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An indelible highlight of the Winterhawk 2001 Festival will be of special interest to many Woodstockers. In his Saturday afternoon performance with Gary Solomon, the superb New York City bassist who contributed some tasty licks to a few of his more recent albums, Steve Forbert paused after the final chords of his "Good Planets are Hard to Find" (which he had dedicated to the House of Representatives) and looked out over the audience. He paused and cleared his voice and wondered aloud how many in the crowd would take the next song closely to heart. Then, in as fine a voice as we've ever heard him, Forbert sang his song for Rick Danko called "Maybe You Didn't Know Him But He Probably Was Your Friend."

It was clear that many in the audience were touched by Forbert's tribute and, although the song is yet to be recorded, there's very good chance you may be able to hear it performed at one of Steve's upcoming area gigs. He'll play at a Doc Pomus tribute night in New York City on October 3rd but, as yet, no venue has been set for that event. Bookings which ARE confirmed include the Brokerage Pub in Bellmore on October 17; Mainstage in White Plains on October 20th [2001] and Bodles Opera House in Chester on November 9th [2001].

The article below appeared in the Woodstock Times in March of 1999...

Forbert Follows Up

by Gary Alexander
Photos by Ray G. Ring IV

The wince is almost audible across the line from the Birmingham, Alabama hotel Steve Forbert was about to leave, when his shenanigans upstairs at the Joyous Lake in Woodstock during rip-roarin' days of yore are mentioned...

"Those were different times," Forbert recalls, his voice level but gracious, humbly embarrassed and even, somehow, reflective from a distance he can scarcely reach. "There were a lot of crazy times but you have to change. There's a time for- I'm thinking of the song `Turn, Turn, Turn'... I've got three kids now."

The occasion I am mentioning to him was a night he had played that gig, somewhere in the `70s, which happened to have been his birthday. He had wrenched out every drop of nectar the crowd downstairs had brought to the show, leaving them breathless and, now, it was past 4 am and he was cloistered in an upstairs room, shivering with nerves, bantering with a handful of musician buddies, frustrated beyond the usual road-jaggers with situations of the emptying house and energy releases of the moment edging him past his grasp of cool..

Post-gig exhilaration and trauma, compounded by the not-so-good news I had arrived to deliver about what was or what was not happening downstairs, prompted the birthday boy to launch his scarcely-sipped beer bottle at his own image in a full size mirror in that room...a momentary lapse which made a celebrity-sized mess for somebody to clear up...

One prime figure in the room, Rick Danko, laughed, in a way unique to himself which conveyed, simultaneously, dismay, approval and disgust in a single word; "Nice..."

* * *

While a 21-year legacy of recorded music, prior to and following that singular evening, hasn't kept Steve Forbert at the top of the charts, it has carved him an exceptional image as one of America's most respected and consistent singer-songwriters; a reputation he'll bring with him when he appears at the Town Crier on Friday.

Without ever notching a single into the top ten (1979's "Romeo's Tune" lingered at number 11), Forbert has put together enough streaks of brilliance over the years to register on more than a few top ten lists of singer-songwriters- but then, what are singer-songwriters in this jaded, turvey age but an "almost" category of marketing slant filled with under-appreciated artists that spot into the "pop" realm when their sales crest?

Forbert mulled that distinction over out loud. It's not that it's a conspiracy against such artists. There's no such thing as conspiracies- we all know that! Heck, I've known that since I dropped out of butcher's school because they wouldn't believe the dog ate my homework. But, then, what IS it ?

Steve had taken a pop star stance on his first album in 1978, Alive on Arrival. There he is on the back cover, a 23-year-old from Meridian, Mississippi who came to New York City with a guitar when the trucking firm he drove for when out of business, striking a pose just like that other ex-truck driver from Tupelo, Elvis Something. But the music was something again, filled with songs still strong enough to slip, here and there, into his repertoire today and soar. Quirky and perceptive wit delivered on adhesive melodies in a voice like a graham cracker crust under cheesecake. Paradoxically bursting with intensity even on laidback numbers, Forbert's trademark hissing curl of disembodied syllables popping the end of lines and surprising the listener by still being connected, somehow, to the same breath at the bottom of the lungs; stringing images and capturing charm; holding down territory somewhere between John Prine and about 3 of the dozen or so Bob Dylans that Mr. Zimmerman has shown us thus far...That voice is a pantomime of character, full of sly winks, and the lass beside you, smilingly suspicious, still wants to know what Stevie means by "southern kisses" in "Romeo's Tune"...

