Beauty in the Distance: The Songs and Prayers of John Condron
James Lee Burke, one of the world’s best novelists, wrote that “the most important battles are often fought in places no one has heard of.” In a paradoxical America that is increasingly fractured and fragmented, and yet productive of a singular culture where technology and mainline media erase regional and cultural difference, one might make the same declaration for the creation of art. The most important music, books, paintings, and plays might emanate from the minds and hands of artists who live far removed from the mediocrity of mass society. They gather their observations, collect the contradictions of their own experience, and craft something that resonates in their own bones, as well as in the blood of their audience.
There is a little bar in Joliet, Illinois – the city of stone and steel most famous for its prison – that gives daily demonstration to the “Field of Dreams” wisdom – “If you build it, they will come.” The Chicago Street Pub, founded by John Condron and Mike and Kathy Trizna, operates as a local institution for original musicians – songwriters and players who map their music according not to any viral trend or profitable fad, but only the internal cartographer. Against all the odds, and in defiance of nearly every national signal, Condron and the Trizna’s have created a music scene in Joliet, featuring eclectic bands who play in styles ranging from psychedelic rock to folk and funk and Southern rock and that which evades category.
On February 16, 2018, hundreds of people packed the main floor of the Rialto Theatre in Joliet to witness and champion the release of new records from the exciting, young band Riverhorse and one of the founders of Joliet scene, who no longer has any ownership of the Pub but is accessible there on a weekly basis, either banging on his guitar on stage or laughing over pints of Guinness with friends, John Condron.
Most of the songs that Condron played, the audience had already heard. He spent the past two years auditioning them as works-in-progress for his loyal following Joliet, surrounding suburbs, and clubs like Uncommon Ground and the Tonic Room in Chicago.
“These songs already live in the minds of many people,” John told me as we discussed his new record, “So, it is a little nerve-wracking to play them in an arrangement they might not remember.”
The standing ovation, and eruption of cheers, that accompanied the performance of Condron and his band, The Old Gang Orchestra’s first song was likely enough to destroy any and all anxiety. There was a coalescence of the lyricism of the songs, its energetic and aggressive performance, and the enthusiastic audience reaction that managed to both belie and confirm its insistence on underdog persistence.
The song is the title track of John Condron and The Old Gang Orchestra’s new record. It is called, “Dead Tree.”
“I was overseeing a construction project for my day job,” Condron explained when I asked him about the song, “and we all kept trying to save this dead tree. It didn’t matter where we planted it, it would die. So, we’d dig it up, and try again. I saw it like I do anything that takes persistence. There were many times I thought my music career was dead. Anything great takes time and dedication.”
The song serves as an ideal opener for the record. It slowly builds over the first minute with Condron’s soulful strumming of his acoustic guitar acting as an invitation for the pounding drums, melodic keys, and muscular, but understated saxophone to join the party.
“Dead Tree’s” story tells of “standing in the sun, praying for rain” and later “standing in the rain, praying for the sun,” but no matter the heartbreak and hardship the singer must endure – aching muscles, exhausted mind, an ominous blood stain on the ground – he is “pulling up a dead tree” and “filling in a hole” with the realization that “it takes a little time to get it right.”
The song closes with a ferocious announcement of faith, cleverly discolored by its single-word qualifier of self-doubt – “Maybe the peace is in the process, and the joy is in the work.”
Dead Tree is Condron’s sixth record, and among all of his work, with several different bands at various points, it sounds most like the amplification of Condron’s inner-voice. More than any other album, it achieves the natural alignment of what Condron does so magnificently on stage – giving charismatic and dramatic performance of something that is at once challenging and sincere – with what he can do in the studio. It did not happen overnight for Condron.
It took a little time.
Condron was born and raised in Philadelphia, and had experiences more diverse and impressive in music as a child than many can manage as adults. As an adolescent, he toured Europe with the Philadelphia Boys Choir, making a stop to sing with none other than Pavarotti. Long before he helped accompany the operatic legend, he discovered an inextinguishable passion for music.
