Emerging from the pulsing neon shadows of the -world famous- Las Vegas "strip," singer/songwriter Mark Huff keeps the faith and records an album he can live with
by Lee Abraham
Cigarette smoke swirls lazily over an empty coffee mug. Our breakfast interview is now officially over and Mark Huff has a busy day ahead of him. First he'll run some flyers to the printer for an upcoming gig, then he's going play a few songs on the acoustic guitar at his niece's birthday party. After dinner, Huff will be in the recording studio. He spends alot of time there. Knee deep in production for a new album, a project he's calling -Skeleton Faith-, Huff has been slaving over this record for months. "I don't like it," he tells me a few days later. "I'm gonna do the entire thing over." What? Do it over? As it was, the record seemed to be taking forever. Start over? Unthinkable... to me anyway.
But not to Huff. "I've got to live with this record," he tells me. "I want it to be right." That was a couple of years ago. Before we go any further, here's a little background info on Huff. Bring up the topic of local songwriters to a Las Vegas musician and the name Mark Huff will pop up within a few sentences. Guaranteed. He's also a showman. Huff has opened for Bob Dylan. Twice! He's also shared the bill with Little Feat, the Doobie Brothers, Al Green and too many more top bands to mention. Wanna talk about artistic integrity - Huff busked his way through Europe a few years ago with little more than an acoustic guitar and backpack of clothes. He returned a seasoned performer with a broadened perspective.
OK, now let's chat about songwriters. There's all types. Most are passionate about creativity. Those that aren't, fake it... they make it up in volume, altered states or eccentric hair styles. But it's impossible to fake the patience required to continually rework a tune until it's as good as it can be... or the insight to know when there's room for improvement. Then there's those songwriters that take painstaking care in every aspect of the process, constantly rewriting ad nauseum, always moving half the distance toward the wall of perfection - and only managing to churn out a song or two a year. Huff's somewhere in the middle. He's one of those rare word smiths that isn't satisfied until he's masterfully crafted a poignant lyric with a sing-along melody, -and- he's always got new material. Yet, there are no "throw away" tunes with this guy. Every song counts. In fact in Huff's case, every lyric counts.
His language is earthy, his themes are hard hitting and honest. Romance and heartbreak, urban decay, homelessness, temptation, spirituality and hope, are all colors on Huff's musical palette. Painting detailed lines with a fine lyrical brush, he doesn't waste lot of time with flowery imagery. Huff makes his point articulately, at times poetically, and then gets out. Call it timing, dynamics, whatever you want, the guy writes great songs. Not grooves or jams. -Songs-.
Flash forward about a year. I'm sitting at home, working on an article and the phone rings. It's Huff. He's back in the recording studio and all excited. "Conni's comin' down to do some vocals," he says. "Why don't you come down and check it out." I do. And I'm glad. Conni Emerson is another bright spot on the Las Vegas music scene. A gifted singer/songwriter in her own right, Emerson and Huff are musical soul mates. Having her sing on the new record is a stroke of genius. Watching Conni harmonize on the other side of the studio's soundproof glass, eyes closed, hands lightly touching her headphones and totally focused on the music, is a goose bump generator. And the music sounds good. -Real- good.
These new recordings feature Scott Rhiner on lead guitar. A recent addition to Huff's band, Rhiner is as much a Vegas institution as Huff. Although only in his thirties, Rhiner is a forefather of the modern day blues scene in Vegas and one of the most highly regarded fret monsters in town. With good reason. The guy is awesome. Brian Cline on bass and drummer Dennis Osinski have been Huff's rhythm section since way back. Cline's a no-nonsense bottom end thumper from New York City. At times he reminds me of Springsteen's longtime bassman Gary W. Talent. Cline's a good singer too.
And then there's Osinski... a great drummer who'll drive a slippery back beat down any dangerously winding stretch of the rock and roll highway with one hand on the wheel and a properly chilled lager in the other. Together as the 'Mark Huff Four,' they are have a lean, rootsy vibe, and a distinctive urgency that pulses the gut bucket beat of heartland rock from deep within the cold neon shadows of the Las Vegas "strip."
Several months come and go. There's been a few more recording sessions during that time, but the album's not done yet. Huff's got a lot of gigs. He's writing new material. He's looking for the right production guru to mix the tracks. Huff wants -Skeleton Faith- to be -perfect-. We talk every couple of weeks and all he can say is, "We're making progress. It'll be done soon." "Can't wait," is my standard reply. "I know what you mean," he usually says.
It's now mid August. Huff and I are sitting at Legends Lounge. We're drinking beer. There's a band on stage and Huff likes what they're doing. After rocking the house, the singer thanks the crowd and points over to the band's merchandise area near the pool tables. "Be sure to check out our new CD," says the singer. "We think you're gonna like it." I see Huff smile. He doesn't say anything. He doesn't have to.
I didn't see Huff again for a couple of months. Caught up in a two month road trip that took me up and down both coasts, we had no direct contact. And then the news came. The release date for -Skeleton Faith- was set. I called Huff. "Yep, it's done," he tells me. "We'll have the packaging, artwork, everything done in a week or two." After congratulations, we made arrangements to meet. Huff gave me a CD to take home. Listening to it I was ecstatic. Huff had done it... -Skeleton Faith- was not only finished, it rocks!
That was about a month ago. Lot's has happened since then. Funny what a really good album will do for ya. Huff is big in Belgium. That's right - Belgium! -Skeleton Faith- is getting quite a bit of radio airplay there, as well as in a couple of other European markets. That international action came about from an ad in the stateside roots rock mag, "No Depression." He's also hearing from people all around -this- country who are buying -Skeleton Faith- online through his website.
Even closer to home, CityLife, a Las Vegas weekly arts and entertainment weekly made Huff a recent cover story. Their music critic gave -Skeleton Faith- a five star review. After seeing the time and energy he's invested, it's cool to watch this very talented artist begin to reap dividends with some well deserved attention beyond his own scene - Huff has earned it.