Greg Brown’s roots were, in part, sprouted from an electric guitar-playin’ mama, and banjo-strumming grandpa and a dad who was a Holy Roller preacher in the gospel- and music-infused section of Iowa called Hacklebarney. His cleverly crafted music was bound to flower. Brown traveled to New York and threw himself into the “hootenanny” scene and then moved to LA and Las Vegas to write songs for others. He eventually found his way back to the coffeehouses and concert halls, writing all the while in his unique style of the astute observer and occasionally unwilling participant of the human condition. When I was beginning to play music with other contemporaries, I found that nearly everyone had a Greg Brown song they favored, and they were always shrewdly witty and self-effacing, always with a little lesson to be learned.
His full deep voice as he took the stage immediately won the hearts of the audience; his down-home wit completed the conquest, more gently self effacing than sardonic, as he told us of the small pleasures of fishing just that day at Second Creek. This seemed like a man satisfied with life and living, and then his first song “Just By Myself “ reiterated that conclusion. “I’ll walk around some ancient city, write in my notebook, and drink my tea…watch the moon rise above my block, and go to bed in just my socks, and I’ll be happy just by myself…” Simple pleasures and solitude, a good combination.
He then did a lovely collection of songs that reflected the life he lives. One, about growing older and having those aches and pains we once thought were a state of mind, went , “Bones, bones, stiff old bones..” and had the clever little , “some days slow, some days fast, got a tiny little future and a great big past” and there were many who could relate. He told tales of gardening and trying to organize, in his comforting curmudgeonly way, and did “Spring Wind” with its verse of, “But yesterday I had a vision, beneath the tree where we once talked, of an old couple burning their love letters so their children
won’t be shocked, “ and its refrain of “Love calls like the wild birds–
it’s another day. A Spring wind blew my list of things to do…away.” So it made me think that if we just let things be sometimes, maybe that’s the way they should fall into place.
Brown continued alternately making us laugh and then singing something some poignant that a wave of sentimentality would wash over me. He sang of morning coffee for a cranky wife, of grandma’s canning skills in which she processed life and land and love, of being born “in the shadow of the bomb”, with “Freak Flag” being the closest thing to a protest song he included. He sang his homage to Mose Allison and cleverly captured the mood of those gigs you sometimes are booked, playing in really low-caliber bars with bartenders and staff who hate you and hate their jobs. We’ve all been there. But Mose Allison had played there, so he was proud to follow.
During intermission the audience was instructed to “save the world” , but we just had 20 minutes to accomplish this feat, which I believe we all worked on in our own way. Then he moved on with “Tenderhearted Child”, a tender collection of observations and wishes for a daughter. He went on to do a couple of more bluesy tunes, one written by Skip James, and then hit us hard with the lyric, “I was born a moonchild, I hate how that’s all true, heart torn between the road and home… and some part of us stays so all alone…I’m walking on air like a hanging man “ Wow. Just wow.
Then it was on to lighter sentiments. He did the always hilarious “Fat Boy Blues”, talked sweetly about his lovely wife Iris DeMent (who also had appeared at Carnegie) and did one of her songs. In my mind, the ghost of her voice sailed along with him. Then on to the irreverently uproarious funeral/yard sale tribute called “Inabelle Sale”, about a “helium woodpeckered” voiced woman who had “belittled her husband to death”. Brown did not disappoint fans by throwing in “Jesus and Elvis”, who had more in common than their portraits on black velvet at a Missouri flea market.
The encore was the sweetest song ever, called “Daughters”, comparing and adoring his own two. I’ll leave you with this. “I’m a man who’s rich in daughters…When my daughter who is tall now was not so tall, One night we were drivin’ home in the truck and I was sad …And she looked out the window and said, “Dad, the moon is comin’ home
with us, She said, “Dad, the moon is comin’ home with us…” I love that.
So the thoughts that I’ve been pondering after experiencing an evening with Greg Brown is that it was all a portrait of this one man’s life. One man’s life, flawed and satisfied, proud and self-effacing, heartrending and sentimental (completely without the smarminess that often comes with this subject matter), peculiar and hilarious, with just the most kindly, comforting, and reassuring voice imaginable. Sometimes the less perfect the voice, the more poignant the message of the songs. He was saying, “This is me; these songs are who I am.” A friend said to me, “I just want to curl up and listen to him sing until I fall asleep”. Rich in daughters, indeed.