CONCERT REVIEW: Mark Erelli warms crowd's hearts with earnest folk songs

On stage armed with only a guitar and harmonica, Mark Erelli is a lot of things. He's an activist, storyteller, father, romantic and historian. Each side of the Massachusetts- born musician was on display Saturday night at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Centre County.

An intimate crowd of about 70 people enjoyed an evening with Erelli as he pleasantly strummed out two 45-minute sets. The church's impeccable acoustics were ideal for the singer-songwriter's clear, emotive voice.

"This is a beautiful sounding room," he said after opening with "Columbus, Ohio" a folksy ballad about growing old and going nowhere.

The stage was dimly lit. Erelli -- donning a vest, tie and smile -- chatted with the crowd between songs. He shared the stories behind many of his tunes and sometimes joked about his catalog being filled with "happy songs about fairly miserable things."

This is how he described "Hartfordtown 1944," a tune about a circus fire that year in Hartford, Conn. However, Erelli has a rule when it comes to songs about disasters. He never puts more than one in a set. He informed the crowd about this rule before breaking out into "The Farewell Ball," a song about a flood devastating a town.

Erelli's heartfelt side came out when he sang about his two sons -- one 4, the other 16 months. The tune "Once," he said, was written while touring hockey arenas in Canada.

"This song was written about missing my son who wasn't even born yet," he said. "Everyone should know this kind of love ... once in a lifetime," he sang.

The images of morality and hopefulness become common themes in his newer songs.

Erelli's sincere attitude is what makes his catalog unique. The types of songs he specializes in have been done before, but through heartfelt storytelling, a knack for new perspectives and a clean, booming voice, his songs stay fresh.

Saturday night's setlist featured many of Erelli's solo songs but also included songs from BarnStar! -- his "quasi-imaginary bluegrass" group's music -- and other projects. The first set came to end with a jangly, upbeat performance of "Troubadour Blues."

After a standing ovation sommoned him back to the stage, Erelli ended the show with an especially touching rendition of Bill Morrissey's "Birches." Morrissey passed away this summer and was one of Erelli's biggest influences. "Birches" is his favorite song.

Jonathan F. McVerry can be reached at cdtweekender@centredaily.com.