Bucks County troubadour of trauma?
True to the tradition of using music as muse as a storyteller's medium, Carversville's Alec Gross has carved out a nice niche for himself as singer/songwriter with a backpack of imagery that begs to be heard.
His music travels well; just give a listen to the blues-infused "Strip the Lanterns: The Night Terrors of Mr. Ron Avery" for a stroll amid the shadows of shock and awe that greet this area musician's pensive poetry, which has been dubbed by some as "Cinematic Americana."
Feel the pain, taste the dust of this treat of a travelogue based on Gross' fascination with an archetype blues singer he encountered on the road some years back.
On the road again: This is no half-Willie Nelson, but a wholly fused Alec Gross product, himself the product of an intriguing background.
Unearth a bit of his past and see where the dig leads: The anthropology major makes no apologies for trading in his college degree from New York University — which he earned in three years — for the third degree skeptics are prone to give unproved G-men, those guitarists picking at a career in a field flooded with unfertile and parched possibilities.
Gross can't help himself: "I did everything I could to not do this," he says of being "frightened to be that cliche — the starving artist."
He certainly isn't starving for attention now; the 29-year-old's done a raft of riffs at New York clubs in addition to appearances at World Cafe Live in Philadelphia. Last week, he played the M Room in Fishtown.
The critics have reeled him in, praising the Gross output with symbols and signs that his red-fire hair goes well with the flames in his lyrics that tell of dreams measured in the drams of dropouts by the road.
"Everything has become secondary to me; I'm obsessed with music," says the singer, who was born in Montclair, N.J.
The times a'changin' — to more attention? What better prospects for a student of Bob Dylan, which Gross is, having succumbed to the Mutterin' Man and his "unornamented simplicity" at an early age. All he ever wanted to do, as a kid, "was play Dylan songs. All day, all night."
That is, when he wasn't having a go at Motown. Tempted by the Temps? Of course, he acknowledges.
Ain't too to proud to beg for a job either, which is what he did for a gig at a blues club in Doylestown early on. "I went and begged for a job, anything to be allowed in the club," he recalls.
"I started washing dishes, then bused tables, then became a waiter. After two years, I resigned myself and focused on writing songs. Been studying that magic ever since."
Good thing he pressed on with that prestidigitation; writing those songs led to gigs performing them. But for such an enlightened performer, why are his songs so damned dark?
"Ninety percent of my life, I enjoy telling jokes, being the comic; the other 10 percent of me" — the down and out Dark Knight of night clubs/pubs — "comes out in my music."
Would Freud freak out about an unhappy childhood? A life couched in tragedy? Gross smiles such notions away. "I had a happy childhood, had great friends," he says.
And a showtime pastime: "My great-grandparents were vaudevllians," he says of his great-grandfather, the singer who married an opera star.
As for others with a song in their hearts? Nope. "The rest of the family is the typical Jewish immigrant story."
And he's part of their history of parting with familiarity for newfound shores. After all, post-college, "I turned down a dig in Macedonia to play with a band in the summer."
It's all about making his own splash in the gene pool: Come on in, says the singer, the water's — and the legacy — are fine.
"We are an unsettled people," Gross says of the Jewish tribal path he travels. "Just lead me to the hardest road I can take and I will; after all, to take the much harder journey" is ultimately integral to the Jewish people's achievements throughout history, he asserts.
Part of that history — and a paean to the painful past — is played out on a single of "Strip the Lanterns," the unadorned unburnished "Burning Grounds," a Holocaust revelation that harks back to his visit to Yad Vashem three years ago.
It's all part of the Jewish journey, concedes Gross, a self-described "Wandering Jew" whose path one day may lead to permanence as a potent voice for posterity.