Mt. Lebanon filmmaker Tom Weber gives us the 'Troubadour Blues'
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Mt. Lebanon resident Tom Weber recently underwent the ultimate baby boomer rite of passage -- turning 60. And similar to the collapsing 401(k)s of his generational brethren, Mr. Weber endured a sea change, losing his teaching job at the Art Institute of Pittsburgh.
So he created for himself a new occupation: documentary filmmaker. At an age when many kick back and retire, he is hitting the road to promote his first project, a 91-minute peek at the art and lifestyle of itinerant singer-songwriters called "Troubadour Blues," which holds its Pittsburgh premiere at the Hollywood Theater on Tuesday.
Mr. Weber's interest in music sprang out of a shared childhood experience for many boomers -- witnessing the Beatles on "The Ed Sullivan Show" at the age of 12. "I'm part of that generation that picked up a guitar and started playing," he explains. "But I also worked part time at my local paper, the Erie Times, so music and writing went hand in hand."
Although "Troubadour Blues" features interviews and performance clips from a number of important roots/folk artists (what could be termed the "WYEP crowd," from Chris Smither and Mary Gauthier to Slaid Cleaves and Dave Alvin), he zeroes in on the life of one particular artist, Peter Case, who started his career in the '70s punk band The Nerves (with Paul Collins) and '80s garage-rockers The Plimsouls.
"I became familiar with Peter through the Plimsouls, and then saw him solo in the mid-'90s whenever he'd come around the area," Mr. Weber recalls.
"I got my hands on some video gear and asked if I could follow him around, without a real idea of what I was going to do. Then, cheap equipment came on the market, allowing me to own a camera. I had previously run a recording studio, so it was a small step from writing, playing, and producing music to making a film about it."
According to Mr. Weber, the focus on Mr. Case provided a central narrative around which to base the film's flow. He compares his observational style to the film "Don't Look Back," which covered Bob Dylan's 1965 tour of England. "Peter gave me a lot of access. His story was that of the archetypal folk singer: drop out of school, hitchhike to the West Coast, become a street musician, and get involved in the music scene. He typifies that classic Woody Guthrie or Cisco Houston type, the traveling musician who goes all over with suitcase and guitar in hand, as the Paul Simon lyric ['Homeward Bound'] says."
Through Mr. Case's contacts, Mr. Weber expanded his coverage, first meeting with Mr. Smither. "Through Chris I met Mark Erelli [whose song "Troubadour Blues" provides the film title] and Tracy Grammer. I met most of the artists in an organic way, although with some I called up their manager or went up to them after a show."
With well over a decade of sound and video recordings, Mr. Weber explains that the film took so long to compile because he was still working.
"It's a weird coincidence that the day UPS arrived with the DVDs was the day I was laid off from my full-time job. So right now, this film is my new job ... someone said I've caught 'Troubadour's disease.' "
That affliction followed Mr. Weber to such far-flung locales as Jorma Kaukonen's Fur Peace Ranch in southern Ohio, Plan 9 record store in Richmond, Va., and McCabe's Guitar Shop in Santa Monica, Calif., as well as stops in Chapel Hill, N.C., Charlottesville, Va., and Fall River, Mass. There were also opportunities in our own backyard: Morgantown's Mountain Stage, local bastions Club Cafe and the Rex Theater, and even a house concert. By following Peter Case over a long span, Mr. Weber builds a sense of the gradual evolution of his songwriting personality. The first song in the film, Mr. Case's "Poor Old Tom," stitches several performances from various venues, where the singer's appearance changes over time while his observations remain ever relevant: "Every time you've got a Republican administration in Washington, it's really good for folk music ... here's one I wrote back in the Reagan administration where more and more people were living on every street corner around where I lived."
That political unease could easily be expressed today about Obama's recession woes and Occupy Wall Street, but Mr. Weber is more interested in the modern itinerants' practice of a hardscrabble existence. "They don't have roadies or plush hotels. [Short of hopping a train], this is as close to the traditional troubadour life as you can get. I wanted to focus on the idea of doing it solo, the lone musician traveling the highways the way it was done years ago."
Transitions between DVD chapters include shots of driving on the road, which was something Mr. Weber did as much as his subjects. "I ran up a $20,000 credit card balance. When you own the gear, all you're really talking about is tape and travel costs. I drove around a lot and stayed in a lot of motels. I wanted to work that way because I felt that I had less of a footprint as a filmmaker -- instead of coming with a crew and lights, I would just be a fly on the wall."
Mr. Weber did have a bevy of Kickstarter backers, however, which helped pay for mastering and music rights. "You have to talk with people at publishing companies...whose job it is to make money. About four dollars per DVD goes to music rights -- they realize that I'm a little guy who doesn't have a lot of backing, and it's not in their interest to prevent [the film] from coming out. If I went into broadcast or streaming, though, there'd be additional payments to be made."
"Troubadour Blues" debuted two weekends ago at the Buffalo Film Festival. "It's like the Three Rivers Film Festival but on a smaller scale. After [Pittsburgh], I'll take it on the road, particularly during the film and [folk] music festival seasons -- screening at the Folk Alliance in Memphis and flying up to Edmonton for the Winter Roots and Blues Roundup at the University of Alberta. I'm also working with Peter Case's booking agent in Austin. That's an important market for me to get into South by Southwest."
"I would love to get distributed into theaters," he adds, "but it's not a life-or-death scenario. I own a projector and screen, so in the meantime I'll be doing screenings at house concerts. Anywhere I can get 20-30 people to watch my film, it's worthwhile."
"Troubadour Blues" screens at 8 p.m. Tuesday at the Hollywood Theater, Dormont, preceded by a 7:30 p.m. set by local singer-songwriter Mark Dignam, with audience Q&A afterward. Admission is $5. Call 412-563-0368.
First Published October 20, 2011 12:00 am