Far back in the proverbial day, young Steve Zarate used to hone his performing chops through countless gigs as an uptown Athens sidewalk musician. Many a night he would bang out the hits for the barhopping hordes, trusting that if people enjoyed the songs enough, they would drop a few shekels in his guitar case.
Now it’s the new millennium; everything happens online. And these days Zarate is hoping fans old and new will toss enough digital dollars into his crowdfunding campaign that he can bring out a new CD of original tunes.
“Patchwork of Light” – a “healing-oriented” collection that Zarate calls maybe his best work yet – is recorded and available for listen or download from his Bandcamp site (stevezarate.bandcamp.com). But if he can raise the modest sum of $3,500, he can produce and package 300 CD copies, the better to share with donors, DJs and reviewers, and maybe give his visibility a little goose.
Catch is, if he doesn’t hit the goal by Saturday, April 27, he gets no funding. So those who value the locally grown artists who give Athens’ acoustic music scene its piquant, free-range flavor owe it to themselves – Warning! Shamelessly biased plug in progress! – to at least visit his Kickstarter page (kickstarter.com/projects/patchwork-of-light/patchwork-of-light-cd). (Editor's note: Zarate achieved his goal on April 23, four days before the deadline.)
Over the last 15 years The NEWS has run at least four reviews of Zarate’s recordings, each of which has touched on one or more of the following reference points:
1. Zarate’s origins as an iconic Athens busker;
2. The slightly cosmic and almost painfully hopeful idealism of many of his songs;
3. His steady improvement as songwriter and musician; and
4. His sheer persistence in pursuing the troubadour’s vocation.
All remain relevant in talking about “Patchwork” – especially that bit about persistence. Patiently and methodically, Zarate has been playing gigs around the region, working out new songs, and polishing his craft year by year – and it shows in his latest work.
As to point number two, there’s no use pretending. And to his credit, Zarate doesn’t hedge his bets in letting us know just how he rolls as both artist and human. “This project addresses those struggling with hopelessness and sadness, offering themes of healing wisdom implicit in connections with nature, music, spirituality and intuition,” he writes. In his tune “Happen in a Heartbeat,” he plinks away on a toy piano, dreaming without a whiff of irony about writing “a song to change the world.”
Of course, this sort of thing is apt to make persons of a more jaundiced temperament slightly queasy. But as Elvis Costello once famously demanded: Just what’s so funny ’bout peace, love and understanding, anyway? For what it’s worth, your reviewer – who admittedly gets choked up every time he hears the Hollies sing “He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother” – finds some of Zarate’s tunes genuinely moving.
It helps that Steve is a long way from humorless in his earnest, earth-centered spirituality. In his ode to “Photosynthesis,” for example, he cheerfully goofs on the oldest religion there is: “When we die we’re gonna all be plants – Hooray!”
One of Zarate’s big draws has always been his way with a wooden guitar (and mouth harp), and his playing on “Patchwork” is rich and sweet as ever – by turns percussive and delicate, with all kinds of graceful little hammer-on fills to keep things dancing. He gets some good support from Terry Douds on bass and Rusty Smith on fiddle.
His songs are well-crafted and sometimes lyrically quite striking, as in the lovely “AllBefore You”:
Grand inventory clearance sales, / wheels of fortune, holy grails, / Plush interior designs, / passing signs in fleeting times, / All falls away before you
His singing voice is just what it is – ragged at the edges but mostly right at the center. It wobbles here and there, and might splinter a little if he goes recklessly chasing after a high note, but it’s imperfect in the good way; you know who’s singing, that he’s got something he needs to say, and that he means it.
Zarate’s probably right that “Patchwork of Light” is his best work to date. If you liked his older stuff already, you’re liable to like this album even more. If you don’t know his music, it’s a perfect introduction. And if you drop your silver in his green Kickstarter tambourine, you’ll help a poor man fill his pretty dream.
Meanwhile, if you’d like to hear Zarate play live, he performs almost every weekend during the year, often at Cutler’s Restaurant (Ohio University Inn) in Athens during dinner hour.