To borrow a phrase from the man himself, just what kinda guy is Steve Forbert? Nearly 25 years ago he was the latest "new Dylan," thanks to his battered acoustic guitar, harp on a rack and gravelly voice seasoned beyond its years. By his second album, he'd even scored a hit pop single with the swooning, soulful romanticism of "Romeo's Tune." Is he a folkie, or a pop act? Or is this guy who can segue from one of his songs into "The Kids Are Alright" just an unplugged but unrepentant rocker?
To those who've followed Forbert through these now many years, the answer is all of the above, and more. Over the course of 16 albums, he's composed countless songs that look at life with a bracing mix of preternatural wisdom and innate optimism that few others can match. Five of those discs have been live, which even for all the quality of Forbert's studio releases, is where he really shines, whether solo or with a band.
This week he arrives in Houston on the heels of not one but two recent releases. Young Guitar Days gleans excellent outtakes from his first four albums and a few live tracks recorded between 1978 and 1981, all of it sounding remarkably fresh 20 years later. Live at the Bottom Line catches Forbert, who now most frequently tours solo, with his band the Rough Squirrels at New York City's premier showcase venue. While having a new band release on the shelves in the midst of a solo tour is perhaps a little confusing, Forbert won't be fretting (except on his guitar) when he hits this particular city. "Houston was always good way back," he says. "It's still pretty easy to sing for those folks."
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Besides, Forbert's not the sort who views things in terms of career moves. In fact, he's as interested in discussing Texas musicians with an interviewer as he is in talking about himself. He wonders what's up with Jimmie Vaughan, who Forbert rates as "fantastic the best out there." He adds, "People just need to listen and learn." Forbert also expresses his admiration for Willie Nelson: "If it wasn't for the women problems, he would be a bona fide saint. The saints do the celibacy thing. Otherwise, he's there."
Such interest reflects the fact that Forbert is ultimately as much a fan as he is a musician. Since he grew up in Meridian, Mississippi, the birthplace of Jimmie Rodgers and the Temptations' David Ruffin, his youth was steeped in rock 'n' roll, pop radio, blues, genuine country, folk and Southern soul. When he started out in New York City in the mid-1970s, his shows included everything from busking at Grand Central Station to opening for new wave bands at the hallowed punk club CBGB. It all illuminates the reasons his music has eluded being typed in any particular stylistic pocket other than the loose rubric of singer-songwriter.
And given the pop-obsessed tenor of the musical times we live in, Forbert finds that his musical school is a bit in limbo. "Frankly, it's such a weird time for most of all of us, other than, say, Lucinda, who has such a high profile right now, and maybe John Hiatt," he observes. "But it seems like the rest of us are a little under the radar. That could change. That could change this year for the whole type of music, especially if people get a little more focused on -- let's just say a little more discerning -- and look at some of the pop music out there, and just go, 'Oh, bullshit.' I'm not making any predictions; I wouldn't dare. But with things like the recent disasters and everything, people might just wake up with a little more critique going."
But whatever way the trend winds may blow, Forbert manages to continue to make his way as a performer and enjoy it. "I still like it, because the shows are still spontaneous and I can do songs I don't know," he says. And he realizes that his folkie-with-a-guitar mode enables him to keep working when some of the peers he came up with in the late 1970s can't do so as easily.
"If I were Pat Benatar," with whom Forbert once shared a manager, "or Cyndi Lauper" -- Forbert appeared as a pizza delivery boy in her "Girls Just Want to Have Fun" video -- "it'd be different. I'd have to have a road manager and at least a four-piece band -- always. And a bus. There you go. As much as they're musicians like any of us, they're in that realm where they just can't do it. I can just play."
And the folk world, in which Forbert has always had at least the toes of one foot, has warmed to him further. "I'm doing more of the festivals than I used to do, because it's the logical thing to do," he explains. "And I haven't beaten it to death. I never really pursued it. And I think as it gets a little broader, they don't really think of me as some guy who had a hit single and is pop."
Forbert is pop in the classic sense of the word, as in back in the days when Top 40 radio played the hit songs and didn't worry about genre. In that sense, he actually reflects how the pop, rock, country and R&B of the 1950s and '60s has in a certain way become the folk music for the generation that grew up with it. Hence it makes perfect sense that Forbert can be found singing Dylan's "Watching the River Flow" on the recent I-10 Chronicles compilation, while at the same time cutting a Ray Davies tune for an upcoming Kinks tribute album.
Another album of new original songs is currently gestating, and Forbert says there are even more early recordings that ought to get their day. "There will be a version, More Young Guitar Days, but I don't know if it will come out on a label or when I will get to it," he says. "It'll be presentable, but I think, to be honest, that what came out on the first one is really the top of the crop. There's probably ten or 12 more things. But I just have to find the time. Maybe next year. But that could wind up being for sale at shows."
So right now Steve Forbert is the type of guy who's not at all unhappy about being an eclectic songwriter in mid-career. "I know it kind of looks like things are a little bit from this corner here, and that corner there. I can't help that," he concludes. "It's just the way it seems now."
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