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Doing it write

They say you can teach songwriting skills. At least, Brad Yoder occasionally conducts workshops with that goal in mind.

But in this case, the students are going to have real trouble keeping up with the teacher.

Brad is among the select few who help define songsmith, with a gift for combining well-chosen words with intricate melodies - or sometimes, no melody at all - for aural creations that instantly draw listeners' attention and hold there interests, even if they've never heard a note of his music before.

Such was the experience last weekend and Brad's performance for an enthusiastic audience at La Bella Bean in Bridgeville. Armed with a Martin guitar, Fender amplifier and a 14-year catalog of original compositions, he put on quite an impressive show with his singing, fleet-fingered guitar playing and, of course, songwriting.

Among the many highlights:

- "Skyler," a song he wrote in 1991 that's been his most-requested since, a charming ditty that lent a lyric to the title of his 1999 album, "Talk to Total Strangers"

- "James Bond," a favorite from his 2002 album "Used" about, of course, the famed spy, with a self-referential bent for comparison purposes: "I drive a '95 sedan"

- "Everybody's On the Phone," an all-encompassing commentary on public use of cell phones (which puts other attempts at writing songs about that subject to shame)

- "Formerly," an a cappella rendition of the obituary of one "John Norman Mallery, age 28 ... died in Taji, Iraq, of a small arms attack," with an ironic segue into a song called "Guardian Angel"

- "Keep It to Yourself," a poignant observation about alternative lifestyles

- "Hair Loss Blues," with Brad recently changing a lyric because younger folks weren't recognizing his reference to Telly Savalas (he's substituted Mr. Clean)

- "Cinema 4," a hilarious song about the long-defunct theater on West Liberty Avenue that still has "Crocodile Dundee 3" advertised on its marquee

During his show, the Pittsburgh resident previewed some songs that will appear on an album he has in the works that should be available in the spring. It's called "Someday or Never," taken from the lyrics to his song "School Together," but he also jokes that the title refers to the state of the album, which has taken a while to reach fruition.

"I'm a perfectionist, which is part of the problem," he says. "But it's very close. I'm pleased with the way things are working out."

He has been working with Peter Beckerman, a collaborator on several past projects, and one song, "Immortal," is being mixed by Mitch Easter, who worked with REM in its formative years.

"It's a song that, writing-wise, I'm very pleased with," Brad says. "I've farmed it out to see if we'll get the vibe I'm looking for."

While he works on the album, he continues to hone his craft before audiences.

"My goal is to play as often as I can," he says. "I feel like my practice time is playing shows. It keeps me in the practice of playing some of the more obscure songs of mine. I have a small but very cool group of folks who come to see me and know my songs, and I want to be able to meet their requests."

He can play for long stretches, if need be. He pointed to one recent show where he performed a pair of two-hour sets, all originals, without repeating anything until a few at the tail end.

Brad has been joined for many shows recently by Jason Rafalak, a standup-bass player, and they've started a project of recording the performances.

"The hope is we'll sort that stuff out and come up with a live, primarily duo album," Brad says. "These are songs that are very different live, some of the funny, crowd-pleasing stuff."

He calls 2005 a prolific year for songwriting, and he's been trying to impart some of his knowledge to others who want to compose music, too.

"They may have some kind of vague notion that you kind of sit around and wait for inspiration," he says. Instead, songwriters must work at the craft: "It's getting people to think of writing as something more like knitting, and less like being struck by lightning."

Still, they'll have a long, long way to go before they can match the writing of Brad Yoder.


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