“… John Condron makes a He-Man’s melodic pop, a blue-collar, big shoulders version of the genre defined by Big Star, Teenage Fanclub and Crowded House” “…Condron (is) a master of rough but hummable pop, prone to scratchy, disheveled tunes that shimmer like rainbows and stick like woodland burrs.” -Jennifer Kelly, Philadelphiaweekly.com
John Condron is a singer / songwriter from Philadelphia who made his home in Joliet, Illinois, a quintessentially Midwestern manufacturing town outside of Chicago. He’s been writing, recording, and releasing music since 2002, mostly with his former band the Benefit. In 2011, he began producing Irish folk-rock singer Mickey Harte’s music, resulting in Harte’s new album, Forward to Reality. During the same year, his longtime recording and touring band broke up. Without a band, for the first time in ten years, and with a son, for the first time in his life, he found himself undergoing the unrelenting process of transformation initiated by the mysterious hand of fate.
Condron, in a true and time-tested method of artistry, was able to take equal parts of the anxiety, tension, and turmoil of his recent experiences and blend them into a tonic of musical ether.
Released by Flipside Works, …If Any or At All, is a collection of sophisticated songs chronicling the swirl of emotions that engulf any person undergoing serious and significant change.
John Condron plays all the guitars, the bass, and the keyboard, and he’s enlisted skilled musicians to texturize his sound with drums and trombone. Perhaps it is a paradox, but the album manages to sound, in the same moments, sparse and rich. The sonic character of the songs creates an atmosphere of tension rife with the soft, but sustained intensity of emotional mystery. Condron’s melodically complex guitar, which avoids simple riffing but manages to create accessibility all the same, set against a plodding bass drum, ambient keys, or triumphant trombone, empowers him to capture the quiet drama of every day life – the drama that exists during a lonely, sleepless night or a crowded, chaotic morning. …If Any or At All’s sound is hypnotically deliberate in its slow pace, and it demands that the listener invest real time and thought into the listening experience.
It isn’t as if the record is a graduate school homework assignment. It is still fun folk-rock music that should make listeners feel grateful for having the record, but it is also an album fully embedded in the world of adult experience and feeling. It stimulates the mind more than the body, and it moves the spirit more than the feet.
Warren Haynes—extraordinary singer / songwriter, sideman for the Allman Brothers, and frontman for Gov’t Mule—said that when writing songs that music should serve the lyrics and the lyrics should serve the music. Songwriters should work to achieve balance. The deliberate and intensely focused melodies of Condron’s new songs exist in perfect synchronicity and reciprocity with the lyrics to create a cohesive aesthetic of emotional investigation.
The lyrics of Condron’s compositions are strikingly and hauntingly beautiful. They veer between simplicity and profundity to create a mysterious voice of uncertain wisdom. He has the ability to write in lengthy reflection, but balances it with a knack for aphorism.
“How could you live if you lived with yourself in a town of mirrors,” he asks in “Town of Mirrors”.
The chorus of “Walking in Place” lays down a challenge to himself and his audience: “It’s just too dangerous / There’s no need to change our lives / There’s far too much pain for us / There’s no need to change your mind / Walking in place is fine.”
In one of the standout songs on the album, “Cards”, Condron addresses his young son in between taking brutally honest appraisal of himself: “I’m an old man in a graveyard who is takin’ time to case the joint / I’ve learned this short burst of existence is best played straight and to the point…You are the history I speak of – the one I’m willing to tell / Your laughter has raised me many stories…Twinkle, twinkle my little star…There are changes in the cards.”
…If Any or At All’s most upbeat song, “To a Boy”, has the energy of a child’s sprint up a staircase, and as the title suggests, it is also written to Condron’s son. The near punk quality of its rock music strangely and beautifully complements the heartfelt sentiment of the song: “I could spend my whole life doing nothin just to watch you breath / I can’t remember any sound I heard before I heard you laugh / I measure my life in the hours and the minutes that you have had…Just a simple love song / To a boy who sees the world through brand new eyes / Just a simple love song / To a boy to let him know everything is going to be alright.”
