"The thing I've always said about Nina Gerber that isn't true of most guitarists is her ability to listen to the lyrics and bring that out in her playing," says folk-country singer Steve Seskin, preparing for his CD release concert this Saturday at Berkeley's Freight & Salvage. Steve Seskin Live is a two-CD set of his compositions performed on stages around the country, and for Saturday's show Gerber, who also plays on the album, will accompany him throughout.
The two musicians have known each other for decades, but because of their busy schedules they rarely get together, even though they live just minutes apart in Richmond. One other thing they have in common: While they are two of the East Bay's most acclaimed musicians, their work is better known to the public than their names. Seskin is a prolific Nashville songwriter whose tunes have become No. 1 country hits for such stars as Waylon Jennings, Kathy Mattea, and Tim McGraw, while Gerber is the accompanist of choice for the top echelon of today's folk singers. She was Kate Wolf's guitarist until Wolf's death from leukemia in 1986. Since then, Gerber has recorded and toured with everyone from Greg Brown and Nanci Griffith to Ferron and local greats Laurie Lewis and Kathy Kallick. So while Saturday is Seskin's gig, the real fun for their fans is the musical camaraderie between him and Gerber.
Gerber was a high-schooler in Sebastopol in the '70s when she saw singer Kate Wolf at a local pizza parlor and realized that her life's goal was to become Wolf's guitarist. She achieved that goal. "I used to go see Steve at that same pizza parlor, and I learned a lot just hanging out and watching his band play," she says.
Despite his engaging personality and a high, sweet tenor voice, Seskin has never had a hit of his own, but has found that others could turn his songs into those hits. He has a Nashville publisher who "loves pitching my songs the way I love writing them." Seskin has organized tours of fellow Nashville songwriters, with Gerber serving as their ace guitar accompanist. Seskin considers his greatest accomplishment to be "Don't Laugh at Me," a children's anti-teasing song that was picked up by Peter Yarrow (of Peter, Paul & Mary), made the basis of an education curriculum now in 35,000 schools in seventeen states, and published as a book featured on the PBS TV show Reading Rainbow. "I've done so many school assemblies based on that one song," he laughs.
Following Wolf's death, Gerber spent years trying to write her own solo album, but every time she got started, she went back to wanting to do Wolf's songs. So she rounded up her favorite singers to accompany her on Treasures Left Behind, a beautiful CD tribute featuring Nanci Griffith, Emmylou Harris, Lucinda Williams, Dave Alvin, Greg Brown, Utah Phillips, and Rosalie Sorrels. Her current solo guitar CD Sweet Dreams: Lullabies for Guitar is also her fastest seller and is now on the American Library Association's list of notable recordings for children.
Tickets for Saturday's 8 p.m. concert are $18.50 advance, $19.50 at the door, at the Freight & Salvage, 1111 Addison St., Berkeley. 510-548-1761 or TheFreight.org
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