Thinking green: Folk artists bike all day, play all night

By Amy Shaunette

In our time of American Idol popstars and angry gangster rap, it’s hard to remember that music used to have a purpose beyond entertainment and profit. Artists like folk singers Bob Dylan, Joan Baez and Woody Guthrie wrote songs with political and social messages capable of doing a whole lot more than selling records. But the spirit of folk music hasn’t faded away just yet. Not if Shannon Murray and Dave Cuomo have anything to do about it.The two solo artists brought their unique blends of folk-punk to Macalester last Thursday with an intimate performance in Kagin Commons. The show was a stop on their Respect Yr Mama tour, a six-week long, 1,200 mile bike tour of Minnesota. Biking forty to fifty miles a day with trailer in tow and sleeping at roadside campsites or on whichever couch they can find, Murray and Cuomo have a message to deliver, and they’re going to have fun doing it. Even if fun means biking up endless hills, getting caught in the rain and waking up at 6 a.m.

Murray wanted to do a bike tour because traveling by car contradicts the political messages in her music. Ripe with a desire to get to know her home state, she decided to embark on bike tour of Minnesota, accompanied by Cuomo.

“It’s like a John Steinbeck novel,” said Cuomo, who met Murray at a folk-punk festival. “Being outside, camping. Things move at a slower pace. You can watch the road unwind in front of you.”

Murray appreciates the awareness biking inspires. She says she realized how much energy it takes to move herself; to travel and cover distance. “You relate to your environment more when you’re on a bike,” she said, giggling. “We notice the grasshoppers. Did you know they have wings?”

It’s that spunk and curiosity that made their Macalester performance nothing short of magical. With Cuomo standing short and proud at 5’1″ and Murray looking impossibly cute in a pink slip worn over jeans, the two were all smiles. In a word, they were animated. The show was relaxed, with Murray and Cuomo switching places every three songs. There was no stage, no microphones or wires. The audience sat on the floors, some with their legs crossed, some curled up in a friends lap. If time and weather hadn’t been a factor, the performance would have been perfect under a tree or on a riverbank.

During the performance, a barefoot Murray told quirky stories from the road and her hometown. She let the audience have complete access to her deepest thoughts and insecurities, apologizing for talking too much, for burping, for being sweaty from all that biking. “I said too much,” she’d say every now and then, laughing.

“I can say I’m sick, or that my butt hurts,” she said after the show. “I don’t have to be any model of a singer. We can be ourselves and be honest. I think that’s important.”

Cuomo was right there with her, making jokes and letting the crowd see what he was all about.

While both performers had political messages to share, their songs were rooted in personal experience. They sang of ending the war, of saving trees, of fighting Wal-Mart, but it all seemed to come down to falling in love. “I fell in love and it’s messing up my life,” Murray told the crowd, blushing. “I’m supposed to sing about political stuff and I just want to sing about my aching heart.”

“Meaning is more in the power of the audience,” said Murray. “When you’re performing, you’re naked out there and you hope you can resonate something deeper. You let people decide for themselves.”

Cuomo spoke of a time when he wrote an anti-war song and a break up song back-to-back, and realized that the lyrics were similar. “That’s the beauty of folk punk. You get what people are thinking, not what they want you to hear,” he said.

“Politics become a personal thing and spiritual thing,” said Cuomo. “When I’m writing a political song, I have to inject myself in there somewhere based on where I’m coming from. The music’s message and myself aren’t divisible after a while. I want to live in a way that integrates what I do and what I believe.”

I’d say that he’s well on his way. Both Murray and Cuomo offer a brand of music too easily overlooked-music that’s made, not manufactured. Cuomo said his new philosophy is not to save the planet but to save ourselves, and after an evening of listening to him and Murray, I feel saved. Maybe I won’t abandon my car for my bike, but I’ll at least listen to more folk music.

I went to the show making comparisons to make sense of who these people were, but halfway through the performance I realized that they weren’t a modern day Bob Dylan or a socially conscious Jewel-they were Dave Cuomo and Shannon Murray, and that was enough. More than enough.