By Chris Parker
It’s so often the case that Jimmy Buffet dedicated a verse of his most famous song to the time-tested trope: Will Evans’s dad was to blame. He showed his son a few chords on the guitar, and the next thing you know he’s off becoming a musician. Well, maybe that’s an exaggeration, but that’s how stories begin.
“He would play some bedtime songs when we were kids, but he never progressed past the basic three chord song,” Evans reports from somewhere in Florida. “I’ve just had rhythm in my soul since I was very young, planning pots and pans in the kitchen. Singing in Baptist church. Everybody would be singing in unison and I would be finding harmonies at the age of five.”
Will Evans is a Rhode Island boy that was bitten by a radioactive spider. No, wait, I have my stories confused. He was a surfer kid – from Rhode Island – which is to say tougher than your average beach bum. “I’ve had many days where I come in with my whole beard is an icicle? Yeah, it’s this badge of honor in a way,” Evans recalls. “Those days it just makes you feel alive and I think we’re always searching for that.”
That may not exactly explain why Evans is touring around Florida during Spring Break season playing his feel good-folk, conscious hippy rap, reggae/world indigenous music with his wife and 3-year-old daughter in tow. But there’s really no other way to pursue a creative career than by putting yourself out there as often and to the best advantage you can.
“You know, it’s that constant search for balance amidst the chaos,” Evans says as he picks up the pair from a mid-day museum art class. “You embrace that things are gonna go awry. And you just get better at adapting and finding your stasis in the midst of that, which I think is really valuable skill.
“I’m super excited and blessed to have that opportunity to be with her at this pivotal age, but also for her to see her parents pursuing their passion,” he continues. “It’s an important lesson for her as well to see her dad go grinding around the country, getting on stage and presenting my craft.”
La Plus Ca Change, is how the French say it. Evans has been chasing this dream for nearly half of his 38 years, going back to the beginnings of his roots-rock act Barefoot Truth in 2005. They went on hiatus in 2012 (and still return periodically thanks to a durable regional following), but Evans kept going directly into a solo career which he’s more than a decade into, and celebrating the March release of his fifth album, After the Burnt Out Sun.
The album showcases the low-key grace and style-hopping facility that’s become his calling card since making the transition to solo artist. Such is the nature of 21st century recorded music that we think nothing of the fact that Evans plays all the instruments on the recordings. It’s something of another beast when he does it live. Using loops Evans can create whole orchestras to play with him, though, he’s also learned not to lean to heavy into it lest it become a gimmick. And as a former drummer, of course everything comes back to the beat.
“It’s nice to give people a break from it, so I do like to play a lap/slide guitar called a Weissenborn. I’ll play that with a kick drum as well. Everything revolves around just pulse and rhythm,” Evans says. “Sometimes I’ll being a full light package and really make it high energy, for like a standing room show. It’s nice to be versatile, you know? Other rooms, like the Odeum is seated, and maybe a little bit older crowd, so maybe I’ll tell more stories. Sometimes it’s nice to kind of keep people captivated that way.”
One thing he’s learned is how much of a one-on-one experience performing for a crowd of people is, the type of thing one only really stops to break down in a global pandemic. Isolated from his jam, his creative expression, Evans sought out other musicians and started streaming from his basement, where he began making even deeper connections with the audience, even crowd-sourcing feedback on new material as he put together the songs for After the Burnt Out Sun.
“It’s not just about showing up at a club, it’s about connecting to these people, and usually you do it from that stage. But when you have the opportunity to livestream you got to have comments, you got to interact in an even more direct way, which was a positive by and large. You could really kind of win people over with your humanity, and your willingness to put yourself out there, and then you made friends and fans for life, for sure.”
These interactions not only informed the music but the entire attitude of the latest project, so much so there’s a song on the album dedicated to these people and the music he makes for them called, “Kind Folk.”
“I started doing a Thursday night live stream. And we started getting a really consistent crowd tuning in. I think a lot was because I would bring often bring my wife on and I could tell the viewership went up whenever she was,” he says, pointing to their authentic, couple behavior, sometimes without and sometimes with their child. “If we hadn’t gotten her to bed, then it would be even funnier, because she’d be there, and it would be a disaster.
“We started calling the folks that would tune in the Kind Folk, and that developed into this style of what I would say my music is called. it’s kind folk, it’s folk music at its core, but it’s rooted lyrically in kindness, compassion and community and really, big picture, the importance of really having that connection, which grew out of being just so disconnected for that time period, and especially in New England where we’re already pretty isolated in the winter.
“I kind of put it on myself to try to write a new song every week for the audience, and it helped me build this catalog of songs that I ended up recording for this record,” Evans says. “It’s called After the Burnt Out Sun, which is a lyric that I have in the bridge of this song called ‘All My Relations,’ about a near-death experience I had surfing in the winter and, you know, there was a lot of us kind of pondering death during those early years and seeing so much of it happening around us.”
Evans is skilled at multiple instruments but a big part of his show is when he plays the Didgeridoo, an Australian folk instrument cut from eucalyptus trees. As an unmitigated smart alec, the author inquired what was so special about playing a Didgeridoo, isn’t it just an over-sized kazoo? Evans did his best to mitigate my ignorance.
“It’s definitely a lot more difficult than the kazoo. A lot of people can make the sound relatively easily, but it’s the circular breathing aspect [to sustain] that which really makes it a challenge,” reports Evans. “It’s this very meditative and deep breathing instrument… and it’s very grounding. It took me probably two years to figure out how to circular breathe correctly. I took lessons with a gentleman in Vermont, when I was in school, and I would go out to his cabin. He had a sweat lodge that we would play didgeridoo in and the humidity in there made it really like good for deep breathing. It was a wild time.
“It’s a really challenging instrument, because it’s so stupidly simple, and yet so difficult in so many ways,” he admits. “It is just an oversized kazoo in that there’s only one note you can play but it’s also deeply connected to the earth and the different sounds you can make with the back of your throat.”
Evans is preceded by another Rhode Island singer, opening act Kara McKee, who was familiar to folks in the region for the last seven years as a member of Boston trio Rosemere Road with her cousins Carson and Emerry Brakke, who all grew up together singing folk music in their parents’ living rooms.
Then last year McKee, who is the 37-year-old daughter of the state’s governor, made it onto NBC talent show The Voice, on John Legend’s team, eventually losing in the second round to Peyton Aldridge. McKee is taking advantage of this rare opportunity to pause her corporate career, and return to the stage to make another run at the dream.
Will Evans with Kara McKee, Friday, April 21, 2023, Greenwich Odeum. 7 p.m. door, 8 p.m. show. $20 advance, $25 at the door. 59 Main St., East Greenwich; 401-885-4000; www.greenwichodeum.com.
Chris Parker is a freelance journalist (The Guardian, Undark, Daily Beast, Billboard) and author of the book, King James Brings The Land a Crown, about the Cleveland Cavaliers’ 2016 championship. He lives in Providence.