By Robert Price
Patrick Fitzsimmons has experienced a lot of highs and lows during his lifetime. And his music, like an open book, lays those highs and lows bare, for all his many listeners to see … and hear.
Fitzsimmons, 58, is celebrating his 20th anniversary as a solo singer-songwriter, and the Vermont resident will return to his hometown for a special 20-year retrospective concert at Sparta Avenue Stage on Saturday, March 14.
“Unlike many other aspects of my life that seemed to have just flown by, when I think about the last 20 years of writing and recording songs for my solo career, it seems like it has been every bit of the 20 years,” Fitzsimmons said. “I think this is because the songs represent for me where I was at and what was going on in my life at the time. They're like musical landmarks on a 20-year journey.”
Fitzsimmons’ latest album, “Bird Tree,” his seventh, is a culmination of the first six — ultimately finding him at peace with the inherent simplicity of life. It also finds him looking back and looking ahead. The album features many Sussex County musicians, two of whom — Loni Bach and Carol Sharar — will accompany Fitzsimmons for this intimate performance in an intimate space.
The concert is being staged by Skylands Songwriters Guild and Riverside Rhythm and Rhyme.
“We have presented Patrick at several previous events that we have run, but this one is going to be extra special as Patrick celebrates 20 years of songwriting,” said Renee Paddock, president of the Skylands Songwriters Guild. “Also, the venue is the very intimate and artistic Sparta Avenue Stage run by Joe Garsetti. We are very excited to present Patrick in this setting, so close to his roots.”
Fitzsimmons recorded his first solo CD, "The Changing,” in 2000, shortly after the breakup of the popular RCA touring band From Good Homes, which Fitzsimmons started with Todd Sheaffer and Brady Rymer while they were still students at Sparta High School.
While the album was, in part, a reaction to the end of the band, it — and the subsequent album, 2002’s “Dance” — was also inspired by a divorce and Fitzsimmons’ move to Vermont to be close to his daughter.
For “The Changing,” Fitzsimmons relied on familiar supporting artists and familiar ground, in Stillwater. From Good Homes members Dan Myers, Jamie Coan and Brady Rymer participated, along with several members of Railroad Earth, Todd Sheaffer’s new (at the time) band.
Fitzsimmons’ very personal stories become universal because his writing is clever and catchy, and his songs feature a rare combination of strong lyrics and strong melodies.
In 2008, halfway through an album that would become “So Beautiful So Blue,” Fitzsimmons was diagnosed with cancer. The diagnosis, treatment and, ultimately, triumph over the dreaded disease informed “So Beautiful So Blue,” as well as 2012’s “Hope Is.” The latter album also was a result of writer’s block and a Skype relationship with a West Coast girlfriend.
“It's been fun, but very challenging trying to put this particular show together because I've had to figure out what songs best represent a 20- year retrospective. The most challenging part was actually figuring out what not to play, as I can't play all the songs off my seven solo CDs. That would make for a very long show,” Fitzsimmons said, of his preparation for the retrospective. “So I've chosen to fill a two-hour, two-set performance with songs that I think are the most successful in conveying the essence of what I was trying to express, musically as well as lyrically. Some of these are tunes I've played on a regular basis over the years, but there are some that I've hardly ever played out.
“I'll also be playing a couple tunes off the new From Good Homes album that I wrote lyrics for,” he said.
Fitzsimmons served his professional music tenure in the late 1990s as the drummer of From Good Homes, which recorded three CDs with RCA and toured the country, sharing the stage with Bob Dylan, Dave Mathews Band, Joan Osborne, Hootie and the Blowfish, Bob Weir, and many others.
The band’s iconic performance for more than 5,000 fans at Waterloo Village in August 1999 was, at the time, its last hurrah. But in recent years all five members have reunited for reunion shows from time to time, at such venues as The Newton Theatre, Crawfish Fest, Wellmont Theater in Montclair, SteelStacks in Bethlehem, Pa., and, just last August, back at Waterloo.
But Fitzsimmons has come full circle, giving up the drums for the acoustic guitar, banjo, ukulele and his voice, the instruments of his early heroes — James Taylor, Paul Simon and Cat Stevens.
Fitzsimmons is a 2011 and 2012 Solarfest national songwriting contest finalist, a three-time Ploughshares national songwriting contest finalist and has had his songs placed in several independent films. “So Beautiful So Blue” made several Best of 2008 lists and was played on radio stations all over the country.
Fitzsimmons has shared the stage with Shawn Colvin, Dar Williams, Roger McGuinn, Ellis Paul and Vance Gilbert, among others