Greg Brown Takes 8 Steps in Albany
Story by Gary Alexander
Photos & Artwork by Ray G. Ring
bound to be mystified when you first discover
stray track you may have caught on the radio here and there (Shawn
Colvin's cover of "One Cool Remove" or that duet by Willie Nelson and
Carlos Santana on "They All Went To Mexico" that was a hit in Europe
or "Sadness" from the soundtrack of
Dream With the Fishes) could have
poked the edge of your interest without drawing you in for several
unworthy reasons. Hopefully, some words about those reasons and about
Greg Brown himself will persuade you that his appearance at the
The Eighth Step Coffeehouse
in Albany (8 pm, Friday, November 14 ) deserves your
If you're not yet acquainted with this unique artist's body of work,
you simply won't be prepared for the depth and diversity you'll find
in his albums. Sampler tapes sent to friends around the country who
said the magic words "Greg whom?" have drawn unanimously stunned
responses from all age groups- "Why haven't I heard of this guy?"
One reason may be that Brown records for Red House, a small
independent label in Minnesota that hasn't power-hyped its artists to
kingdom come and albums by Greg (when you hear him, you want to call
him Greg, you'll see; he's instantly into your veins like fresh blood)
can be hard to find. But, like a pilgrimage to Albany, the effort to
seek them out, order them locally or hunt them down wherever they're
hiding, brings exceptional reward.
First lesson; the label's catalog glistens with extra care you won't
find in the quickbuck, hit or miss output of megacorporate pushers.
(While I was wandering around the sterile corridors of Polygram
Records with my security badge in place last week, looking for traces
of musical savvy at the executive level, one of the top guns was
telling my friend, an amazingly talented male singer-songwriter, that
male songwriters weren't producing anymore. All the good stuff is
being written by women. It's the kind of quip she might have heard at
a cocktail party and took as gospel and, with fond acknowledgment to
the sparkling contributions from scores of today's female artists,
it's not only utter nonsense but the kind of horse blinder focus that
makes you wonder if she even listened to his music.) This is not
wild-eyed speculation. Another top executive readily admitted he
doesn't listen to "the product" anymore- he leaves that to his
way-young A&R people and, after all, this was supposed to be a meeting
with a manager and artist about numbers, wasn't it? No, not musical
Greg at Falcon Ridge 1999
It's a sound wager that this exec, who needs one magnetic card to slip
into walls to open doors at the office and another to press against a
sensor outside the washroom, has never listened to Greg Brown.
Unequivocally, Greg is one of our top five songwriters; his 1996 album
Further In was the cream of last year's crop and a tune on it,
"Where Is Maria?" has this vote for song of the year.
Roamin' Radoslav Lorkovic with
Greg at Winterhawk '01
His deceptively simple, uncluttered arrangements boil with rich
inflection, subrhythmic interplay and direct melodic impressions that
flow as naturally as a country brook, retaining an all too scarce
purity from inspirational spark to unpretentious delivery. An
unassuming backwoods philosopher, his lines sting, stir, amuse, chill,
arouse, soothe and envelope with sonorous tones that one adroit
reviewer describes as sounding "as if he swallowed a distant
thunderstorm." Lines emerge to stop you in your tracks while the
organic logic of the progressions ease you along. No one,
no one, so
effortably embraces the sensibilities of such a striking range of
musical forms just by being who he is and treating the whole spectrum
of life with his mordant, intelligent gaze.
"The term I really like, which is never used anymore- but I think it
describes people like me- is songster," said Greg when reached in his
Iowa City home. "The songsters were what a lot of people think of as
the old country blues guys...They recorded country blues but they did
a real variety of songs...That's what I think I am- a songster."
Folk, blues, rock, country, soul, younameit; do flavor Greg's
but almost as an afterthought to the wit, warmth, insight and raw
wisdom of what is first and foremost a
Greg Brown tune.
"They feel to me like presents, to tell you the truth; the songs do,"
Greg said when baitedly asked what his 'secret' is. "Obviously, I
love music and songwriting and I'm into it. I listen to a lot
of music, read a lot of books and I love language and music; all that
stuff. I mean I'm into it; I work. But, the songs themselves, I
don't really know where they come from or how they happen. They feel
like gifts, really."
Greg at Falcon Ridge 2000
Perhaps a bit more revealingly to someone who wonders how he achieves
such natural flow in lines that can take abrupt twists to deliver
their impact without ever sounding false or contrived, Brown tagged a
thought at the end of a list of favorite literary figures (that
included Whitman, Hardy, Gary Snyder, Thoreau, Neruda, Ferlinghetti,
etc.); "-all the beat poets, really, particularly (Snyder and)
Ferlinghetti- I like that guy. I think I learned a lot about the free
and flowing use of language by reading his poems when I was younger."
