Zen Master Steve Forbert Calls Down the Muse

Steve Forbert McGonigel's Mucky Duck April 18, 2015

A jaded, wary veteran like Steve Forbert seems an unlikely candidate for restoring our faith in the troubadour tradition, but he reached deep in his trick bag Saturday night to give it his best shot. He frequently seemed like a character he name-checks in the old chestnut "Going Down to Laurel:"

"Look at Johnny jivin' across the floor/ He can play the fool and make a few mistakes/ But he'll never be a bore."

And bore us Forbert did not as he threw fairy dust on our ears from across the wide span of his 15-album catalog. By the time he'd warmed up the late-show crowd and jumped into "All I Need to Do," he had the audience, many of whom knew every word of every tune, singing along on the choruses.

This was an audience deeply in love with Forbert, in love with the cleverness and utter beauty of the consciousness he bares via the words of his songs. A master writer, singer, guitarist and raconteur, Forbert makes something mysterious and complex and holy seem simple, everyday, and highly personal. No wonder he has an album titled Just Like There's Nothing to It. Forbert's constant high-level language play -- descriptions like "chimney-top town," for instance -- makes it highly apparent how low the lyrical bar is in today's roots and pop music.

"Objects in the mirror may be just as they appear"

Forbert is a zen master of the quiet, acoustic rock and roll love song, providing via his singular delivery a whispering-this-in-your-ear-only intimacy. While Houston crowds are known more for talking than keen listening, it was quickly apparent that most grownups will be as quiet as they have to be to hear what Forbert has to say on any subject -- but especially on love and its intricacies and variables.

When he drops into minor keys, he casts spells and can lead us like lemmings down some Alice in Wonderland brick road into an allegorical present, and when he throws his head back and stares into space, he gives the impression of tapping into something higher way, way out there and allowing us to briefly glimpse the Muse or whatever it is through him. The nuances of Forbert's singing mate so perfectly with his words he can tug your emotions around like a beat up laundry bag. With a single tune he can dredge up every good memory about every lover you've ever known. And don't even think about the ones that got away, he's got that emotion covered too.

"Let me smell the moon in your perfume"

The Meridian, Miss. native always tips his hat to Meridian's favorite son, the Father of Country Music Jimmie Rodgers. His cover of "My Blue-Eyed Jane" proved he's not only a skilled interpreter, he actually achieved that mandatory Dixieland swing that Rodgers planted in hillbilly music that is so hard to get. He then teased the crowd by announcing "Carolina Sunshine Girl and got the best laugh of the night when he asked, "Anybody been to Carolina?" and a wag at the next table replied "only in my mind."

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That brought a howl of laughter and triggered a change of gears by Forbert to Rodgers' classic rounder's kiss-off, "Any Old Time." At one point, Forbert seemed to be singing directly to the Holy Spirit and the rest of us were just along to bear witness. The crowd ate it up like caviar at an in-law's funeral.

He had the crowd grinning and singing along to "I Just Work Here" and taunted them a bit with comments about Houston, fracking, and "my environmental songs"; then laid down a perky version of "A Good Planet Is Hard to Find"; wowed us with his humor and blues picking on "No Use Running From the Blues"; and took a delighted crowd home with his highest-profile career milestones, "What Kinda Guy" and "Romeo's Tune." No one was really surprised when, after two sets, he didn't come back for an encore.

At the end of the day, for all his brilliance, experience and sophistication, Forbert is still that smart-ass subway busker kid who hitched into the Big Apple in the mid-'70s with a guitar and a few clothes and won over the New Wave crowd at CBGB, and he still comes to the job every night meaning to rule the subway, ready to duel Dion at 20 paces for the crown if he must. I was left with the impression that Forbert truly is inhabited by some rare spirit, and that he could demand it but he knows now how to divine it. Sounds like a wily, battle-scarred old-school troubadour to me.

The Crowd: The Faithful, come to sit at the Master's feet and receive the wisdom.

Overheard In the Crowd: Very little. Forbert didn't even have to demand quiet, it was proffered gladly. We did hear one whisper: "He's like another kind of Tom Waits."

Random Notebook Dump: The clapalongs mostly just served to prove that whitey ain't got no rhythm.

Personal Bias: As great as Forbert was backed by the Skeletons or the Flying Squirrels, he is one of the most magnetizing solo artists I've ever encountered.

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