Great Waters Folk Festival, August 3, 2007
My sister Sara and I drove up from Northborough, Mass., to hear Greg Brown at the Great Waters Folk Festival. A drive that should have taken at most two-and-a-half hours ended up taking four because we were stuck in traffic so often: we counted seven accidents on the way up to the concert. Luckily, none of them involved us, but Sara told me the next day that, as a doctor, she had a bad conscience about not stopping at the last of them, where I saw a motorcyclist's head being cradled by others involved in the accident. But what could she have done, she added, since she had no medical bag with her. "Murdercycles," an ER doctor she once knew called them.
So we arrived in Wolfesboro with just enough time to locate our B&B, drop off our stuff, and pick up some sandwiches on the way to the festival. We arrived a minute or two before David Jacobs-Strain took the stage. He played a short solo set that featured his bluesy guitar-playing and singing. He is a sort of cross between a blues guitarist and Michael Hedges, deft with the slide and left-handed touch-tapping. His versions of Robert Johnson ("Come On In My Kitchen" and "Walkin' Blues") on National resonator guitar were strong, but he has the young virtuoso's tendency to overplay, to try to show off everything he can do in every song, rather than just play the music that the song needs. That said, his musicality still shimmered through all the way through the set; he just needs to relax and stop pulling out all the stops all the time! A cliché, of course, but he does overplay, and when he stops doing so, he's going to be a great performer. Check him out now, and then in about ten to twenty years.
Sara and I went to the festival to see Greg Brown, but Sara was also looking forward to hearing Alison Brown, whom she went to Harvard with back in the early eighties; they attended a sophomore History and Literature seminar together. After a spell as an investment banker, AB returned to music; her specialty is banjo in a bluegrass-jazz fusion that recalls David Grisman and Bela Fleck. She has technique to spare, but it never seems to take over the music, which is relaxed and spacey, with the piano solos by John R. Burr bringing in a more edgy element. Unfortunately, the electric bass was mixed to high at this show, so the interaction between Burr and Brown (which is wonderful on her albums, as I later discovered) was not as clear as it should have been. But the highlight of her show was when AB introduced her road manager, "who always makes sure we have breakfast and don't oversleep," and out came her daughter Hannah (who must be about six or seven) to sing "California, Here I Come."
Neither Sara nor I had ever heard Chris Smither before (although I knew his name as the author of "Love Me Like a Man," recorded brilliantly by Bonnie Raitt and Diana Krall), and he floored us both. I had picked up "Leave the Light On," his latest CD, a few days before the show and had already become attached to it, but as the CD is with a backup band, I did not realize that he was such a brilliant fingerpicker. Virtuoso finger-pickers can often be a little stiff rhythmically, but Smither plays with a breathtaking fluidity that never ceases to swing and never descends into showing off. All that with a foot-tapping beat, even on ballads. His lyrics are sharp, too, and interestingly, his singing is much clearer live than on the CD (usually, after all, it is the other way around). His patter is also memorable, including this great line in the introduction to a song for his now 91-year-old father: "Your parents never forget how to push your buttons. That's 'cause they installed them." He played several memorable songs from "Leave the Light On": "Origin of Species," a hilariously funny take on "intelligent design"; "Diplomacy," an equally funny take on contemporary politics; and the utterly gorgeous title cut, one of the most beautiful songs to cross my path in several years. He closed with that one, and it left me in tears.
But I've got plenty left I've set my sight on.
Don't wait up; leave the light on;
I'll be home soon.
Northern Lights followed with a set of bluegrass, with Alison Brown sitting in on banjo. NL's extra twist is their approach to vocals: at times, they sound like a bluegrass band with old-style R&B harmonies ("Baby, I Love You"); at others, the singing is more like barbershop than anything else. Guitarist and vocalist Ben Demerath impressed me with the wide range of styles he turned his crystalline voice to; sometimes he even sounded like a Beach Boy. The highlight of their set for me was a rousing version of Little Feat's "Fat Man in the Bathtub", but there, especially, I noticed what was missing for me in their arrangements: extended soloing. This old Deadhead prefers his bluegrass with more room for the players to blow; half-chorus solo exchanges just don't let them develop any ideas. Perhaps NL kept the solos short because they were only playing a forty-minute set, but I suspect that they are "just" a bluegrass band (with short solos) rather than a jam band (oh would I love to hear Railroad Earth, Yonder Mountain, or Hot Buttered Rum live in Basel).
So after four opening acts, one of whom immediately became someone I want to listen to extensively (Smither), Greg Brown finally took the stage. This was my second chance to hear him live in 15 years of fandom (after a February 1998 show at the Iron Horse in Northampton, MA; basically, I only get chances to see him when he happens to be in New England at the same time as a visit to my sister), and his set, though short, was more than worth the extra trip up to Wolfeboro (and the seven-accident delays).
The Train Carrying Jimmie Rodgers Home
Louisiana 1927 (by Randy Newman)
Jesus and Elvis
One Wrong Turn
Billy from the Hills
Here in the Going, Going Gone
He Reached Down (by Iris Dement)
Two Little Feet
Wash My Eyes
A few comments:
— The opening pair of songs moved me as much as Smither's "Leave the Light On." Greg dedicated the first to Northern Lights and Alison Brown (whom he first referred to as Alison Krauss, before correcting himself and apologizing that he had just been talking about A. Krauss with A. Brown) and the second to Chris Smither. "Six feet of water in the streets of Evangeline": Greg sang this song with such power and beauty that I thought, "This is the song that was worth the whole trip."
— "Oily Boys," GB's indictment of the Bush administration, received a huge round of applause, and it has received much praise from Greg's fans on the Greg Brown Yahoo group, but the song leaves me flat. I have 703 tracks of Greg's music in my I-Tunes library, and only two of those tracks are songs I don't like, this one and "My Famous Friends" from the 1999 live CD "Solid Heart." I wholeheartedly endorse Greg's politics here, but he has written much better political songs, ones that address issues more with more irony and poetry, as in "Spring Wind":
Oh to clean our dirty planet,
now there's a noble wish,
and I'm putting my shoulder to the wheel
'cause I want to catch some fish.
— "Jesus and Elvis" was preceded by a lengthy introduction explaining the origins of the song. Greg once found himself at a display of black-velvet paintings in a Missouri parking lot, the centerpiece of the exhibit being two huge paintings, one of Jesus and one of Elvis. Instead of seeing this as a symbol of a choice between Jesus and Elvis (which would be "Jesus or Elvis"), he saw it as a chance to accept both: Jesus as a symbol of gratitude that one is alive and Elvis as a symbol of rock-n-roll. Or as he put it: "We're so grateful that we need to shake our ass."
— After "He Reached Down," Greg asked for requests. I called out "Letters from Europe," and he said in a surprised voice, "Letters from Europe?" I was not really disappointed that he did not play the tune (I did not really expect him to have that old one at his fingertips or on the tip of his tongue), and the rousing version of "Two Little Feet" was definitely wonderful. After the show, Sara and I hung out by the stage, and eventually Greg came out to fetch his guitar. I explained my request to him; as a resident of Switzerland, I have a soft spot for that song, and we chatted about my chosen country for a bit. His great insight from his visits here back in the eighties and nineties: the Swiss have a great country and always downplay it, as if they don't recognize what a beautiful place it is. Sara and I later realized that we should have asked Greg to sign the CDs we had bought! And I wish I had asked him if I could take a picture of him and Sara. (And none of my photos of the performers came out well. Oh well.)