On Saturday night, standing alone on a shallow stage in the new cabaret space at Bing Concert Hall, Vikesh Kapoor offered a breathtaking set of original music that felt at once both anachronistic and timely. With technical mastery and poetic storytelling, Kapoor breathed fresh life into the American folk tradition, and continued to carry the torch of Dylan, Seeger and Guthrie into the 21st century.
A wiry, soft-spoken figure with unkempt, wispy hair, Kapoor opened his set with an a cappella rendition of “The Ballad of Willy Robbins,” a cut from his acclaimed debut album of the same name. The ballad, inspired by a newspaper clipping Kapoor read during the height of the Recession, tells the story of a man broken by a sudden job loss and descent into poverty. The details of working class decay are intimately wrought in each verse: “The house dirty, the heat pipes cough/the jam jars nearly empty, the apples soft.”
After writing “The Ballad of Willy Robbins,” Kapoor built up a collection of songs based on the character, who quickly took on a deeply metaphorical — if not mythical — air. The result was a remarkable debut album, released in 2013, a conceptual work guided from beginning to end by the slow-burning arc of Willy Robbins’ descent. In it, Kapoor tells of a journey from security to shambles, from love to isolation, from confidence to doubt — a journey, in short, that resonates deeply with timeless American anxieties.
Kapoor continued his set with more material from the album, beginning with a stirring acoustic rendition of “Bottom of the Ladder,” another working class lament. He followed with “I Dreamt Blues,” a mournful tune that describes Robbins’ plight as his disillusionment with work seeps into his dreams, eventually spoiling his marriage. Addressing the wife Robbins can no longer love, Kapoor sings: “To go blind was fine when we were young/but now dear, your disguise is fallin’.”
Perhaps the most compelling aspect of the young singer’s storytelling is his ability to evoke the human side of economic loss. “The Ballad of Willy Robbins” is a tragedy, and as the album progresses, we bear witness to the existential pain that stems from the collapse of Robbins’ dignity and marriage. “Carry Me, Home,” a blistering, banjo-laden track that marks the lowest point in Robbins’ narrative, explores his isolation and, with a desperate cry, hints at suicide: “I rig a rope somewhere no one knows/like the lonely climb up a scaffold.” Kapoor doesn’t deal in fairytale optimism. By the time the album ends, Robbins is homeless and living in the woods, resigned to reflect on the ruins of his shattered life.
During his performance, Kapoor broke the sober mood with small talk between songs. With a hushed, often wavering voice, Kapoor is not a naturally charismatic speaker, but he wields his demeanor well, both when delivering unexpected punchlines and describing his upbringing as somewhat of an outcast in his rural Catholic and Amish hometown. Speaking to the audience, he revealed a few personal details that influenced the character of Willy Robbins, including his short-lived stint as a mason’s apprentice in Boston, his upbringing in Pennsylvania and, of course, the names of the artists whom he admires most, like Nina Simone, Bob Dylan and Pete Seeger.
His comments made clear that on some tracks, the line between Vikesh Kapoor and Willy Robbins is intentionally blurred. Introducing the elegiac “Ode to My Hometown,” Kapoor noted that his own hometown had been transformed beyond recognition with the advent of fracking. He then launched into verse: “Yeah, I saw them take up my town, they tore up Thompson row/I watched the trucks of thieves go by, I can feel ‘em in my bones.”
Yet despite these few similarities, Willy Robbins is entirely fictional, and in an interview conducted before the show, Kapoor insisted that the character transcends race, religion and gender. “It’s just a name,” he told me, “This could be the story of a woman, the story of an Asian man or anyone, really.” In this sense, the album speaks as much to the anxieties of factory workers in the Rust Belt as it does to the struggles of Kapoor’s own parents, immigrants who left behind family and friends in India to try their luck in rural Pennsylvania.
In telling this story, Kapoor’s choice of tools — a guitar, a harmonica and a deep well of folk knowledge — are essential to his success. He clearly puts a great deal of thought into his writing, and doesn’t bother the listener with the sort of meaningless platitudes that saturate the popular folk scene today.
“Songs that transcend a moment and can apply to different situations find a balance between being specific and capturing a specific feeling,” Kapoor observed during our interview, and it struck me that this is precisely what he does so well.
In a 2014 interview with the Nashville Scene, a Tennessee news and culture magazine, Kapoor once recalled that early in his career, people dismissed him as a Bob Dylan “wannabe.” “On the other hand,” he noted in the same interview, “especially in smaller towns, where people aren’t so jaded, people would come up in tears and say that song reminded them of their families. That moved me; it made me feel I had really done something.”
Comparisons to a young Bob Dylan are still somewhat inescapable, although this shouldn’t be considered a detraction. To Kapoor’s credit, he’s a more gifted guitarist, and his voice — while possessing a similar smoky and endearingly acrid quality — is better trained than the Bard’s ever was. This became especially clear whenever he reached for his falsetto, adding an ethereal quality to tracks like the melancholy “I Never Knew What I Saw in You” and the unreleased love song “Sherene, Don’t Be Alone,” which he performed as a second encore.
Kapoor also bears more than a passing resemblance to a young Dylan, and with the same haircut and lanky build, the two would likely cast the same silhouettes standing side by side. Watching him perform, it was easy to imagine myself in communion with the awed crowds who stumbled upon an undiscovered Dylan in Greenwich Village bars and cafes during the early 1960s.
Kapoor is an outsider in today’s scene, and it’s easy to think that he might have been better suited for Dylan’s era. But then again, the beauty of his work lies in its urgency: The problems he sings about may seem nostalgic, but in reality, they are more pressing than ever.
During our phone conversation, I realized that few, if any, other musicians of late have devoted serious attention to people like Willy Robbins, and that, in general, working class consciousness has faded from popular culture. It’s unsettling to think that these stories, which have long been told by the likes of Bob Dylan, Woody Guthrie, Bruce Springsteen and many more, have somehow run dry. When I pressed Kapoor to name some contemporary artists who have explored similar themes, he came up empty. His silence was a sobering measure of a shift in our culture, one that has left many ordinary people and their stories behind.
“The Ballad of Willy Robbins” may seem anachronistic, but that’s only because it’s born from a tradition that we’ve already begun to forget. Kapoor makes a compelling case for why more artists should return to the tried and true practices that make folk music work, whether that means writing with an ambitious, literary scope or simply singing about the kind of people that are too often forgotten. He reminds us of the many stories that go untold and offers a humble antidote. He stands alone on stage and sings; we listen, and begin to remember what we’ve lost.
Contact Benjamin Sorensen at bcsoren ‘at’ stanford.edu.