Two guys with acoustic guitars, who write songs and sing them simply, with maybe a little harmonica thrown in now and again: It used to be a cliché, but it’s a lineup that you hardly ever see anymore. Many such folkie duos have long fallen by the wayside, but one of the best of the lot is still on the road after 42 years. I’m talking about Aztec Two-Step, a/k/a Rex Fowler and Neal Shulman, and they’re coming to the Bearsville Theater this Saturday.
If you’re old enough to remember the ‘70s not as the Disco Era but as the original heyday of the singer/songwriter, you probably caught these young men on tour sometime in the wake of their eponymous 1972 debut album. Featuring such fan favorites as “Highway Song,” “Prisoner” and “The Persecution and Restoration of Dean Moriarty (On the Road),” it’s still regarded as a classic of the genre.
Rex, who wrote most of the songs, was the lean, intense guy with the hawk nose and the Mona Lisa eyes. Neal was the laid-back, curly-haired, mustachioed guy who made complicated runs up and down the guitar frets look ridiculously easy. They’re both a lot grayer now, but they still sound like they came out of the womb together in mid-song, completely at ease onstage as they interweave riffs, lines and heavenly harmonies.
Aztec Two-Step is one of those groups that always elicit a lot of head-scratching on the part of music critics who can’t fathom why they never really hit the big time. Fowler’s songwriting has been consistently fine right from the beginning, the pair’s deceptively gentle performing style often masking the lyrical edginess of such works as “Rabbit in the Moon,” a lament for the butchery of indigenous Mexicans by the Conquistadores. And they are often quite funny: Check out the tongue-in-cheeky “Velvet Elvis,” or Shulman’s “Better These Days,” a blues about trading pot for Prozac in middle age.
Yet a documentary made about Aztec-Two Step in 1999 is all-too-aptly titled No-Hit Wonder. A six-month hiatus in the early ‘90s probably didn’t help their career, but 1986 comeback LP Living in America garnered renewed critical praise, including the New York Music Award for Best Folk Album. The duo to which they are most often compared is Simon and Garfunkel, and they returned the compliment with Time It Was: The Simon & Garfunkel Songbook, a well-received 2008 tribute album (with commentary by legendary deejay/music historian Pete Fornatale) and tour.
Maybe Neal and Rex just like to take things at their own pace rather than make themselves crazy chasing superstardom, and maybe it doesn’t really matter. Those who know their work don’t need to be told to turn out on Saturday. The music, likely mixing classic Aztec-Two Step material with newer songs from the 2012 release Cause & Effect, will start at 8 p.m. on Saturday, April 27. Tickets go for $25 in advance, $30 at the door, and can be obtained by calling (845) 679-4406 or visiting www.bearsvilletheater.com. Aztec Two-Step’s website can be found at www.aztectwostep.com.
An Evening with Aztec Two-Step, Saturday, April 27, 8 p.m., $25/$30, Bearsville Theater, 291 Tinker Street, Woodstock; (845) 679-4406, www.bearsvilletheater.com.