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Melanie brings music history to Claremont

Young musicians dream of walking out on a big stage, squinting into the lights and smiling at a throng of appreciative fans. But the road inevitably begins with modest shows in front of small groups of friends and family, usually in back yards, garages or living rooms.

Melanie did not receive that memo.

One of the veteran singer and songwriter’s earliest performances was at Woodstock, in front of more than 500,000 people. And Saturday night, Melanie will play a Gelencser House Concert in Claremont—in a living room—to a decidedly smaller crowd than on Max Yasgur’s farm in the summer of 1969.

“I’ve gone up and down in my career, playing really large venues and really small venues, then really large ones again. Aside from perceptions of other people, it is all the same. It really is,” Melanie said this week. “Once I’m up on stage, I don’t know how many people are out there. It doesn’t have to do with numbers. It’s always one person, one-at-a-time, the one person you end up communicating to.”

Born Melanie Anne Safka in 1947 in New York, she is best known for “Brand New Key,” which topped the American, Australian, Canadian and South African charts in 1971. Other notable charting singles include a cover of the Rolling Stone’s “Ruby Tuesday,” her own “Peace Will Come [According to Plan]” and “Lay Down [Candles in the Rain],” all from 1970. In all, Melanie has sold more than 80 million records to date.

The Nashville-based performer will appear tomorrow with her musical director and son Beau Jarred on guitar and other instruments.

“Well, yeah, I guess it is a dream,” she said about traveling and making music with her son. “But when we’re onstage, we’re just two artists.”

The increasingly-popular house concert format is something new for Melanie.

“This is an unusual experience for me,” she said. “I’ve never done house concerts before this tour. Since I’ve come to California I’ve done two others and they’re great. I love them. It’s sort of like having a big party, and people come to your party, only you don’t have to clean up the mess.”

Those familiar with the singer’s early material may be surprised by her latest record, “Ragamuffin,” (available on bandcamp.com). The disc features the familiar folk-driven acoustic pop, but her instrument has evolved from a young woman’s innocent tenor to something deeper, both tonally and in its emotional wallop. She’s moved closer to Marianne Faithful’s sultry baritone, a surprise after hearing the perky and sweet tones of “Brand New Key” on an FM radio loop for the past 45 years. Melanie’s voice has aged well. It has attained what all singers long for: gravitas.

She is proud of the new collection, but the old paradigm of big budget, major label pushes behind an established artist’s latest release is all but dead in 2016.

“I don’t know if there’s a reason that I should be on a label at this point,” Melanie explained. “I mean, sure, you’re part of a bigger machine and you get a lot more visibility, but at the end of the day I don’t know if it’s worth it.”

Self-releasing “Raggamuffin” is a sign of the times, she said.

“The music business used to be the business of selling artists. But now it’s a business of selling business. It’s not art-motivated, that’s for sure. It’s control and power and money. It doesn’t have a whole lot to do with art and ability.”

For Melanie, this shift in focus has taken its toll.

“When I was coming up, the music business wasn’t run by lawyers, it was run by A & R men who went to music school. They were the people who went and found talent. Now it’s a lot of exhibitionism and ‘Look and me, look at me, I have funny hair.’ It’s just this ‘look at me’ stuff. It’s very visual, and it’s not as much audio, so to speak. So you get a lot of garbage.”

Despite these concerns, she acknowledges there are still great artists making great music.

“It’s out there, but you’ve got to weed through a lot of other stuff,” she said. “You don’t get to hear the great stuff as much as that stuff you probably don’t need to hear.”

As it has been suggested elsewhere, 2016 feels a lot like the late 1950s when, after the initial creative burst of rock ‘n’ roll, corporations discovered there was money to be made with this new fad. Pat Boone covering Little Richard and the rise of watered-down “rock ‘n’ roll entertainment” for young audiences became the norm.

“That’s the part of the music business that people in the ‘60s reacted against,” Melanie explained. “Here are these beautiful, gorgeous singers who sing, and these are the writers who are the funny-looking people who sit in the back room and crank out songs.”

Today’s digital world with hit records full of perfect syncopation, notes “corrected” via computer software and all traces of humanity scrubbed from the final product leaves Melanie pining for simpler times, she said.

“I grew up when my role models—the people I heard on the radio—were really good singers. They could carry a tune. That’s a weird concept, I know. I went to public school and we learned what melodies were, and what makes up an orchestra, and we had music appreciation. And that’s how people learned what music is. But now, we have generations of people who don’t know, so the level of musicality is really dwindling. I’m not saying there’s not room for everything, but there certainly has been a decline in musicality.”

The rise and now ubiquitousness of Auto Tune, both as a recording tool and in live performances, is a double-edged sword, Melanie opined. “Again, if used correctly it can be fine, but now it’s become a substitute for people who really can sing.”

A house concert is a great opportunity for music-lovers to hear a singer really sing. One can be sure there will be no Auto Tune at Saturday’s show. And, it’s Labor Day weekend, a time where folks are already outdoors and barbecuing.

“I hope people come,” Melanie said. “I don’t know, what do people do on Labor Day? Why not have a picnic and come to a Melanie concert?”

Melanie and her son have two additional California dates booked: October 14 at The Canyon in Agoura Hills and October 16 at The Rose in Pasadena. The duo may be joined by a percussionist and a keyboard player for those performances.

Melanie appears at 7:30 p.m. on Saturday, September 3, at Gelencser House Concerts in Claremont. Admission is $40 and the show is all ages.

For tickets, venue location or more information, call (909) 596-1266, email singfolk@yahoo.com or visit gelencserhouseconcerts.com.

Additional information is at melaniesafka.com.

—Mick Rhodes

mickrhodes@claremont-courier.com