - "Larry Hirshberg is careful with his words. More careful than most. I know this because I've been listening to him since I moved to Missoula in 1994. I had no songs of my own at that point. He had plenty, and that was fifteen years ago. "Commercially", his musical path has proved about as fruitful as the average musical path, I suppose. A coffee shop gig. A good pub. An occasional rocking band. Occasional band politics. The sweet opener for the national act. A coffeeshop that realizes how "hassle-free" XM radio is. Another band. Another pub. Occasional crazed but loyal fans. One thing remains with this guy. Larry has never taken songwriting lightly. His word choice and imagery have never been more pointed or potent. His craft doesn't present itself as commercially driven. And that's not a shot. Consciously or unconsciously, I believe Larry's music is not designed to sell alcohol. You can't dance to a lot of it. Its not for quick consumption. In many cases, you'll need to go back. There is something you missed that is worth the return. In that way, the songs seem to ask a bit more of the listener. Sometimes you have to go inside. But just as you enter, you get hit with something that seems like it was written by some classic American roots legend with a dusty sounding name. That is, of course, the way the song thing works. If you listen, you can get inside. If you get inside a good one, it is nothing short of DAVID COPPERFIELD MAGIC, I tell you!!! You don't always want to be inside, though. I don't. And I can't. Its a busy world out there. And there is a big old basket of crappy songs to waste you're time on that keeps landing in your lap. Modern country anyone? It'll also make your ears a little gun shy next time a good opportunity presents itself. But the right words in a quiet theater will properly, if only temporarily, destroy all that other stuff. The battle rages on. Get inside one of this guy's songs. Larry's, that is. It's weird in there. A lot a love. A bit of darkness. Its quirky. Not what you thought. Were you fooled about where you thought you were going? Or were you the victim of your own foolish assumptions!?!?!? It's the Twilight Zone wrapped in a warm fuzzy blanket with some kind of western print. It'll make you want to know him better. And you should. I was reminded of all this at the Red Bird wine bar the other night when I saddled up to the bar to see my old friend and hear some songs that I know. The bar was packed. Larry was doing his thing and had the strict attention of the tables surrounding him. It reminded me of how powerful those songs are when played right in front of you. Which, in turn, reminded me of how EVEN MORE powerful they are in the quiet of a dark theater. I played a showcase like the one this week in the Crystal years ago, but it featured five writers instead of three. And the two guys who landed most solidly that night were Mr. Hirshberg and the uh,...other "Tarkio guy". Both careful word choosers. Very careful. Don't miss the details. They are delicious. I still get tons of requests for songs of his that I used to sing years ago with some regularity. Some I've forgotten how to play. These include, but are not limited to,...Every One of Those Men, The Quiet Walker, Quicksilver Oxygen Gold, Cycle of Redemption, and on and on... Larry is one third of where ten bucks and a glass of wine will take you this Wednesday night. And you'll be home at a decent hour."

Missoula Independent

It's easy to tell that the Grateful Dead influenced Larry Hirshberg. In his kitchen at his East Missoula home, Hirshberg makes a cup of coffee in his Jerry Garcia T-shirt as his playlist, on shuffle, plays a Grateful Dead song. And when he sits down at the table to talk about his new record, The Rise and Fall of Maple Bar Mountain, he traces his musicianship back to a Dead show in Cheney, Wash. in October 1978. He was 20 years old then, a transfer student in his junior year at the University of Montana with good grades, and he'd never picked up a guitar. After the Cheney show he was hooked. The house on Eddy Street where he lived was full of musicians and he had one of them teach him some chords. "Within a few weeks I had lost interest in school," he says. "All I wanted to do was sit and learn how to play guitar. And so by March of '79, I had dropped out of school and bought my own guitar and left town." His obsession led him to San Francisco, where he spent time in Victorian apartments off Haight Street jamming with other musicians and trying to ignore the rise of punk bands like the Dead Kennedys. "I hated punk music," he says. "There was an intense hardcore punk thing going on which I encountered briefly but just ran from every time I saw it. In the end I hated San Francisco because I really wanted to be back in Missoula." He did get back to Missoula briefly before ending up in Santa Fe, N.M. where he started a band called The Porcupines with Banning Eyre, now of NPR's AfroPop Worldwide. Back then they played English Beat-styled music. They ended up in Eugene, all the while frequenting Dead shows as much as possible. There was a brief stint in Whitefish where Hirshberg played in a cover band called Beaten Path. "It was 1985 and so we were doing just horrible 1980s stuff and '70s stuff. ZZ Top kind of stuff. It was bad. The high point was they had a legs contest at the Palace Bar in Whitefish and so we got to judge that. It was just horrible." Hirshberg moved to Boston where he reformed a band with his former Porcupines crew called Strunk and White, which incorporated funk and jazz along with other elements of style. He also started playing in a country-styled band called The Bagboys with Nashville musician Paul Burch. "I didn't get country music until then," Hirshberg says. "There were cool country radio shows in Boston at the time that I listened to but No Depression [magazine] hadn't started yet. But we were playing stuff that would be called alt-country." When Hirshberg finally moved back to Missoula for good it was with fiddler Grace Decker, and the two of them married and started a band called Th' Spectacles, a guitar/fiddle duo that played about 60 of Hirshberg's originals plus a handful of odd covers by Mercy Dee, Mudflaps, Tom Waits, Iris Dement and Aimee Mann. For a while they also backed up local stalwart Tom Catmull as the Tom Catmull Combo and the Tom Catmull Band. By 2001, Hirshberg and Decker had divorced and Hirshberg quit drinking and going to bars. Since then he's been in several other bands including the last one he fronted, called The Trillionaires. When he plays acoustic shows at the Red Bird Wine Bar or the Symes Hotel in Hot Springs, it's inevitably a different experience than listening to his albums. His solo recordings, like Packing For Nowhere, often utilize strange sound effects and spoken word and come off as more David Lynch than anything new age or hippie. In fact, Hirshberg isn't the stereotype of a Dead follower. He has a sarcastic, biting sense of humor. He's never really found a mainstream market for his music, and that's been an annoyance to him for decades even though part of his musical aesthetic is to never pigeonhole himself. "It's always been about hybrid music for me," he says, "and that's always been my problem." Listening to his newest solo album, The Rise and Fall of Maple Bar Mountain, (or any other song from his bands dating back to the early 1980s), you probably won't hear the Dead. You'll hear songs with psychedelic and blues tinges, but you'll think more of David Byrne or Tom Petty before you'll think Jerry Garcia. If you listen carefully, you'll also get how much of a wordsmith Hirshberg is. In the final song, a stomping, snappy, soulful tune, he sings,"What's new is who died in the meantime, and the hole in the sky that she left. What's new is the Lazuli Bunting who flew down like the jewel of the west. I'm blue! that's so old, but I'm strangely awake." It's in this storytelling where Hirshberg feels the Dead seep through. "I can hear it in my writing, it's much more about Robert Hunter's songs," he says. "But everyone associates the whole Dead thing with Garcia and the scene and everything that goes with it." The album, which features musicians Brandon Zimmer and Travis Yost, also has an uplifting feel, but without the cheese. Hirshberg has a family now, a wife of nine years, Debbie, who he says has made him more relaxed, and his daughter, Judy, 3, who sometimes joins him on Downspout, his eclectic KBGA show where he plays everything from Mastadon to George Jones to, of course, the Dead. And even punk songs. Judy has Type-1 diabetes, and Hirshberg often stays up late now to make sure she gets her insulin. During that time he busies himself in his recording studio. It's solo by necessity, but he loves it anyway. "A lot of people might say, 'What's the point of doing it if you don't have an audience?'" he says. "I don't know what the point is. But I have tried to not do music, and I can't. It's in me. I love to play and I love to sing and I love to write songs. I wanted to be the Grateful Dead when I started, but now I'm just rolling forward. At this point I've been playing for 33 years and it is what it is. I'm not going to have a successful pop band, and I'm fine with that. I'm going to write songs, I'm going to play when I can, where I can, and I'm going to take it as it comes."