“I can’t even remember, but according to my mother, when I was barely two-years-old I loved banging on the keys of a color coded Fisher Price xylophone in our house,” Condron said, “and I didn’t know what I was doing, of course, but I knew that I liked it, and my mom told me I was good.”
How much of a life does one moment encapsulate?
One of the true pleasures of seeing Condron perform is that he always does so with a childlike sense of discovery. Even as a skillful and accomplished musician, who has played in front of thousands of people in Ireland with Mickey Harte, and has produced records for great solo artists, such as Ali Flood, Condron can still transform into that two-year-old boy, suddenly ecstatic with the way a particular note sounds.
The first time I saw Condron play was to close an open mic night he was hosting at the Chicago St. Pub. He picked up his beat up guitar, showing years of scars from the bruises and battles of the road, and played a fiery rendition of Blind Faith’s “Can’t Find My Way Home.” By the end of the five minutes, Condron was standing on a chair in the center of the bar, singing as if it was his ticket out of jail. Rock and roll is about nothing if it is not about liberation. I certainly felt emancipated by the passion of Condron’s clarion call for energetic engagement with what Bruce Springsteen called, “the intensity of living that is available.”
Since then, Condron has released several rock records with The Benefit, and a solo-with-help album, …If Any or At All.
Lyrically and musically, Dead Tree feels like both a natural continuation and explosive culmination of Condron’s career trajectory.
Condron’s band, The Old Gang Orchestra, is symphonic in the way that John Mellencamp’s record, The Lonesome Jubilee, was orchestral. An eclectic array of guitar, bass, drums, keyboards, mandolin, violin, and saxophone give the music a rich color and texture, making it effectively able to capture all the emotional complexities of the stories and ideas of Condron’s increasingly multifaceted, subtle, and sophisticated lyricism.
The entire band boasts of great talent, ability, and musical intelligence, but one of the most important members is drummer, Doneco Nudi. He can keep a solid beat fit for rock and roll, but he also demonstrates flashes of flare, and fills of suprirse, lending a dynamism to the music equal to its thunderous power. Backstage at the release show, Nudi confessed that, as a drummer, he does not have to pay close attention to lyrics, but the words of Condron’s new compositions have snuck into his spirit. “Maybe it is that we are going through some of the same things right now,” he speculated, “But the new lyrics really speak to me.”
Condron told me that his songwriting is “lyrics driven,” but given the unique assembly of musicians and arrangements of songs he fronts, classification, beyond “lyrics driven,” is a challenge.
“Dead Tree,” the song, certainly builds into a rock and roll exercise of defiance and exuberance. Another song from the new record, “Arrogant Roses,” with its full horn section and bouncing rhythm had many members of the audience on their feet and shaking their hips during the release show, and “Dragons” makes an exhilarating shift from a folk ballad into rock sing-a-long at its midway point, but how does even the sharpest listener describe the rest of the record, which lends itself more to contemplation than convulsion?
“Rock and roll,” Condron said in an attempt to write a definition that is both his own and universally applicable, “is more about the spirit and intent of the delivery than anything else.” He went on to say, “To me, Astral Weeks is rock and roll. Nebraska is rock and roll, and when those records came out, they were called ‘rock and roll.’ But do they really sound like rock and roll?”
People employ labels to simplify and organize information, but art should transcend organization and defy simplicity. Condron’s emphasis on inspiration and intention is not only sufficient, but instructive. The spirit of rock and roll, even with the occasional absence of its sonics, presents a forcible tour guide through the various stopping points of emotional meditation and milestone of Dead Tree.
“Overstayed” enters the divided mind of its narrator, who wonders about the greatest of all questions – Am I a good person?
Just a conversation with myself,
To help me fill the miles ‘till I get home.
Just a little searching through the shelves,
Where you hide those things pretending to be gone.
