by James M. Manheim
Few can match Mississippi-born songwriter Steve Forbert's way with a crowd. Although he always records with a band, he tours solo, with just a guitar. I saw Forbert play at a Vermont club a few winters back, with the outdoor temperature a pleasantly crisp ten below. The dynamic level never rose above conversation volume, but the audience, made up mostly of New England folkies who had heard a lot of good songwriters, hung on every song and dry but resonant comment. Though Forbert doesn't do many political songs, he's got one, called "The Oil Song," that's fabulous. It's a sing-along even for people who hate sing-alongs, a narrative of a tanker spill in which the audience just has to intone the word oil. By the end, you feel the degree to which we're all hopelessly drenched in the stuff.
With a voice that's gravelly to say the least, and a way of putting a large body of really ambitious lyrics across to a crowd, Forbert was hailed as the next Bob Dylan when he came on the scene in the late 1970s and had a moderate hit with "Romeo's Tune." If Forbert has never had Dylan's arena-filling charisma, he's nevertheless had an unusually durable career, with well over a dozen albums and a solid cadre of fans.
That night in Vermont Forbert talked about having played the Ark just after Rick Danko, the bassist and vocalist from the Band, had appeared there two days before his death. "Oh, I do not feel so well," Danko had written on the wall of the Ark's dressing room. Forbert's new album, Just Like There's Nothin' to It, has a great tribute to Danko called "Wild as the Wind," an affectionate warts-and-all portrait that's receiving decent airplay right now. "He was oddly down-to-earth, but just as wild as the wind," Forbert sings. If Dylan was one thread running through Forbert's output, the warmth and the sometimes mystical power that Dylan's onetime backup band from Canada drew from vernacular American music was a more specific influence. One common classification of Forbert is that he was playing Americana music before there was such a thing, mixing country, rock, and blues. His songs are deceptively straight-ahead musically, but they suggest a lot with just a hint of an inflection in one direction or another.
Steve Forbert comes to the Ark, in a double bill with Stacey Earle, on Thursday, June 3.
[Originally published in June, 2004.]