Missoula Independent

Local stalwart Larry Hirshberg showcases his wide-ranging versatility on Box Elder, serving up a dozen tracks that include old-school blues on “Handful of Dirt,” Pink Floyd-esque minimalism on “Nothing to Her,” and the head-bopping pop that drives “Settling Down, Obviously.” Box Elder is a bit like what would happen if you put Tom Petty, Mike Gordon, Weezer and the soundtrack from The Royal Tenenbaums in a blender. And, unlikely as the combination may be, it works. Hirshberg’s music is virtually a one-man show (a few guests sit in on drums, vocal backup and guitar), and isn’t heavily produced, which gives it a fresh, unapologetic sound. Though he’s a stylistic chameleon, Hirshberg follows similar thematic threads throughout the album. Aging, parenthood, childhood and the discombobulated state of the world are addressed with charming and frank lyrics that at various points hint equally of earnestness and sarcasm. Whether he’s pondering the production of children’s toys in the remarkably catchy “Orange Lion” or calling for a new era of peace in “Watching Combat,” his distinct voice, creative melodies and compelling themes combine for an album that is diverse, but also distinctly Hirshberg.

Missoula Independent

Review of Packing For Nowhere - Nowhere is a place where the sound of pounding hooves and jazz drum rolls intersect narrations about moths and Tasty Cakes—a twilight zone populated with a dream-like concoction of familiar images and unfamiliar sounds. At least that’s the nowhere of Larry Hirshberg’s new album Packing for Nowhere, an experimental collage of noise and spoken word. ...The album reveals streaks of the dark creepiness of a David Lynch film: in “The Pine Hen,” chord progressions fade in and out like a distorted music box while a woman methodically lists types of hens. In “Packing for Norway,” Hirshberg’s neurotic repetition of “Can you tell I’m nervous?” is countered by a tempered hi-hat and the strange sound of rattling seeds. Or is that oil sizzling in a pan? The clarity of (and indulgence in) sound provides a study in perception. It’s an intriguing album with rich textures that provide something—and somewhere—new.

Missoula Independent

Review of The Trillionaires' disc, Honeycomb Conjecture - "The honeycomb conjecture posits that a hexagonal grid represents the most efficient way to divide a surface into regions of equal area with the least total perimeter. Which means, of course, it holds the most honey. The Trillionaires’ debut album, Honeycomb Conjecture, seems to maximize space with a similar theory. Travis Yost strategically unleashes smart drum fills into every nook and cranny while Tyson Roth keeps the bass lines simple but interesting. The latter is especially evident in “Birds of Paradise,” wherein Roth executes climbing and descending scales with snappy vigor. The album is not overproduced, which makes it all the more charming, and though it’s a basic three-piece rock record, the composition is refreshing and the lyrics sharp. Larry Hirshberg’s vocals have the frank casualness of Tom Petty, and in new-wave songs like “Someone Specific,” he brings a conversational tone that evokes the coolness of David Byrne. “Public Restroom” is one of the album’s catchier creations, with a reggae-influenced riff and the gem line: “Public restroom has afforded me the clearest view/of the world so far.” A bee’s design captures honey in a uniform grid, but locals The Trillionaires have fashioned an album with strong, diverse tunes that hold just as much substance. "