In his earliest days, Westchester County troubadour Fred Gillen Jr. was just one more singer-songwriter hawking his wares to anyone who might pause long enough to listen. But somewhere along the way he got politicized; he tamed the rock 'n' roll wildness; and he became an old-school folksinger, bringing music to the people instead of hoping for the people to come to him. Live in the Heartland of America is exactly what its title says, a simple document, recorded—bravely—at a Muncie, Indiana, house concert. Gillen's voice intertwines not only with Catherine Miles's gorgeous natural instrument but also with the shared voices of the attendees, a couple dozen Hoosiers. The results are raw and ringing.
"Devil's Bluff" is painfully intimate; the song holds you in its hand while you hold it in yours. "We will shine," the pair sings, "and hope that it's enough." It is. Elsewhere, Gillen unfortunately veers from his own catalog to roll out hoary, predictable chestnuts from Phil Ochs ("When I'm Gone"), Bob Dylan ("Forever Young"), Elizabeth Cotten ("Freight Train"), and Johnny Cash by way of June Carter ("Ring of Fire"). This recording is most definitely a warts-and-all affair, right down to the knee-to-knee banter and sketchy harmonica breaks. Little of the chatter will hold up to repeated listening, but the best songs, like "Bluff," "Don't Give Up the Ghost," and Abbie Gardner's "I'd Rather Be," certainly will.