Local musician connects with ‘Songs You Know by Heart’

Ernesto Burden performing June 15 at The Pizza Man Bar & Grille. Photo/Carol Robidoux

MANCHESTER, NHThe Pizza Man Bar and Grille in Manchester—a cavernous-yet-comfortable place tucked away in a strip of buildings on East Industrial Drive—might be a far cry from the Madison Square Garden, but for Manchester-musician Ernesto Burden, it is a perfectly intimate venue for connecting with a crowd. 

“I want to facilitate the connections [the audience] makes with the songs and themselves, as well as the connections they make with people they are here with,” Burden said. 

Burden is a one-man band, wielding only two acoustic guitars—a six and a 12-string—a PA system and roughly 120 songs that he knows by heart. 

And Burden is banking on the fact that the audience will know most of the songs he plays, as well as request a few of their own, as he sets up to perform a three-hour set that he has titled “Songs You Know by Heart.” 

“I want the songs that I do to resonate with the people who are listening to them, but they also have to be songs that I like,” said Burden, who works by day as the Vice-President and Publisher at Yankee Publishing. “When we find songs that fit within that Venn diagram, to me, it is great.” 

I meet up with Burden at the Pizza Man on Saturday evening to check out his show. Burden is a youthful-looking 54-year-old with a runner’s lithe frame—among his many talents and creative ambitions, he also trains for marathons—and the place is quiet with only a few tables occupied as he goes through a quick soundcheck. 

In front of Burden, there is a four-top of two older couples who dig into a large pizza as Burden opens with Otis Redding’s “(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay.” 

Derek Lucci, left, joined Ernesto Burden for a rendition of “Fire and Rain” during Burden’s set at The Pizza Man Bar & Grille. Photo/Carol Robidoux

Then one man’s foot starts tapping beneath the table, and another woman nods her head along with the song. This connection is exactly what Burden is hoping to share, which is one of the reasons that he doesn’t make setlists; instead, he allows the audience to dictate each show’s direction.

Burden said that he particularly enjoys it when the audience will start to shout out requests. “If you’re playing music, telling these stories and connecting with people, there is a huge amount of emotional feedback,” he said. 

While Burden admits that the criteria for a song that you know by heart is “entirely subjective,” he is compelled by pieces that tell stories, which should come as no surprise, seeing Burden is also a writer and writing was—in some ways—his first love, although both music and performance intersect with his creative pursuits.

Burden was born in southern Vermont then spent his first year as an infant living in Lima, Peru, before returning to southern Vermont where he lived until he was 11 years old. 

There was a piano in his house that his mother played on occasion while Burden was growing up, and after learning some of the basics in musical composition and theory on the trombone, he started playing the piano around 11 years old, and later used the tip money he earned from his paper route to buy his first guitar at 12. 

After purchasing the instrument, Burden said the guitar became “an obsession” for him. He said that he was shy and socially-awkward and would use his music to connect with peers as an adolescent.

Burden later earned a BA in English with a concentration in theater from the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts and said that he uses his background in theater to bolster his musical performances.

Ernesto Burden: “Psychologically, performance has many of the same benefits of mediation for me,” he said. “When I’m playing, I’m not thinking about anything in the past or the future. I’m only thinking about the song and the people I’m playing to.”  Photo/Carol Robidoux

“I approach lyrics the same way I would approach a script, and try to find the emotional underpinning of the piece,” he said. “If I’m doing it well, hopefully the songs will connect with the audience. But I try to connect with [the lyrics] in the same way that I would if I were playing a part in theater.” 

However, creation and performances are also forms of self-therapy for Burden, who says he experiences a lot of anxiety and an inability to slow his own thoughts. 

“Psychologically, performance has many of the same benefits of meditation for me,” he said. “When I’m playing, I’m not thinking about anything in the past or the future. I’m only thinking about the song and the people I’m playing to.” 

But, ultimately, Burden said he performs the “Songs That You Know by Heart” for reasons that are a little less practical and a little more existential.

“It’s not about the cash, although the cash is useful,” said Burden. “It is mostly that I believe when we stop ‘playing’ [a term he uses to include all of our collective creative pursuits] and allow the creative part of us to atrophy, we’re losing the most fundamental part of what makes human beings happy and whole.” 

Still, Burden’s hope for what the audience will take away from his show is philosophically quite simple: “The most important thing to me is the audience to leaving saying, ‘Man, I had a good time.’” 

By the end of the set, the crowd has grown and can be heard singing along with Burden as he finishes with acoustic versions of Bonnie Tyler’s “Total Eclipse of the Heart” followed by Aerosmith’s “Dream On” and Chris Isaac’s “Wicked Game.”  

When Burden finishes, my wife and I pay our tab, bid our friends goodbye and leave. We then get into the car, and I turn to her and say, “Man, I had a good time tonight.”


To listen to Ernesto Burden or find a venue to “connect” with him, visit his website at ernestoburden.com.