Matt Alber and the Cello Street Quartet at the Swedish Hall, March 28
by Jim Provenzano
Matt Alber will make you cry. Take that as a warning, a good one.
The multi-talented singer-songwriter was asked if he knows anyone who hasn’t shed a tear or at least sniffled while watching the music video for one of his most known and utterly heart-ripping songs, “End of the World.”
It’s one of Alber’s fearlessly romantic songs that he’ll be performing in a special concert with the Cello Street Quartet on Thursday, March 28 at the Swedish American Hall (upstairs from Café Du Nord).
Alber admits that even he got a little emotional the last time he watched the video. Shot in 2009, “It’s really more of a short film,” he said. “I watch it and think, ‘Who’s that young guy? I also think of my dad, who was standing outside the window shot, keeping the yoga moms from passing by.”
Filmed at a barbershop in Larchmont when Alber, now 38, was living in Los Angeles, director Robin Scovill created a charmingly retro ambiance of a romance almost lost.
That song is only one of Alber’s musical milestones, which include a life spent in and out of choruses, from fundamentalist church choirs to the Grammy-winning San Francisco ensemble Chanticleer.
Working as both a solo artist self-accompanied by guitar or piano, Alber also enjoys singing with others, be it a string quartet or an entire choir.
At his upcoming San Francisco show, Alber will perform music from the new CD and DVD With Strings Attached, with the Cello Street Quartet, whom he first encountered when they were busking one night outside of Cliff’s Variety Store.
As Alber tells it, a friend of his texted him to “get over” to Castro Street to hear the quartet. Soon, the musicians met, jammed, performed together at several venues, and recorded their collaborations at the beautiful (and acoustically near-perfect) San Francisco Conservatory of Music. (See the ‘Velvet Goldmine’ video).
The Cello Street Quartet – musicians Gretchen Claassen, Matthew Linamen, Andres Vera, and Adam Young – will also perform a few pieces from their own repertory at the March 28 concert.
Acoustics also figure prominently into their upcoming shared concert. Alber mentioned the Swedish Hall’s wooden arches, the venue’s traditional design and the great sound crew. His last show there was almost a year ago.
Alber began singing as a boy in St. Louis. “My music teacher told my parents that I should focus on it,” he said. “I ended up singing in a boys choir for nine years, and traveled the globe with them. It became my musical introduction into performing.”
He also sang in a church choir, which he described as “a very oppressive charismatic church – speaking in tongues, and all that. They got me at a young age and I bought it hook line and sinker.”
His first year of college led to discovering a more compassionate and scholarly perspective on the bible, and his faith. That helps him interpret liturgical vocals, he said.
“I have to get a better definition of who God and this higher power is. Just because other people are saying who God is, doesn’t mean I can’t. I get to say it, too. It fits me a lot better, and it’s not based on fear.”
Chanticleer, the acclaimed a cappella men’s ensemble, made use of Alber’s vocal talents, including his serene counter-tenor skills. He performed, recorded and toured with the group from 1998 -2003. (See Alber’s ‘Messiah’ solo video.)
“Using that part of my voice was great,” Alber said. “I just don’t sing in the same color as opera or oratorio, but I’m really comfortable in my upper register. I used to be upset with my voice, since I have a break (the range where a singer switches to falsetto). When I listened to tenors with no break, I was jealous for a while. But I love listening to voices that crack and break.”
Alber’s first solo gig was intimate and somewhat historic. The Castro shop Nancy Boy where he sang (see the video) was also the site of one of Sylvester’s Castro appearances. Kenneth Wingard’s store now occupies that space. And happily, one of Alber’s songs from that show is also on YouTube.
Before returning to the Bay Area, Alber had been living in Seattle, where he wrote his last record. Having ended “a relationship didn’t go as expected,” Alber said, “I was looking for a place to start over.”
Now back from several show in London, Washington, D.C (with the DC Gay Men’s Chorus: see the video). and other cities, Alber’s ready for a San Francisco return engagement.
Along with own songs, Alber performs excellent covers as well. The plaintive “Mad World” gets a sassy R&B take (see the video from his 2008 gig at LA’s Faultine bar).
Alber’s acoustic version of “I Wanna Dance With Somebody” is probably his most known cover (see the video). Proceeds from download sales of his version benefit SF’s Larkin Street Youth Center.
Alber said that after the death of Whitney Houston, “When she died, I was living out on an island off Puget sound near Seattle, listening to her songs and the lyrics, which are very haunting; she’s tearing through the town looking for someone to hold them. Well, I’ve sure been there. The song just sort of hit me.”
As for choices in cover songs, “It’s a pretty simple process,” said Alber. “You find a song you can’t stop singing.”
Since then, he’s built his repertory of songs, and performed at a variety of venues, from a sold out crowd at New York’s Gershwin Theatre (as one of many talents at a marriage equality benefit: see the video) to Bear Weekend in Provincetown.
Of Alber’s connection to the bear community, he puts it simply as, “Natural selection. The bears found me. I gained 20 pounds, I started wearing a beard. It’s also who I like to hang out with. I don’t mind being marketed as gay. I love singing for my guys.”
But Alber doesn’t want to be limited in his reach. “I’m not just marketing myself to gay people. Anyone can come to my show and feel welcome. But as long as there’s a closet to be in, I feel it’s important to be out.”
“After the shows, guys come up to the show, and partners come together, saying my music reminded them why they fell in love. I wouldn’t trade that for anything!”
The simple understanding that, in his romantic songs, Alber is singing about a man, inspires many of his fans.
“We grew up having to imagine ourselves in the leading lady’s role,” he said. “That was as close as I could get to imagine falling in love with a guy. I’d imagine myself in Lois Lane’s role. So when it came time to make a music video (like ‘End of the World’, a 2009 OutMusic award winner), I said, this is what I’ve always wanted to have happen to me. I don’t want to imagine myself in that role. We need more imagery that shows us. Unfortunately, there’s a large part of our culture that will never see that.”
Alber sees activism like the It Gets Better project as sparking a huge momentum. “If I was 13-year-old kid now at St. Louis’ Assembly of God, I would not know about it.
I would still feel alone. Thanks to technology and the internet, we can break through to these pockets of culture. I do get letter from kids all over the world. Some kid wanting me to sing, and desiring a boyfriend.”
As an independent artist, Alber said he’s making a living doing what he loves. He also designs his own T-shirts. The independently-minded artist has also made his singles, videos and other music available for download or CD and DVD purchase online.
For more info, visit www.mattalber.com
See more music videos on Matt Alber’s YouTube channel: www.youtube.com/user/mattalber