By Eric DuVall
A lot of things have changed since Ron Hawkins was on the stage at Gateway Harbor in North Tonawanda in 2006.
For starters, Hawkins was fronting The Lowest of the Low, a band that drew 10,000 people to the canalside venue for an old fashioned Buffalo lovefest.
The Iraq war dominated headlines, there were about as many jobs as Americans and Canadian rock and roll was enough to let people get away for a night.
In Buffalo, at least the latter is still true.
But for Hawkins — a songwriter from Toronto whose stuff resonates here more than a lot of the musicians who actually call Western New York home — really, for all of us, things are different today.
An economy locked in a deep recession lends plenty of fodder for a songwriter whose material has never been a stranger to tough times or the political divide.
Maybe that’s why a new record from our old friend feels so comfortable.
During times like these, Ron Hawkins makes a lot of sense.
The art of music
Hawkins comes to Buffalo this weekend for a two-night stand, but not for two concerts. He’s diversified.
Sure, there will be the usual Saturday night gig (9 p.m. Allendale Theatre). But Friday night, he’ll open a gallery art show of modest rock star portraits.
Hawkins has held several gallery shows north of the border, but this is his first in Buffalo.
Like almost everything that drove the creative energy surrounding his latest offerings, the recession played a role.
“When the recession hit, people said they couldn’t afford to buy (the paintings),” Hawkins said in a phone interview this week. “I thought I would do a recession-buster series. I called it the ‘Pocket Painting Project.’ ”
That idea combined with a suggestion from his longtime Western New York promoter Vincent Lesh to do portraits of some of the musicians from Hawkins’ punk-infused youth. The result was a four-by-six inch portrait of Johnny Rotten and the idea that would eventually lead to his first art show here.
The 26-piece show is literally an alphabetic tour of the faces defining the music he’s listened to and a few of the ones he’s just happy to have recreated.
“One side was working on musicians that I loved,” Hawkins said. “I don’t listen to Willie Nelson a lot, but man he’s got a great face to paint.”
The gallery show debuts 8 p.m. Friday Night at The Vault, 702 Main St., Buffalo.
‘Lonely’ but together
His latest musical offering, his 11th album, “10 Kinds of Lonely,” was born of an equally humble happy coincidence.
Hawkins began experimenting with some old recording equipment in his basement. The antiquated studio offered both literal and metaphoric influence on the album. Limited track production lent to a pared-down recording process. It meshed with the content of an all-country recording.
The 10-song independent record displays Hawkins’ keen sense for the world around him. It’s the kind of country album that makes you wish country was good again.
The melancholy tone and eminently listenable turf Hawkins has staked out as his starting point in songwriting are cut by lyrics that reflect the harsh reality of the times.
The CD’s opening track, “The Devil Went Down” offers a simple melodic acoustic guitar base paired with a Wild West campfire-esque harmonica and soldiering drum beat. The simple recording lends an amplifier to the real heart of any Hawkins tune, a lyric that can’t help but catch your ear:
“Mother courage where are you now/Sister mercy run out of town/Father confessor drowned in the crowd/Brothers in arms there weren’t nobody around/When the devil came down on you.”
Hawkins, as Low fans can recall, has dabbled in country before. Tracks on nearly all of his previous efforts have hinted at it, but this was his first front-to-back effort in the genre.
It didn’t come without a leap of faith.
“I was shocked I was writing a full-on country record,” Hawkins said. “I still don’t have a clear idea of what my process is. It just sort of happens. I was shackled with self-doubt in the early phases. Almost nothing comes out of me that I don’t think, ‘Is that too much of this?’ ”
He strove to get to the roots of a genre that has gone from gritty and stripped-down to polished twang-pop. In addressing “The Devil Went Down” he recalls wondering whether the song had achieved that goal. Upon showing it to a collaborator, he got the vote of confidence he needed.
“When I was finished, it wasn’t a new country song,” he said. “That would be awful.”
Hawkins has played countless shows in Western New York between the Low, which formed in the early 1990s, his new band The Rusty Nails and his solo work.
He has cultivated an intimate and dedicated following here that still turns out, even if the “Rosy and Grey” heyday of the Lowest of the Low has passed.
(The band played their final show together here at Club Infinity in December 2007.)
So why all the love here?
“Buffalo embraced us,” he said. “You get the Canadian Edge (radio station). We went down and had some early success (with Lowest of the Low). Really, we were creating a relationship.”
Hawkins sees parallels between Buffalo and Toronto that make his point of view as an artist relevant in both of the cities, despite the obvious disparities in size and status.
“They’re similar towns. Industrial base, northern cities. ... For some reason, (Buffalo audiences) seem to find Canadians exotic in some way. I literally feel like I’m in England or some of the other places I’ve had to play.”
Foreign or not, Buffalo audiences offer a welcome home for his music.
“Fans seem to be very music-oriented and respectful. It’s a great place, that the audience gets hushed at the right times for the lyrically intense songs.”
IF YOU GO
ART SHOW: Rock portraits “From A to Z” by Ron Hawkins, 8 p.m. Friday at The Vault art gallery, 702 Main St. Wine and cheese reception with Hawkins, solo acoustic performance 10 p.m. Free admission, 21 and over.
CONCERT: Hawkins debuts material from CD “10 Kinds of Lonely.” Doors open 8 p.m. at Allendale Theatre, 203 Allen St., Buffalo for reception with Hawkins. Solo acoustic show at 9 p.m. Tickets are $22, 21 and over. Call (800) 838-3006 or www.brownpapertickets.com to buy.