- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 27, 2005

Merry time

with Wheeler

Back in 1976, singer-songwriter Cheryl Wheeler left her home in the Baltimore suburbs to visit a friend in Providence, R.I., for two weeks.

“It’s been more than two weeks,” says Miss Wheeler, 54, who now makes her home a few miles from Providence, in Swansee, Mass.

“It’s just beautiful. I like the North. I love fall, love winter. Spring in New England doesn’t really exist. Having grown up in Maryland, I know what spring is like,” she says.

Autumn is New England’s shining season. One of Miss Wheeler’s best-known songs is “When Fall Comes to New England,” when “the air’s so clear you can almost hear the grapes grow on the vine.”

And somewhere along the line, between writing such breathtaking ballads, Miss Wheeler sharpened her wit. Her concerts, such as the show Saturday evening at the Birchmere, are legendary in folk music circles for their humor. Some listeners use the words “stand-up comedy” in describing her shows.

“The humor stuff is very stream-of-consciousness,” she says. “I don’t know where it comes from. There’s so much funny stuff in the world and it’s easy to talk about it.”

Her latest CD, “Defying Gravity” — her eighth recording since her 1986 eponymous debut — has two live tracks that offer a bit of her comic style. One song puts words to several popular classical pieces now most often heard as cell-phone ring tones. Another deals with the perils of flying on airplanes.

An avid reader, Miss Wheeler says writing “for me usually is a quick process; it’s a rush, a quick rush.” She draws songs — both serious and funny — from daily life.

“Even though I appear to be standing in line at the grocery store, I’m really completely obsessed with the song,” she says.

“If I have a point of inspiration, it’s in realizing the moment, the person I’m talking to, is remarkable, inspiring. I’m not good at making stuff up,” she says. “In the course of walking down the street at any given time you could see something incredibly poignant or humorous.”

David Lindley’s name might not be familiar to casual listeners, but his sound is part of the American pop lexicon.

Mr. Lindley, 62, played slide guitar with Jackson Browne’s band on such albums as “Late for the Sky” and “Running on Empty.” Since his first recording — “Darkness, Darkness” with Jesse Colin Young and the Youngbloods — Mr. Lindley has appeared on literally hundreds of records, backing Ry Cooder, John Prine and Bob Dylan, and assorted artists from America to Warren Zevon.

And now for musical inspiration, the Claremont, Calif., resident has turned eastward — to Eastern Europe and the Middle East to be precise — bringing the sounds of Turkish, Balkan and Greek instruments such as the oud, saz and bouzouki to American roots music forms.

All are distantly related to the lute; the word “lute,” in fact, derives from the Arabic “al-‘ud.”

“These instruments really have a twang,” says Mr. Lindley, describing the sounds from the 9-string saz and 11-string, fretless oud (rhymes with “food”). His bouzouki — a Greek instrument that has, in recent times, been adapted to traditional Irish music — has been rigged to provide quarter tones “so I can get all the blue notes and all that stuff,” he says.

“I’m getting used to the Turkish sound now, so when I play a regular guitar, it seems really simple,” he says.

Mr. Lindley, who will be appearing solo at Jammin’ Java tomorrow as part of a 22-date cross-country tour, also will be bringing along several Hawaiian slide guitars and even a plain old six-string.

“It helps, too,” he says, “because a lot of the tunes I would play on guitar sound best on guitar.”

The oud, he says, “is a real challenge to play, and it’s a different musical system too.”

“You don’t hear this much except at Middle Eastern clubs or Greek weddings,” Mr. Lindley says. The oud “is really capable of much more, and of course I play it like John Lee Hooker would play it because it’s the best blues instrument in the world.”

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