A wide-eyed guy from outside Chicago looking for truth, honesty, and the real America.
This guy's not in the White House, but Steve Tibbets will be bringing his vision of folk music to Cowboy Cafe this Saturday, August 13, complete with a portfolio of songs trying to make sense of the mixed-up crazy world of the greater Washington area.
Tibbets, who grew up about two hours east of Chicago in Elkhart, Indiana, moved here a few years ago to work as a government contract lawyer. Music is a way to keep his passion alive, and his job's a way to support his habit, he said.
"Most of the stuff I do is health care or IT related," he said. "Being in that world for the past few years has changed me into a tree-hugging, liberal hippie type, despite coming from a family of dyed-in-the-wool Republicans types."
The area he grew up in is something out of an old John Mellencamp song--a city where the unemployment rate is among the highest in the nation, and a place where the president has stopped several times in the past year.
Like so many musicians who play part time while yearning to spend all their energy behind a guitar, Tibbets grew up playing cello at the request of his family. After high school music slid into the background, but after a little while it was a way to "shake off the doldrums of going to work everyday."
For a few years now, he's been playing coffee shops in Alexandria, mostly St. Elmo's Coffee Pub and FireFlies, making improvements over a first gig he'd rather forget.
"My first gig was a disaster," he said, matter-of-factly. "It was a combination of a lack of experience and preparation. It was God-awful."
How bad was it?
"I had a simple PA system and a straight microphone stand, and I kept bumping into it," he said. Distortion and silence from the audience ensued. The audience of mostly soccer moms and their children were polite.
He tried to play children's songs. He hasn't returned since.
"The people who run the place are great," he stressed. And whenever possible, Tibbets likes to support local businesses, musicians, and charities-- a portion of any tips he receives from performing go to Carpenter's Shelter, an organization focused on ending homelessness (www.carpentersshelter.org).
"That's part of my shtick," Tibbets said. "I've already sunk so much into my music there's no way I'll make a profit, so I'd rather give whatever I make to them for the great work they do."
As for his setlist, it's a combination of covers and originals, but Tibbets, like most musicians, prefers to play his own work where possible.
Just because he's found a more liberal-leaning political stance doesn't mean he's letting the president off the hook for his handling of the economy, wars on three fronts or anything else.
A song called "Hope and Change," a riff on Obama's campaign promises to lead the country to better days following the George W. Bush administration, is a tale of frustration over some idiosyncrasies and culture clashes that, while a part of human nature, seem hypocritical to the outside observer.
"An underachieving young man lost his legs/on the errand of a fool who pins a medal to his chest/ We're the dregs, yeah, I think we're the dregs/He's got no legs, he's saying thanks, we're the dregs," goes a verse from the song, with the chorus that finishes "The world works like it always works/and I just figured out no one cares."
Another song, a more direct attack on Bush's foreign policy practice of "with us or against us" mentality that seemed common during the early years of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, is "Neville Chamberlain Would Be An Upgrade."
This song, Tibbets said, was inspired by an opinion piece written in the Washington Post in 2006. " W thought that he was a Churchill-like figure and everyone who disagreed with him was a Neville Chamberlain-style 'soft on the bad guys' loser. This song is about how W was more like Chamberlain than Churchill."
Tibbets pulls no punches in the song, either. From the first verse: "I take a great deal of comfort in language that harkens back to simpler times that never were/ Way down in Texas/ Rivers and lakes and beer and shot, boots that shine and trucks and pot/ Oh, God bless Texas." And the chorus is equally pointed: " Neville we just love you/ But we can’t get past your need to/Play the ostrich, pound the sand/ Where did you learn what makes a man?"
Self-described as more Steve Earle and Jeff Tweedy than Mellencamp or Donovan, Tibbets said he doesn't like to necessarily make direct comparisons when trying to describe his musical stylings.
"Sometimes you have to pigeonhole yourself to give people a reference point," he said.
One thing he's not is Steve Tibbets the New Age guitarist from Minnesota. He's done all he can to make that distinction, he laughed.
Early influences include Def Leppard and Michael Jackson with some Motley Cru and T. Rex thrown in for good measure. A child of the 90s, the grunge greats-- Nirvana, Soundgarden, Pearl Jam and the like-- were high school favorites, along with Led Zeppelin, the Grateful Dead, Primus, the Beatles.
Cowboy is a newer location for him to play, but he's had a little experience, having played there earlier this year. The up-close-and-personal space, with the audience only steps from the mic, was a little intimidating at first, but now he said he prefers it.
"Honestly, it scared the hell out of me at first," he said. "A FireFlies, it's all booths and tables and the bar's on the other end of the room, so you don't get the same interaction."
And he's modest too: "I try to provide mostly pleasant background noise," he said. "I want people to come out and get at least mildly entertained. It's not a seven-person band, it's just me and my guitar."
Does he succeed? Come out on Saturday and hear for yourself.