Whether it is measuring the missteps he’s taken in his own life, digging up samples of eroded territory from his past, or celebrating his future through the promise of his child, Condron is interrogating the adult world of sophisticated feeling, and he is doing it in a way that demands attentions, provokes thought, and encourages emotion. On top of all that, his new album is a fun and enriching listen.
Condron is currently touring Ireland with Mickey Harte, and will soon return to the United States. Those who see him perform live will get a firm grasp on the excitement and contemplative growth associated with the era that belonged to folkies carrying guitars through city cafes and small town bars. …If Any or At All is a sonic postcard representing that experience and presenting Condron’s thoughts and talents to anyone willing to take the musical and spiritual ride.
Illinois Entertainer 8/30/12:
“In Jim Henson’s short-lived 1988 series “The Storyteller,” the episodes’ puppet-filled old-world tales of love and loss, fidelity and honor were relayed by a wizened gentleman propped close to a crackling fire with a wide-eyed dog faithfully stretched out (and intently listening) by his feet. This narrator served as a touchstone between our hectic lives and the deeper truths about human nature that the modern age sweeps under its efforts to be the smartest, fastest, and richest. Joliet’s John Condron embodies this role on his latest release, . . . If Any Or At All (Flipside). A natural born yarn-spinner, it’s not hard to imagine the flames licking the finish off Condron’s acoustic guitar in an authentic Irish pub as he strings fragments of his biography together into belly-warming ditties. Saturday’s CD release celebration doesn’t promise a hearth or any canines, but Condron’s soothing timbre will keep the place toasty.”
Patch.com (Ted Slowik) 8/21/12:
Singer/songwriter John Condron weaves compelling tales of love, loss and longing on his latest album, “…if any or at all.”
Set for a Sept. 1 release by Flipside Works, Condron’s fifth studio effort showcases his intricate acoustic guitar stylings and features well-placed drums, keyboards and other accompaniment in spots. The album was recorded at Joliet’s Third City Sound, and coproducers Dave Lill plays drums and Bill Aldridge contributes horns and vocals on a few tracks.
The 11 tracks are songs Condron has written and performed on acoustic guitar over the past year. Much of his previous work as a recording and performing artist was with a band—John Condron and the Benefit—and Condron shines as a solo artist. “…if any or at all” is a fine collection of catchy riffs, infectious melodies and thoughtful lyrics.
The Philadelphia native and current Joliet resident performs regularly at Joliet’s Chicago Street Pub, home to a vibrant musical community of local and touring acts. Condron often takes to the road as well, playing East Coast dates and as far away as Ireland.
Condron is a tunesmith who inconveniently resists categorization. Calling him an “Indie rock” artist would fail to capture the personal nature of his work, which bears similarities to artists like Death Cab For Cutie and Michael McDermott. One can detect influences that range from traditional Irish folk music to The Who. He’s an original whose songs contain melodic phrases that stick with you, like the warm feeling of seeing a note from Mom tucked into a lunch sack.
The album opens with “Town of Mirrors,” an energetic number that showcases Condron’s strong voice and keen ear. Throughout “…if any or at all,” one appreciates the well-chosen sounds that accompany Condron’s singing and guitar playing. His slide guitar playing on songs like “Cards” and “Darkroom” is sheer pleasure to enjoy.
Condron’s mastery of the songwriting craft is evident on numbers like “The Old Gang” and “Improvising Gabriel.” He’s skilled at structuring the gently rising and ebbing of a song’s intensity. Some numbers, like “To A Boy” and “Ship Song,” can fill a listener with a sense of satisfaction akin to a hot meal and warm bed after a hard day’s manual labor.
If there’s a criticism to be made, this listener struggled to make out some of the lyrics. Maybe it’s the subtle Philadelphia accent or the overall strength of the musical performance that makes a few of the words hard to understand at points.