Brown's grandmother was a poet who passed down a family journal of
observations; his grandfather played banjo; his mother electric
guitar. He studied classical voice and piano as a child, opened for
Eric Andersen at 18 and headed east to head up hootenannies at Gerdes
Folk City; tried Portland, LA and Vegas; ghostwrote for Buck Ram.
"I didn't start putting out records until I was 29 or 30 (because) I
didn't play from the time I was about 23 till I was about 28. I quit
for awhile...drove a truck, worked at a hospital, worked at a library.
I just had jobs..." (Until a friend with whom he had played
moved from Wisconsin to a house down the road from Brown in the Iowan
countryside) "...we started jamming a little bit and then he said 'I
got this gig. Why don't you come sit in with me' and the next thing I
knew, I was back at it..."
When he sent a tape to independent labels of the day, Brown
encountered a Catch-22 in those who liked his songs but wanted to know
how much he was touring to promote an Indy record. Figuring he could
tour if he already had an album out, he founded his own little label-
which became Red House.
"When I moved to Minneapolis" (to become a regular on Public Radio's
Prairie Home Companion from 1983 to 1985, an experience he
teaching him to write regularly "under the gun") "I met Bob Feldman
and (he) actually turned it into a bonafide label. He runs the thing
now...and the advantage to me is like- complete freedom. A number of
years ago, I put out an album of the poems of William Blake that I set
to music. And I can do stuff like that on Red House...So, I really
love the sense of freedom I have there...If you want to sell a million
records and get rich and famous then I wouldn't recommend an
independent label to anybody. But, for my style of music, my goals in
music and life; it's worked out fine."
And it's another prime reason you may not have heard of Greg. He'd
rather go fishing than jump through promotional hoops; "The way my
touring schedule works, I'll tour a lot in the country, make it to New
England and New York State in spring and fall. I take off winter from
the road and during the summer I'll do some folk festivals. It's not
too bad of a schedule, really." Like his label, it's comfortable and,
like his label, brimmed with quality. Red House offers consistently
fine music from acts like Guy Davis, Paul Geremia, John Gorka, the
Chenille Sisters, Kate McKenzie, Ralph McTell, Spider John Koerner,
Bill Staines, Utah Phillips, Lucy Kaplansky and others. A Ramblin'
Jack Elliot album recently won the label a Grammy and Brown's own
One Big Town and
The Poet Game have won NAIRD (National
Independent Record Distributors) awards. His duo album with Bill
Morrissey (on Philo) was nominated for a Grammy in 1994.
The most exciting and enviable thing about an ignorance of Greg's
music is the "hidden" treasure trove of 14 albums still ahead of you.
Slant 6 Mind, released only weeks ago, is already a good
friend, delivering what you were fruitlessly looking for when you
picked up that new Dylan CD. It contains "Vivid," an answer to Ani
DiFranco's "The Bouquet"- which was written for Brown and came out of
nowhere after he had already taken off for the winter to work on a
songbook. That songbook has an ominous edge because Brown has
expressed an interest in going out "like a good boxer," retiring
early, even as his circle gets wider and younger, to concentrate on
fishing and writing. He even mentioned a fantasy about holing up in
one of those old Albany brownstones to work out a novel.
Greg Brown Fashion Statement
So, leap at this chance to catch live not only the songster but
a fascinating humorist and storyteller who weaves it all in
spontaneously right before your eyes. (His live album really
popular demand and he packs thousands into concerts back home).
Chances are, if his work is unknown to you, you won't be just
entertained; you'll be blown away.
[Editors note: The following information was updated 07/22/01
as the venue has moved since this article was first published]
8th Step Upstairs phone and location is:
Cohoes Music Hall,
58 Remsen St, Cohoes, NY.
Swapping tunes with songsmiths Steve Forbert (left),
Slaid Cleaves & Mary Gauthier (not shown),
and Radoslav Lorkovic (right)
A sad song for the back row
is an independent journalist and scholar whose focus of
interests range through a variety of disciplines. Under various names,
he has written (and ghost written) upon history and current event;
science and technology, as well as music and the arts in books and for
national periodicals. While particularly attentive to the subtle and
complex impact upon cultural imagination and contemporary structures of
presumption which activity in the above mentioned topics tend to have,
Alexander treats his topics with a slightly more than occasional resort
Posted on July 22, 2002