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Friday, September 28, 2007

The F-Stop: Steve Forbert and Radney Foster in Robbie's Secret Country

This is long overdue, but I've been busy and there was the painful munching of the 3:10 to Yuma entry, which meant I had to re-obsess on Christian Bale from the start. I think motivation to write it up has also been low for the melancholy reason that Robbie confirmed the series is ending for good with the tribute to the Carter family in December. I'm bummed. It's been a productive little sandwalk for us, and we've discovered a lot of great new music and folks through it. I'll miss it. But I suppose now we can turn our attention back to the Lord on His day.

I've no idea how related the two really are, but in this Onion interview, Robbie reveals that the Secret Country shows were his Donna's (his wife) idea. She wanted him home more and touring less. I note that now the series is winding down, he'll be in Philadelphia and New York in late October. He's a ton of fun to see, so if any of my peeps out there have the means, I highly recommend it. I end with the September fashion report on our host: Entirely seersucker free and mostly normal, save for very funky stripe-y socks.

We were uncharacteristically social before the show. We were seated next to a couple from Saginaw who'd driven up for the show because they (or at least the guy) were big fans of both Radney and Steve. They'd never been to the OTSFM before and didn't know much about it. Well, gentle readers, could they possibly have been sat next to someone more ideal than moi? Almost certainly. But they did get an earful about the fundamental grooviness of the Old Town School, and as the guy was certainly a bigger and more serious music nerd than either of us (he casually mentioned that he'd gone to a song-writing camp taught by Darrell Scott [whose website seems to be undead, but we'll link it anyway in case the zombie apocalypse comes], and there may have been frenzied, jealous squeeing), I don't think he was an unwilling audience. In fact, he passed the major nerd test and squeed about the school's WPA murals. Anyway, nice folks.

I'm sad to say that much of the content of the interview with Steve and Radney is lost to distance decay. I do know that the Eagles did not come up even once. Radney talked frankly and without acrimony about life before and after Foster & Lloyd. In answer to Robbie's question regarding why they had only done a couple of records together, Radney said that they were simply riding off into different sunsets and that he'd felt this was obvious in their last record together.

There was also some general chatting about Radney's more recent career, which has been successful adjacent to, if not actually in, the dangerous waters of contemporary corporate country. Folks like Mr. Nicole Kidman and the former Mr. Renee Zellweger have recorded songs that he's written. (During his performance, he made oblique reference to Keith Urban, not naming him specifically, before doing "Raining on Sunday," and immediately afterward someone in the audience said "Hey, didn't Keith Urban do that song?" to which he replied, "Yes, baby, the skinny Australian kid who marries actresses." Hi. Larious.)

[This entry has been picked up by a few sites discussing Keith Urban. Hello, Lady! In at least one of those, my quoting Radney out of context was taken as Radney making a dig at Herr Kidman. I'd certainly never want to to misrepresent anyone else's opinion, so I'll say for the record that Radney did not seem to evince any ill will toward Keith Urban. His initial reference to him as "some skinny Australian kid who marries actresses" was said in a self-deprecating way (something along the lines of "You all probably don't know this, but some skinny Australian kid who marries actresses recorded this song."), and the repeat of the line was a gentle razzing of the audience member who obviously didn't get the indirect reference. Anyway, just wanted to clear that up. Come for the scuttlebutt, stay for the pie, friends. MZQ.]

Robbie had opened the interview by revealing to his guests (in a way that suggested that a stylish black bag over the head and a number of superfluous turns might have been integral parts of their journeys to the show) that the series is called Secret Country and asking if they qualified. Steve Forbert seemed to surprise himself by saying that he'd always classified himself as folk rock and gosh darn it, he was sticking to it! He also brought to the audience a message of hope: Everyone in folk music gets one big hit. We know not the hour when it will come, but verily, one hit per customer.

Robbie asked if Steve's "one hit" coming pretty early in his career was something of a curse—if he felt doomed to an eternity of audiences filled with shirt-dancing Homers shouting, "Romeo's tune! Now! No new crap!" Both Steve and Radney concurred, though, that it doesn't suck to know there's something that you'll just have to play because the audience is wild for it.

Steve performed first. There really is no better way to describe him and his style than "folk rock." In a very good way, it's as if his set put us all in a time machine that took us back to the 60s for a good old coffee house show, replete with beatnik-y goodness. He played guitar (amplified only through a mic placed at its level, no pick up) and strangely effortless harmonica. Perhaps I've just been watching too much Joe Filisko (unpossible!), but I've gotten used to thinking of harmonica playing as a contact sport, but Steve's folk zen is strong and I kept doing a double take to make sure that the harmonica was actually coming from the stage. They'd also placed a wooden plank on the stage for him, which acted as a kind of folky, White guy tarima , enabling him to provide his own percussion as well.

Steve's music, true to his folk rock creed, is strongly lyric/story/poetry driven. It's smart and full of word play that evokes pre-self-parodying Dylan, but it's sweeter and more earnest than that, too. (And if it didn't sound condescending as hell, I'd say that Forbert himself is sweeter and more earnest than even early Dylan was. Oops, I guess I just did say that.) It makes his songs a little strange and difficult to write about. For example, I really liked "The Baghdad Dream," but in talking about it, the thing that comes to mind immediately is the fact that it calls for the singer to make bomb noises. Sounds goofy, but it works, at least live. On the flip side of the sweet/earnest-bleeding-into-goofy, songs like "Simply Spalding Grey" lean hard enough to the "smart" end of the spectrum that they have a sizable proportion of the audience asking, "Who is Spalding Grey?" (To which I simply answer, "Not the star of our podunk production of Pinter's Old Times, thanks ever so.) And then there are plenty of songs that are plain old lovely and highly listenable, like "Romeo's Tune" and "Seaside Brown-Eyed Girl."

If Steve Forbert took us back in time, Radney Foster took us where we normally fear to tread—to the world of mainstream country. His songs are good: High energy, tuneful, and hummable with hooks 10 miles wide. And despite what one might deduce from my affection for 20th-century opera, I do like hooks and hummability. But in modern, shrink-wrapped country, songs are so often so injected with both that all the smart, heart, and soul oozes out, and no one even makes pan gravy with them. Ok, I just grossed myself out.

Listening to and watching Radney perform songs like "Drunk on Love" and "Half of My Mistakes," and "Just Call Me Lonesome" (which he marked as his gratis "one hit") I was not only pulled into his performance of them, but I could see someone like Webb Wilder doing them. But I can also see them, through little fault of their own, being sanitized and synthesized and soul sucked enough to wind up on US99. (Does US99 even exist anymore, I wonder?)

And some of them lend themselves to that more than others. At least I think they do. In fairness, it's not like I can ever hear "Raining on Sunday" without knowing first that Keith Urban covered it. And it's not a bad song, it's just a little slicker, a little more full of something substance-esque. Lord knows I'm glad that writing songs that'll be snapped up by mainstream country keeps him and his family (which figured prominently in both his interview and his in-set patter) well-fed and edumacated enough that he can then write truly weird, shockingly beautiful songs like "Kindness of Strangers" and actually record "Godspeed," a lullaby he wrote for his son that is so beautiful, I've mentally filed it with the night of the weeping mess.

Who knows, maybe he'll end up transforming the biz from the inside. Ba'al knows it needs it.

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