One thing this listener can say with certainty is that everything about “…if any or at all” is of the highest quality: the songwriting, the performances, the recording, even the photography (by Wilco photographer Zoran Orlic). This album plays like a fine bottle of Scotch whiskey, or a superbly crafted quilt destined to be handed down for generations
Record Reviews – John Condron & the Benefit – Eleventh Hour Grace (EM Press)
by Jeff Elbel
This collection of expertly-crafted Midwestern rock-pop features heartfelt songs that were built for the bars, with just enough decoration to keep your ears engaged through all twelve songs. Condron notches at least one should-be classic with “Blurred,” which pulls an equal measure of Dream Police-era Cheap Trick glam and classic Dave Edmunds melodic roots-rock. Condron’s vocal delivery hints at a possible fondness for celebrated tunesmith Neil Finn of Crowded House during the midtempo swing of “Moments of Grace.” The rhythm section shows why they rate co-headline billing during “Sacred Places,” as Jeff Bella’s burbling bass line runs the length of the neck and Barret Harvey’s intricate hi-hat work keeps the beat tense and tight. The economical riff-rock punch of “Tea Party Stomp” may not be purpose built for the campaign trail, but the song carries a message in tune with anyone who is looking toward the Hill and ready to simply “throw the bastards out.” “Open” is a gentler, acoustic-based tune with a tender heart. “Can’t you see how she saves me,” sings Condron with apparent wonder and appreciation. The acerbic wit of Elvis Costello pumps through the propulsive post-punk of “Shut Up,” with a little bit of Andy Summers-styled sci-fi guitar thrown in for good measure.
By Andy Argyrakis
Taking bits of Crowded House’s Neil Finn and Squeeze’s Glenn Tilbrook, John Condron & The Benefit show no shortage of melodic sensibilities throughout their fourth long player, Eleventh Hour Grace. Though the lyrics don’t possess either of those influences’ wit and sophistication, the group provide considerable depth, namely with the cheeky “Tea Party Stomp” and “Minutes To Hours.”
Interview for Chicagonow.com
By David Masciotra
John Condron is the John Condron in the Chicago-based rock band, John Condron and The Benefit. He is also singer, songwriter, and as I discovered when I interviewed him recently, an outspoken commentator and critic on live music, rock music, and most topics related to the arts.
Those who’ve had the privilege of seeing his emotively intense, sonically ferocious band perform live, already know that John performs at an energy level that would remind the current Bruce Springsteen of the 1970s Bruce Springsteen. The velocity of The Benefit’s frontman lights a fire underneath their already smoldering musicality. With Jeff Bella on bass, Barret Harvey on drums, Jeff Julian on guitar, and Condron taking lead vocals and guitar, The Benefit plays rock music for those seeking a reminder of the intensity of living that is available in the present. Condron’s acoustic performances, while emphasizing his quieter, lyrical side, are also rapturous. The singer plays his guitar like he’s breaking out of jail and energetically trashes about the stage with an apocalyptic earnestness and urgency.
John Condron brings the same passion and energy to conversation. I planned to discuss John Condon and The Benefit’s new album Eleventh Hour Grace, recently released by EM Press, and his own musical journey from his upbringing in Philadelphia to his migration to Chicago, where he and his band currently play with the greatest frequency outside of Joliet, which most people consider a Chicago-suburb. Condron, on the other hand, calls Chicago “just a suburb of Joliet.” Joliet is home to the Chicago St. Bar and Grill–an Irish pub that is akin to an institution for original, local music. Chicago St. is where John and I met and covered a lot of ground over a few beers and smokes.
David Masciotra: You grew up playing music in Philadelphia and planted your flag in Chicago several years ago. What influence do Philadelphia, Chicago, and Joliet have on your music? Is having a sense of place important to your music?
John Condron: It has an influence on everything I do. It has an influence on me, and my music comes from me. Philadelphia was a great, vibrant musical town to grow up in, and its rock music and rock audience was very working class. Joliet reminds me of home. It is like a neighborhood of Philadelphia. It is a great, working class town and I’ve met a lot of interesting and great people here. Our band is very working-class oriented. We don’t get much of a hipster crowd. Our music resonates with a working class audience, because we are working class musicians. I don’t make a conscious effort to be or sound “working class,” whatever that would mean. The relationship develops naturally because I can identify with my audience and they identify with me. It is a result of the process of performing.
DM: What about the Chicago scene?
JC: The Chicago scene is great. There’s a lot to be excited about here. But, it has become much more competitive over the past ten years, so much so that it is starting to remind me of out East (Philadelphia and New York).
DM: Why is that?
