His Majesty, Mr. Brown: Greg Brown at OTSFM
We had tickets for the late show and caught a meal beforehand at 42 Degrees N. Latitude. This, thankfully, was as unlike our meal on Friday as it is possible to be and thus we were in no danger of being either late or hungry for the show.
I only really got familiar with Greg Brown about a year or two ago when B, my guitar teacher, recommended Cry, Cry, Cry, an album of covers by Dar Williams (whom I'd already loved), Richard Shindell (ditto, because he opened for Dar the only time I saw her in concert), and Lucy Kapalansky, whom I came to love, and through whom I came to take the album's title as a direct order.
And just what does that have to do with Greg Brown, you might justly wonder. Well, it happens to have a cover of Greg's "Lord, I Have Made You a Place in My Heart," on it, which very well may be his most splendid song. It is so splendid, in fact, that immediately after I heard his live introduction to it on In the Hills of California, I wondered how I had managed to crawl my way through such a barren, empty life without that intro, that song, and that CD.
There was no opening act, just Greg, a chair, a table for the purposes of holding his water and glass of red wine, an acoustic guitar, a couple of mics, and a pretty full house. Other than substituting two fingers' worth of the belly-warming brown liquor of the gentle reader's choice for the red wine, I can't think of a better way to enjoy Greg Brown. (Ok, no sooner had I finished writing that than Lucy Kaplansky's comment regarding how fitting it is that the tribute to Greg Brown is entirely populated by women, but I'll stet the previous nonetheless.)
Greg came out in faded black jeans, a burgundy suit vest with a long tank top underneath, and sunglasses. And for the unbelievers in the crowd, yes, he is cool enough by half to pull that off. Of course, it's been so long since the show that much of the set list has long since been forced out of my ears by the aforementioned mucus. But with Greg Brown, the set list is just a collection of songs, and the show is at least as much about the chat. I can't cheapen it by calling it "banter," which implies some kind of effort made to be humorous and to ingratiate oneself with the audience.
Greg Brown (and, yes, I do realize that I'm straying deep into Russell Crowe territory by constantly using both given and surname, but what can I say?) simply speaks and some golden nexus of stream of consciousness poetry and nonstop comedy emerges from his lips. He started off with a tribute to the maze of one-way streets that is Chicago and launched into "One Wrong Turn." He gave sheepish due deference to the superiority of Mr. Hank WIlliams' song about the whippoorwill and just as humbly inquired as to whether Mr. Williams had ever actually heard a whippoorwill. Extra bonus points for working in a story about hunting for the boot his grandfather would be inexorably moved to throw at said songsters.
Although I get the feeling that Brown is never far from a laugh, there's a satisfying amount of real feeling in the whole thing. His apt nod to Steve Goodman captures best what I'm trying to get across. Steve, of course, is One of Ours, more so than almost anyone else I can name that has come out of the Old Town School. Greg talked about opening for him at a time when he'd just come back to music after giving it up for a long while. He was feeling rusty and was still in the habit of thinking walking away from the life had been a pretty good idea. Steve cam out after Greg's set and said, "That Greg Brown! He plays that guitar pretty good. In fact, if he plays it any better, I'm gonna fucking kill him." (The comedy of this is helped along significantly if you know that Steve Goodman was approximately 3.5 feet tall.) And the peanut butter on the chocolate, of course, is the story prefaced a version of Goodman and Prine's "Souvenirs," that lovingly teased out the chuckled growls I never knew were there.
He finished his set with a Kerouac-worthy digression on philosophy, politics and the circumstances that prompted him to write "Jesus & Elvis," the black velvet peace song that no one realized needed writing until it was done writ. Although his performance of that song is as fine a way to end a performance as any I can think of, he did come out to grace us with an encore. This was the only time in the show that he picked up the harmonica that had been lying tantalizingly alongside his red wine. As an extra special bonus, he prefaced his awesome, blues-squared version of "Folsom Prison Blues" with a story about Dar Williams that shed light on his feelings about the harmonica. It seems that Dar had occasion to be playing a gig at which Richard Thompson was also performing. As she took up her guitar, she made obeisance to him by saying that she felt silly even trying to play in his presence. Apparently true to form (I admit to Thompson deficiency), Thompson said, with no irony whatsoever, "Well, you brought it, so you might as well play it."
Kick-ass show, in a highly mellow, decidedly funny way.