Iowa folk stalwart Greg Brown was in fine voice and spirits Saturday night in The Egg’s Swyer Theatre.
For two hour-long sets before a crowd filling maybe three-quarters of the venue, Brown took his typical stream-of-consciousness approach, leaving plenty of room for rambling jokes and stories, usually within the songs themselves.
Covering a wide swath of material from his 24-plus albums, including a fair share of his latest, “Hymns to What is Left,” and 2011’s “Freak Flag,” Brown kept things loose and relaxed, while the generous doses of humor helped to make the evening’s occasional somber selection all the more potent.
Brown shuffled onstage just after 8, decked out in baggy clothes and a floppy hat and sunglasses that remained on throughout the evening. He slowly eased his way into “Rexroth’s Daughter” to start, his famous baritone molding each word and improvised vocalization into a vivid picture.
A new song, the old-age lament “Bones Bones” followed, with Brown’s vocal tics and deadpan delivery inspiring some of the biggest laughs of the evening. Later in the first set, another new cut, “Fatboy Blues,” played off the same self-deprecating angle to similarly uproarious effect.
Between songs, Brown spoke little, but did take time to praise his wife, country singer Iris DeMent, after performing an inspired version of her song “Let the Mystery Be,” as well as making deadpan remarks about comedian Lisa Lampanelli, who was performing the same night in the Hart Theatre upstairs and adding a knowing aside about the Industrial Workers of the World, better known as the Wobblies.
The winking humor throughout the set was balanced by some truly heartrending moments, such as “Tenderhearted Child” (someone’s small child began crying during the song, and this incidental moment actually enhanced the tune). “Just By Myself,” which closed out the first set, managed a bit of both, with Brown’s deep voice once again making the performance.
Brown was no slouch instrumentally, either, picking out lead and rhythm lines on most of the songs simultaneously. “Good Morning Coffee,” played early in the first set, was a prime example of Brown’s fingerpicking abilities; same with “Smell of Coffee,” which opened the second set — and which he played after name-dropping local singer-songwriter (and Brown disciple) Sean Rowe.
The second set managed to be even looser than the first, with Brown tackling a few audience requests as the evening wound down — including the poignant “Cheapest Kind” and the eerie “Highway 51.” Highlights during this portion of the show included the uplifting “Treat Each Other Right,” and the almost anthemic “Freak Flag,” one of Brown’s more concise performances this evening. He switched things up on “Besham’s Bokerie,” pulling of a surprising falsetto to contrast with his usual booming bass.
Brown closed the second set out with “Jesus and Elvis,” a whimsical and quite fitting end to an overall lighthearted evening.