JC: Well, like everything else it is related to the economy. Bands that used to play the Vic and the Riv are now playing Martyrs, Schubas, and The Beat Kitchen, and that means that the bands that used to play Martyrs and The Beat Kitchen aren’t going to play there anymore. It is part of a domino effect. If people higher up on the food chain drop down a level, everyone below drops down too. Going to a live show requires people to spend money on a chance. Will I enjoy it? Will I be moved and entertained? It is a gamble, and under the current economic conditions, people aren’t willing to take that chance as much. That’s why even major superstars are having touring problems. There are also cultural changes that affect the way people listen to music. I’ve met guys in their early twenties who love music, but have never been to a live show. They have I-Pods and favorite bands, but they don’t value live performance as much as I did in Philadelphia 10-15 years ago, because now there is so much more readily available music than there was then. My friends and I lived for live music–seeing it, talking about it the next day. That was not only how we discovered new bands, and formed musical preferences, but also how we developed our own identity, and in many ways, figured out who we were and what mattered to us.
DM: Is that the value of live, original music? What would you tell those guys…What are they missing out by not seeing live music?
JC: The movement. They’re missing out on movement. Movement towards a greater emotional experience, one that is about the intensity of living and a community in the making. During the show, the music is emotive in both ways–from the band and from the audience. It is circular and that creativity and emotion becomes a catalyst for making these discoveries about yourself and gaining an understanding of what it means to become part of a moment, rather than just witness a moment. It is aesthetic and phonetic, obviously, but it is also about the movement that is created from movement. When people are moved to a deeper experience and deeper level of feeling, they can create a sub-culture when they are leaving the show.
DM: Given all the economic and cultural changes we’ve talked about, what is the future of the music “industry,” for lack of a better word, and what is the future for a young, up and coming band?
JC: The music industry is in disarray. It is in ruin. But, ruin is exciting, because the music industry was never good to begin with. All anyone ever did was bitch about it. Now the machine is breaking down, and it is more of a DIY industry. DIY is romantic, but it also carries more responsibility. You have to hustle, you have to work much harder to find an audience for your music, and you also have to be all things at once. But, all of this is exciting. Certain opportunities may have gone away, but there are now greater opportunities to define yourself as a musician, as an artist.
DM: And that’s why you do it…
JC: Oh yeah, the reasons you do it, the driving reasons behind creating and performing have always been the same, and the means of channeling your creativity and making a connection with an audience aren’t all that different. Whether it is an Mp3 or record single, we’re talking about the same thing. Rock ‘n’ roll started with singles–Elvis, The Beatles–their first releases were singles, albums came later. An Mp3 is essentially a return to that system of exchange. But, the larger point is that creativity and connectivity has to be what it is all about. Now, with the machine breaking down and promotional opportunities fading away, it has to be all about the process. If you’re not doing it for the right reasons, there isn’t a place for you anymore. There isn’t a role for you, because there isn’t much left to sell. That’s exciting. We’re going to begin to see better musicians, better songwriters, and a music scene that is more real, vibrant, and filled with people doing it for the right reasons. The musicians and the artists will have to search for new way–but their own ways–to survive. Our condition has become existence, rather than thriving. But, the increased global accessibility of music allows us to find new opportunities to reach new audiences, and in the process, again, define ourselves and our own music. We (John Condron and the Benefit) sold CDs in New Zealand recently. Not a lot of CDs. But, it is still exciting, because that’s something that even a few years ago, would have been impossible for a band like ours.
DM: What’s next for the band?
JC: We’re finding an audience for the new album, and playing as much as we can. We have shows coming up in Chicago, St. Louis, Champaign, Milwaukee, and Madison (Click here for tour dates and additional information). Through all the changes that we’ve talked about and all the challenges, the biggest thrill for me is still to have an opportunity to play my music in front of a live audience. Rock ‘n’ roll is a live vehicle, and I love being part of it.
John Condron put down his beer, grabbed another one, strapped on his guitar and played an acoustic set at Chicago St. to a lively, energetic crowd. Watching him play I kept going back to a comment he made over the course of our conversation–an insight that may contain the best expression of viable hope during a deadening economy and decaying culture:
“When Rome is burnt to the ground, the only thing left is going to be somebody with a guitar and somebody with a paper and pen.”