There were times I knew
Certainly, I knew
Many times, I knew I was wrong
The chorus acts as a plea to his better self, or some better person in his life:
If ever I stay,
And whenever I stay,
Don’t let me stay past my welcome
Of all the songs on Dead Tree, “Overstayed” is the catchiest. The accessibility of the melody, and the quality that keeps it in your head long after its left the room, achieves profound symbiosis with the lyrics. Questions of personal identity and morality won’t leave you, no matter how hard you try to decimate them with rationalization, just as the song won’t exit the internal murmurings of your mind.
Ideas of efficacy and utility reenter the experience of Dead Tree on “Get There,” the most musically dark song on the record. The ominous tone of the guitars finds accompaniment from a simple keyboard and steady beat. Condron sings in a low tone, asking questions about the human tendency to conform and settle for less than what is good and what is excellent, before singing a chorus of restless mystery:
Wisdom begs us listen
There’s beauty in the distance
How do we get there?
Ellis Wright, following the second chorus, enters the song by breaking down the door with a battering ram. He plays the biggest solo of the record, reaching for the answers with a soaring saxophone. Condron has assembled such a fine cast of musicians that Wright's triumphant moment highlights the record’s only flaw. At times, due to the “lyrics-driven” nature of the record, it seems that the playing is too restrained. As band leader, Condron might have allowed for The Old Gang Orchestra to get a little wilder. Tom Maslowski on bass plays lines that straightforward, funky, and unpredictable. The guest appearances by Anne Hatfield on violin and Pat Otto on mandolin add excellent spice to the musical feast, but whet the appetite for more.
Any complaint registered in reaction to Dead Tree, however, is invariably minor. The record is a beautiful and soul shaking assortment of songs. Most magnificent about them is the way that they live and breathe not only as their sounds reverberate and resound throughout the room, but long after they’ve left. Like ghosts they slip through the cracks of the imagination, making a home in the listener’s perception of music, story, and life itself. Condron’s vocals are the perfect spectral visitor, understated and subtle at the right time and, in just the best moments, ascending to the sky with primal passion.
Dead Tree shares the unbridled avidity of rock and roll, but falls into the aspiration category of the genre. Rock and roll, at its worst, is juvenile. It panders and reduces life to that which is plain and immediate. At its best, it is art as powerful as anything in a museum or library. The artist, slowly and steadily, discovers his own humanity, and his art is merely the forum for him to publicly share the clues he has gathered into life’s deepest mysteries.
I ran into John Condron on a Friday night at the Chicago St. Pub. With particular intensity and focus, he expressed frustration over a rough day in the studio. He was supposed to lay down guitar tracks, and because he was having an off day or something in the air wasn’t feeling right, he could not breach the distance between the demands of each song and what emanated out his hands and instrument.
Richard Ford, the brilliant novelist of the Frank Bascombe trilogy among many other fine books, quipped that writers become so accustomed to bad news that it is actually good news that makes them uncomfortable. One can make an educated guess that the insight also applies to most musicians.
In an act of solidarity and mutual fortification, we began to discuss the benefits of making creative work a central focus of day to day activity. “It allows you to mark a moment – a moment you know is important,” Condron said with his usual energy beginning to return with the gathering of an idea.
“I remember when I was a little boy, my family took a vacation to the Jersey Shore, and there was his long, paved road from the house where we were staying to the beach,” he said before taking a sip from his pint of Guinness and continuing: “I was walking to the beach by myself, and I could feel the heat of the blacktop on the undersides of my bare feet. And I just knew: this is a great moment. This is a beautiful day. I’m going to want to remember how I feel right now. And it was just like something I marked in my mind – a file I let hang out from the rest in the drawer. That’s what I can do with music. That’s what writers and poets and painters can do.”
Dead Tree is full of such moments. Through the chaos and present shock of human existence, it uses music to organize experience into that which is relevant, resonant, and relatable. It is a collection of incidents and observations, moving from pathos to the pavement – from the imagination to the stage and studio – capturing the tears, laughter, traumas, and triumphs of ordinary life.
“Let’s go down,” Condron sings on “The Field,” “To the place where they lay the bodies in the ground / There’s no parade, no holiday / Just another working man who slipped away.”
