by Hannah Frank with additions by Bob Shiel
This CD, “Half Measures Avail Nothing” is more than a collection of 18 songs-- it's a gift of creativity from the heart. A percentage of proceeds benefit The Mankind Project Chicago, an international network of personal development programs for adult men. Shiel has been involved for over twenty years and is on the board. The CD also benefits the Alano Club of the North Side of Chicago, which offers addiction recovery services. Shiel already donates annually to these organizations.
The original songs share touches of 60's country folk music as well as poetic rock and roll, bluegrass, gospel and Dylan-like commentary. Hypnotic psychedelic memories are punctuated with clear-headed blues and comfortable reminiscing with lilting Spanish rhythms. Production and song styles vary yet maintain a message of peace, journey and renewal. Like real life, it includes a gamut of rough and smooth edges.
As a young man, Shiel appreciated the non-Western culture of Micronesia, a group of small islands where Shiel served as a Peace Corps volunteer. He was the only non-native sharing an island with about 225 people who ebbed and flowed with relaxed, slow lives full of farming, fishing, cooking, church-going and making the most out of what they had. Islanders used fishing line as guitar strings. Shiel performed folk music on birthdays and at weddings and even funerals for the natives. He believes it “got him in touch with indigenous people and mother earth.” He saw and helped the islanders build a humble church up from the ground with concrete mixed with sand from their Pacific beaches.
Shiel took this spirit of resourcefulness to the making of his album. Using new skills with digital recording, and tapping thirty years of writing songs, the tunes reflect on topics that likewise seem foreign to American life, but maybe shouldn't be so odd: brotherhood, praying, friendship and unity.
This is peppered with more “hardcore” experiences facing the modern world, and how people handle it-- references to smoking a skinny, drinking gin all night or making a commitment to pray for Barack Obama. There are also nods to 20th century figureheads like Muddy Waters and Elmore James with a tongue-in-cheek line, “hoping to get lucky, want to make a killin', trying to be cool like Elvis and Bob Dylan.”
All the songs are not about Shiel, but about people he's met on his path, ranging from a relaxing Latin love ballad for Marianela from Peru, a girl whose “eyes ain’t blue”, to a 12-bar blues with pounding organ about a fellow teaching comrade at Truman College, where Shiel has taught ESL to immigrants who want to go to college since 1987, in Earl Silbar's Rag, about a Jewish man who grew up amidst social inequities on the south side of Chicago and went on to a lifetime of devotion to working class and union causes.
Shiel had been writing songs for years and this CD was the next logical step after hooking up with a group of supportive artists, The Mens Art Forum, and gaining confidence in his skills as he explored digital recording. He decided to contribute proceeds to the Mankind Project and the Alano Club. Humble in person, Shiel says as a drug and alcohol addict, he would be dead if it were not for these groups.
Most songs are laced with imagery that is post-sobriety. Of track 2 Angels In The Morning he says, “its [a] dark...hellish song...that's what life on drugs and alcohol was for me….but the song is about hope.” Getting sober was like “coming out of pain and darkness...coming back to life from the dead,” shares Shiel. Track 13 What I Pray is “literally my prayer every time I pick up my pipe and pray...a lot of this is very spiritual,” says Shiel, who also teaches yoga and is steeped in Native American spirituality. The title “Half Measures Avail Nothing” is a gentle reminder to give one hundred percent.
Shiel is healing and with this CD, gives back. He gives back in full measure to life for what he has been given by his parents Josephine and John, the fellowship of men, women, and recovering addicts, and the 20th century musicians who make him tick. Half Measures Avail Nothing, indeed.
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