Steve Forbert, Turning Point Cafe, Piermont NY, May 25th 2007

June 17, 2007

Dogs chase cars, men chase dreams
The dogs are the more practical, it seems

Steve Forbert is a slightly unlikely folk hero.He’s too big, for one thing, and isn’t anywhere scruffy enough. He jerks his head back and forth as he sings, perhaps the reason behind the title of his Rocking Horse Head CD. He’s a folk hero… but he rocks.

The Turning Point is about the most intimate – read cramped – venue I’ve seen anyone play in. According to the sign on the wall, it seats a maximum of 69 people; it seems a few short of that number, but is still cosy. Uncomfortably so, given the lack of respect for personal space shown by the nearby New Yorkers who have obviously come to have a crummy time. The voice of a nearby folkie carries along the table: he too appears to be hoping for a poor show so he can say he wasn’t as good as when he saw him at the Gaslight in 1978, or something along those lines.

Few Steve Forbert fans have a consistent favourite song. I tried putting together a personal best-of a few weeks before the gig to introduce The Crazy Broad to him, and spent far too long cutting the essentials down to a single CD. Of the original list, I can think of only a couple he didn’t play tonight – Sadly Sorta Like A Soap Opera and Complications – which we overheard him doing at the soundcheck in any case and those two would be way down the list.

So what were the highlights? I suppose, if I had to pick just one live song under duress as my favourite, it would be The Oil Song, which sadly develops new verses every time I hear it but retains its simple but catchy, audience-participation chorus: “There’s oil (OIL!), oil (OIL!), seeping in the sea / There’s oil (OIL!), oil (OIL!), don’t buy it in the station, you can have it now for free / Just come on over to the shoreline where the water used to be.” In the same vein, Good Planets Are Hard To Find cements his reputation as a socially conscientious folksinger. Top couplet: “Good planets are rare and few / earthworms and caribou”.

Uses of the word ‘caribou’ in popular songwriting are equally rare and few. One of the reasons I like Forbert’s lyrics so much is that his generally straightforward words are peppered with others that are probably in one or two other songs ever written. The original Oil Song, for example, contains a gyrocompass, while one of his valedictory encore songs tonight – Thirty More Years – uses geocentric. Neither – and this is the clever bit – seems out of place. He delights in the unusual, as evidenced by the almost-title track of his forthcoming CD Strange Names (North New Jersey’s Got ‘Em).

As one would expect, he plays several tracks from the new album – Strange Names and New Sensations. I have mixed feelings about it. While it’s true the folk scene needs anti-war anthems, Baghdad Dream is a little obvious, and Middle Age doesn’t seem likely to enter too highly on any best-of list. The new version of Romeo’s Tune – possibly one of the top ten greatest pop singles ever made – seems to be there only to entice people to buy the bloody thing. On the other hand, My Seaside Brown-Eyed Girl is catchy and bouncy and name-checks Springsteen so all is forgiven.

For a Mississippi boy, Forbert struggles unexpectedly with the heat and humidity, but only permits himself a good-natured grumble. He has a band with him tonight, together for the first time – Paul Errico, keys, looks like he’s a geography teacher by day and not even one of the cool ones; his big geeky grin gives him away as a charlatan rock star. His keyboard-playing is exemplary, though, and the applause whenever Forbert introduces him drowns out the name of the drummer, who looks like a bartender at an exclusive club.

They work well together, Errico switching to accordion for a couple of songs (notably Schoolgirl), smiling bashfully whenever anyone applauds his instrumentals. Once in a while, Forbert gets inspired to use the harmonica held in a Dylanesque holder around his neck. The set-list is a definite crowd-pleaser – the new songs aside, if you owned Alive on Arrival, Just Like There’s Nothin’ To It and the The Best of, there would have been few numbers you didn’t know. Everyone goes wild for There’s Everybody Else (And Then There’s You), and even his somewhat offputting delivery on Going Down To Laurel didn’t detract from the fact that it has more, better hooks than a pugilistic pirate.

It’s a cracking first set, mixing greatest hits with newer entertainment; after the break the pace drops a bit, only the syrupy Missing Mississippi and possibly the computer-harmony-enhanced Starstruck rating as moderate flops on the Kensson hitometer. It Sure Was Better Back Then rocked, as it usually does, and when he quietens down for What It Is Is A Dream, the audience is almost quiet. When he goes into The Beatles’ Goodnight, there’s a practically furious groan even though Forbert’s been brilliant for almost two hours and is obviously about to play Romeo’s Tune. For an encore, he plays Another Thirty Years – the only lines I can reliably remember is “The geocentric days are gone, the Earth is still a sphere” and “Another thirty years, my friends, and I’ll be out of here.” There will be much wailing when that sad day arrives.

Strange Names and New Sensations
Alive on Arrival
The Best of Steve Forbert: What Kinda Guy?
Just Like There’s Nothin’ to It

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