In his sleeveless T-shirt, jeans, battered straw cowboy hat, ear hoop big as the lenses on his shades, Greg Brown looked like an Iowa dirt farmer and pirate onstage at The Egg on Saturday.
But he sounded like a bluesman, rambling through Son House’s “Preachin’ Blues” before lamenting a flood with words that began “It rained five days.” He’s entitled: he actually is from Iowa, which is mostly under water these days. But he elevated his own mood and the crowd’s in the Swyer Theatre with a mostly upbeat 90-minute show with additional blues but also trademark heartfelt folk-rock and some jazz.
An imposing figure whose burly bass-baritone sounds like how it feels to rub your fingers across words carved on a tombstone, he is also one silly dude. After bemoaning his inundated hometown, he sang of an old couple burning their love letters to avoid shocking their children, gently intoning this sly sweet truth. Then it was back to the blues with Mose Allison’s “Ever Since the World Ended,” softening Mose’s punchlines to be barely audible and drawing everyone into the joke. Noting that Mose is ironic and sarcastic and these things don’t play well in America, he got ironic and sarcastic with his own “Mose Allison Played Here,” an hilarious indictment of every raunchy roadhouse he and Mose ever played. “World” was at Mose’s patented cusp of jazz and blues, but Brown’s tribute rocked, until the end when he adopted Mose’s own phrasing.
He played most of the show with a bluesman’s phrasing on his acoustic guitar, but he rocked, too. In “Verona Road,” he observed: “Clouds pile up like dirty thoughts in the western sky.” And he referenced nature as a blend of celestial forces and metaphors for human behaviors in other songs, always with uncommon poetic skill.
In “Who Woulda Thunk It?” he mused about growing old, regretting it only because this meant it was too late to die young and delivering it with hard-won wisdom and youthful, ironic spunk. That same perspective gave “Treat Each Other Right” a forceful moral authority — an imperative he’d arrived at through hard experience — and he invoked fate by noting in “One Wrong Turn” that such a thing often leads to another.
Brown also knows where to borrow songs. Besides tunes by Son House and Mose Allison early on, he luxuriated in Lucinda Williams’s “Something About What Happens When we Talk,” after telling of meeting her in Nashville where she lamented, “I can’t write!” Brown said of course she could, and proved it; and many times proved that he could, too — a master of the wry, sly and bittersweet.
In “Two Little Feet,” he proclaimed, “It’s a messed up world, but I love it anyway;” and in “Just By Myself,” he sang of happiness in solitude and in small things. That, of course, is no small thing — to be able to state these things so clearly and craft and perform music that carries them past the pleasure centers to some deeper place. But Brown showed on Saturday he can do this, just by himself.
Reach Michael Hochanadel at [email protected]
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Categories: Life and Arts