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Audience requests shape folk singer David Roth's performance

Singer-songwriter David Roth will perform in Conyers on Feb. 8.

Singer-songwriter David Roth will perform in Conyers on Feb. 8.

Chicago native David Roth has been playing his "James Taylor meets Will Rogers" style of inspirational acoustic music for nearly three decades, and even though he performs in excess of 100 concerts a year, he rarely takes the stage with a set list.

"I usually make a very rough draft or a roadmap, as I like to call it, of what I might do on any given night," said Roth, who now makes his home on Cape Cod.

"But that could change the minute I walk in and take a look at the size of the audience or the demographic. I will turn on a dime, and I think in all these 25 years that I've been playing full time, anytime I try to prepare a set list in advance, I may have stuck to that list maybe two or three times.

"Things always change, and I have enough repertoire that if I see that the energy in the room needs a little lift, I can do something funny, or if I see something going on in the world that needs to be acknowledged or addressed, I might do a song related to that."

The award-winning singer-songwriter, who has recorded more than a dozen albums, will visit the east metro area at 7:30 p.m. Feb. 8 at the Unity Church and Spiritual Center of Rockdale in Olde Town Conyers. Although Roth has played many times in Atlanta, the show will mark his Conyers debut.

When told that his performance is a "Valentine event," Roth said he's got plenty of songs to mark the occasion.

"Everything I write and sing about in one form or another is rooted in love," he said. "It's how communities love one another, how communities support one another, how people love one another. It's everything from holistic to hilarious.

"That wouldn't be any different from any concert I would do. The underlying theme is how we can love and support each other, even when times are tough. There's a lot of overlapping in my whole body of work, no matter what the holiday may be at any given time of year."

The veteran performer, who got his musical start at the University of Illinois in the same coffeehouses frequented by the likes of Dan Fogelberg and Steve Goodman, composes tunes covering a variety of subjects and styles, although it all comes back to the basic tenants of love, support and community.

Roth said there are plenty of inspirational sources available when he's in the mood to write.

"For me it's usually words or ideas first," he said, adding he's more comfortable writing on tour than he is at home, when he's "chopping down the honey-do list."

"It could be anything from a snippet of a conversation to a feeling or emotion to something I hear in the news to inspiration from a book to hearing about ordinary people doing extraordinary things in the world.

"While I'm not the most disciplined writer in the world, if I don't make time to write on a regular basis, I do keep notes and files in places where I can find them when I do make the time."

Besides his many albums and performances, Roth has also published two songbooks, has served as a judge at a number of the country's top songwriting competitions, has had a song recorded by the iconic folk trio Peter, Paul & Mary, has had one of his recordings ("Rocket Science") go up on the Space Shuttle Atlantis in 2009 and sang the National Anthem twice for Chicago Bulls games during the Michael Jordan glory years.

But Roth -- who plays in churches, conferences, concert halls, nightclubs, coffeehouses and just about everywhere else imaginable -- said his objective is extremely simple.

"I try to have a musical conversation of sorts," he said. "I have a song called 'What Can I do for You?' and I'll often ask an audience, 'What can I do for you tonight? What did you come here hoping would happen for you?' And there's usually an awkward silence and then someone might say, 'I've been kind of down lately; I could use a little inspiration.' Or 'I'd like to laugh a little bit' or 'I'd like to feel more peaceful.'

"Then I can set a roadmap that will address the interests of that specific audience ... There's friendly commentary that's meant to be inclusive, and hopefully there's some music that will be entertaining, thought-provoking and enjoyable."

A look at the videos included on Roth's website (www.davidrothmusic.com) shows that audience participation -- whether passive or aggressive -- is a continuing feature of his concerts, but he's not out to "put anyone on the spot."

"I like people to be engaged and involved, but I also want folks to be assured that I'm coming to Conyers to do the singing and talking," he said. "I will surely invite some participation, but I won't put anyone on the spot. I'll quote Bruce Springsteen here: 'That (concert) ticket is my handshake... promising you that it's gonna be all the way every chance I get. That's my contract.'"