January 23, 2006

Greg Brown: a voice of America

Last Saturday night, 1/21/06, my wife Megan and I went to see Greg Brown in concert at the Lobo Theater in Albuquerque. It was probably the 3rd or 4th time we have seen him, but also the first time in at least 10 years.

Megan introduced me to Greg Brown's music when I first met her. I was sort of an uncultured rube then, and Megan brought to me the joys of listening to public radio. She was surprised that I had never listened to such radio programs as Prairie Home Companion, which revealed itself when I professed that I never heard of Greg Brown. "But he's a regular guest on Garrison Keillor's show," she exclaimed. "What's that?" I answered, thereby revealing my ignorance of a whole segment of American society.

So, Megan set about opening to me a world that I had missed, and one of those things was Greg Brown. I confess I did not know what to think of him at first. His singing voice is unique, moving from an extremely low, powerful and almost menacing rasp to a high rough tenor, often in the same song. His guitar playing can be powerful, chopping cords or sweet and delicate finger picking, again, in the same song. He is a quiet stage presence so that if he is not miked, you might have to strain to hear him, yet his presence is unmistakable.

You also never know what you are going to get with a Greg Brown concert. You don't know what his mood is going to be. Sometimes he spends a lot of time, like singer-songwriters often do, weaving sad and funny stories throughout his performance. At other times he simply moves through his sets with a purpose, playing song after song in his extensive repertoire one after the other with little fanfare. Sometimes he appears alone, and sometimes he might have another musician or two with him, as in his Albuquerque concert where he appeared with Jason Wilber (who often accompanies John Prine) providing an extra guitar with melodic counterpoints. Sometimes he asks for requests, and sometimes he gets annoyed when someone in the audience shouts out a favorite song that he or she wants to hear. The music style changes with each appearance. For me, this latest show was perfect because he was predominantly melancholy and bluesy, and I like that combination in him. However, with his huge song-list, he can fashion a concert to sound like anything he wants.

Greg Brown is from Iowa, the son of a Pentacostal preacher, the combination of his midwestern upbringing and his exposure to both the worldly and the spiritual aspects of life pervade his music. His songs are always fused with a down-to-earth, and sometimes earthy component, but to me they soar with something else as well. Maybe its a wonderment about life throughout its ups and downs, or the sense that there is a magicalness to the seemingly mundane. He can take a song about a seedy hotel in Ottumwa, Iowa and describe it with such growling menace that you just know that it is the last refuge of the damned. But he can also make you enchanted with the simplicity of home-canned goods in the cellar.

It is astounding to me that he often flies under the radar of public consciousness, yet his peers know him well. A tribute album exists, in which a bevy of well-known female artists such as Lucinda Williams, Mary Chapin-Carpenter, Ani DiFranco and his current wife Iris Dement sing their favorite Greg Brown songs. And he has a coterie of devoted fans, which almost ensures that he sells out smaller venues wherever he goes. The Lobo seats probably around 150-200 people, in my estimate, and every seat was full with 30-50 somethings, with a handful of 20 somethings thrown in. In fact, while in the restroom after the concert I overheard two college-aged kids marveling at how he tore up Johnny Cash's "Folsom Prison Blues." "To cover it that well in his own style...," one kid exclaimed, trailing off into respectful silence, to which the other could only say "yeah!"

I have three Greg Brown CD's, and two old cassette tapes. I don't know why I don't have more. The CD's I have are "In the Dark with You" (1985), "One Big Town" (1989) and "Covenant" (2000) The cassettes are "One More Goodnight Kiss" (1988) and "The Poet Game" (1994). I don't know why I don't have more, and I should. But I do know that to me, Greg Brown's songs, his styles and his presence reveal America in all its complexities to me and for that I am grateful to Megan for introducing him to me.


Blogger Mary B. said...

I'm going to find some of his stuff asap. I may have heard him on PHC, but I may have not connected the voice to the name. Thanks for the heads up. :)

10:20 AM  

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