Condron insists that his working class upbringing remains a vital source of his identity and inspiration. The laborers and breadmakers who make America sing, to paraphrase Walt Whitman, might never have a parade or holiday in their honor, but their stories sneak into the lives of millions of minds with the usher of artists like Condron.
There exists a coalescence between their moments and Condron’s in the composition of the songs on Dead Tree. One of the most impactful parts of the record is its closing number, “Tides.”
“I was driving home from a show in Chicago on Lake Shore Drive,” Condron told me about the birth of “Tides,” “And I saw this woman by the lake smoking a cigarette. She was staring at the ground, and she looked so sad and alone. I thought, ‘I’m her.’ Maybe I misinterpreted how she was feeling, but I realized that I have felt exactly what I thought she was feeling. So, that is where the ‘you and I’ comes from. It is this stranger and me. This woman who was experiencing what looked to be a low moment.”
The snow is falling on Lake Michigan
And the lights circle down
She is standing, smoking cigarettes
With her eyes on the ground
You & I so blue sometimes
All my life tides they fall and tides they rise
For the second verse, Condron recalled a different image of strangers – one he also spied from the window of his moving car. It is an image of joy, peace, and deliverance. An image of the tide rising.
Come next summer, in the afternoon
And the world feels alright
You’re making progress on a porch swing
With the lights in her eyes
The song, the record, and now most of Condron’s live performances end with him repeating the last line of the chorus – “The tides they rise, the tides they rise, the tides they rise…” over and over as if to remind not only his audience, but himself. Hope has its rewards. Love will manifest itself in ways beyond what we imagine.
Ali Flood provides backup vocals during that key moment on Dead Tree - from the faint distance her voice provides soft, but crucial support for…what is it exactly? It is a folk song, a rock song, and even a pop song.
But it is also something more. It is a prayer.
Dead Tree, at its heart and in its essence, is a rollicking and robust book of prayer.
St. Augustine explained that prayer is not simply the recitation of petitions. It is, to use his words, “long continued warmth of desire,” often expressible in “tears and groans.”
During tribulations, Augustine argued, we do not know how to pray, but “because they are hard and painful, and against the natural feelings of our nature, we pray, with a desire which is common to mankind, that they may be removed from us.”
Augustine also insisted that the prayerful not define their spiritual life with solemnity. It is also a matter of exuberance, ambition, and ecstasy. “For in it is the fountain of life, which we must now thirst for in prayer so long as we live in hope,” Augustine wrote, “…(that) all things shall be possessed by us with rejoicing.”
Condron prays for himself, his wife, his children, and anyone who will listen throughout Dead Tree.
In “These Beginnings” – a beautiful indie-style singer-songwriter song – he prays for his sons to “stay as young as you are as long as you can” and for them to always remember that “love is never a mistake.”
It is not entirely clear who he addresses in “January,” but he prays for “faith without knowing,” and that one has the strength to “in the face of everything, dance!” The song ends with Condron repeating the word as command, the Old Gang Orchestra praying without words behind him.
“Dead Tree,” the song, is a prayer that his own persistence will produce tangible and emotional payment.
One of the most soul stirring moments of the record is on “Dragons.” The song makes its musical shift, gathering momentum until it breaks away without control. “Take these hands and take my speech,” he prays for his wife, “Take these eyes, no more to see / Take the sun and take the truth / If ever I stop loving you.” Condron clips the prayer, speaking in the shorthand language of ritual, when he sings, faster and harder, “If ever I / If ever I / If ever I…”
“Multiplied words are one thing,” Augustine taught, “Long continued warmth of desire is another.”
“The tides they rise” is a prayer for everyone, and Condron will often end shows in bars and clubs by standing on a chair and imploring the audience to join him in song. As his voice fades, whether from the speaker or the stage, the voice of Augustine enters the room, reminding us of the wisdom he put to paper thousands of years ago:
“He who sings prays twice.”
David Masciotra is the author of four books, including Mellencamp: American Troubadour (University Press of Kentucky, 2015) and Barack Obama: Invisible Man (Eyewear Publishing, 2017).