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Mal Madrigal: The Reluctant Rock Star

 
story by tim mcmahan


 

 

Lazy-i: Nov. 24, 2004

Mal Madrigal
w/Edith Frost and Manishevitz
Nov. 27, 9 p.m.
Sokol Underground
13th & Martha
$8











Don't go looking for the new CD by Mal Madrigal a.k.a. Steve Bartolomei at your local record store. You won't find it. That's because Bartolomei isn't eager to have anyone hear it.

"You caught me on a good week," Bartolomei said, handing over a copy of the CDR carefully enclosed in a hand-cut, hand-printed package. "I made a few copies for friends last week, but that's about it. I'm not sure what I'm going to do with it."

The fact that the CD showcases Bartolomei supported by a veritable Who's Who of Omaha's finest musicians isn't enough to rub away any lingering insecurity over his recorded performance. It's the typical posture of one of the city's brightest new talents -- a posture characterized by modesty, self-deprecation, shyness and downright fear. Bartolomei never sought attention, and until recently, never got any. The quiet, reserved performer just wanted to write songs and record them for posterity and maybe to be heard by a few of his friends. But like it or not, that's all changing as a city already ripe with singer songwriters begins to discover a new one right under its nose.


 

 

 

The Omaha native began writing and performing music while a student at St. Louis University three years ago. "I did some open-mike nights at Frederick's Music Lounge, a dive bar in south city where anyone could perform," Bartolomei said. "It's the kind of place that on any given night, you could see Jay Farrar's grandpa take the stage."

Bartolomei's folk-influenced style was a long way from the music he thought he'd be playing as a student of local guitar legend Mike Saklar (Ritual Device, Ravine). Taking lessons from the age of 12, Bartolomei was raised on a healthy diet of Shellac, Jesus Lizard and Fugazi.

"I thought I would be a guitarist in bands like those," he said, "but I never found a band that I felt comfortable playing with. St. Louis University is a Jesuit college, so there wasn't any real art scene or many musicians around. The band thing never happened, and instead of working on guitar riffs that I'd never play I started to write songs to record on my four-track."

After graduation, Bartolomei brought his songs back to Omaha, and was asked to play a last-minute opening slot for The '89 Cubs at The Ranch Bowl when the scheduled opener failed to show. His set was so well received that musicians in the audience asked Bartolomei if he wanted to form a band, including Ryan Fox (The Good Life, The '89 Cubs), Casey Scott (Desaparecidos, Bright Eyes), and Matt Baum (Desaparecidos, The '89 Cubs).

Bartolomei, Ryan and Scott as Mal Madrigal debuted as the opener for Scout Niblett early this year. Shortly afterward, Bartolomei asked guitar mentor Saklar to join. Known as one of the city's strongest metal and noise musicians, with Mal Madrigal Saklar shows a subtle, textured, emotional side of his guitar playing that has rarely been seen.


 

 

 

 

 

 



"A lot of these songs are pretty old and I have to ask if this is what I want as a debut. At the same time, I need to let go of them."

 

 

 

 

 
"I did some open-mike nights at Frederick's Music Lounge, a dive bar in south city where anyone could perform. It's the kind of place that on any given night, you could see Jay Farrar's grandpa take the stage"

 

 

These days, Mal Madrigal is a rotation of performers backing Bartolomei on stage, with the night's line-up dependent on which sidemen are on tour. Saturday's show, for example, will feature only Bartolomei, Saklar and Fox.

The whole cast of supporting characters, however, can be heard on Bartolomei's unreleased gem of a debut. The first half of the 11-song CD was recorded in his basement, while the last half was recorded throughout Casey Scott's home. Contributing musicians include drummer Baum, bassist Matt Perry, drummer/keyboardist/guitarist Fox, keyboardist Chris Schaeffer, vocalist Orenda Fink (Azure Ray), banjo/accordion player Dan McCarthy, bassist Scott and Saklar.

The collection is a moody blend of atmospheric folk and down-low rock highlighted by Bartolomei's personal songwriting style that ranges from quiet waltz ditties (opener "Old Man River," the Lightfoot-ish "Overexposure") to full-blown rock opuses (the bluesy "Smoldering," revelatory "The Morning After," and 10-minute-plus noise-inflected closer "Message Erased"). Throughout, Bartolomei wears his influences with glowing pride -- from Alex McManus to Simon Joyner to Conor Oberst.

The recording has caught the ear of a St. Louis-based record label, though Bartolomei seems reticent to make the move to legitimate recording artist. "Part of it is negotiating with myself," he said. "A lot of these songs are pretty old and I have to ask if this is what I want as a debut. At the same time, I need to let go of them."


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Published in The Omaha Reader Nov. 24, 2004. Copyright 2004 Tim McMahan. All rights reserved. Photos by Chris Machian, used by permission.