"It's (the singer-songwriter slot) a more personable thing, frankly," Forbert mulls. "By and large, it's more of a challenge to experience things and find a way to put them into songs...It can even be a little more abstract, when you compare it to the pomp of Mariah Carey or Celine Dion or the basic in-your-face styles of rap which, although they can be quite wordy, are generally not what you'd call `abstract.' Of course, they CAN be very personable but they're being put over with the force of the beat and a hell of a lot of promotion- since they've turned out to be so successful...If you look at country music, it's very controlled and, I'm sorry but- generally speaking now- not very challenging at all...I think it (lyrical folk music) requires a little more work on the part of the listener and, remember, just because you've got an acoustic guitar and you're singing personable songs, doesn't mean it's good...There's the challenge..."

Forbert's wheels are turning on the question; "I might say that things are more corporate as to what people are bombarded with and they're more aggressive or formulaic in the sense of what they call country music...." Although he's lived in Nashville since 1986, Forbert has never really plugged in to "the Nashville country music thing, which has become real big in this decade but it's never been something I was really a part of..." he notes. Shadings of his own tunes in that direction are occasional at best and light-fingered but country western folks like Rosanne Cash, who had success covering his tune "What Kind of Guy," could add their own tints.

Steve Forbert and Gary Soloman
on the main stage at Winterhawk 2001
When Forbert rolled into New York City in 1977 to begin what would stretch into a sometimes frantic, sometimes dangling nine-year home stand in the Apple, he arrived with a drive and determination which belied his baby-faced country boy appearance. Already a veteran of a fistful of local bands with "Gulf Coast" pasted to the top of their compass needles, he knew how to rock and the beat flickered its energy through him with a rare natural ease. His phrasing and delivery were punctuated with an unusual melodic tension and drama that had audiences hanging on the tail of his lines. His demeanor was glazed with a laidback, wiseguy confidence that frosted it altogether into a musical persona which demanded attention as he busked in Grand Central, tipped in at Folk City and tied knots in the string-brains at CBGB's.

His first release, leanly and exquisitely produced by Steve Burgh, brought his talents right to the surface for ease of inspection and it remains one of the essentials in his discography. It unlocked the secret of the stir Forbert was beginning to cause in New York City and soon fans in Seattle and London were hearing the charged tones with which he punched lines like "Out on the highway, out on the cold road,/ some lonesome losin' rounder wears a frown./ An' I could be there, without a notion,/ if not for all the love you've brought around..."

Its follow-up, Jackrabbit Slim, produced more elaborately by Woodstock's John Simon, also belongs in the "Essential" category and contains a flock of Forbert classics that haven't worn down with time. Little Stevie Orbit also edges onto that top shelf despite a few tracks which seem to be begging for a remix and a `gonna creep ya out' cover. "Song for Katrina," "Cellophane City" and "If You've Got to Ask" raised the bar for his songwriting and, although the latter tune would require a discretionary lyric label today, it remains a scornfully biting social commentary that hasn't faded in terms of relevance.

The fourth release, Steve Forbert, is a puzzler which doesn't quite make the "must have" box despite the presence of winning efforts like "You're Darn Right," the sly "Live Up to His Shoes" and an infectious bid for a single called "Ya Ya." There are a few other gems here but also a drift toward the sappy `pop' sound of the day which drew Forbert too far from the cutting edge of his individuality. These are the four albums revisited by The Best of Steve Forbert with mixed but mostly positive results and mark the end of the first stage of his recording career.

Years of legal limbo were to follow when he signed with Columbia and found himself squashed under a ton of corporate butt as the company sat on (and are still suppressing) his studio efforts in that period. Most of the 1980's went by without a recorded peep from Steve as his star sank steadily below the horizon for reasons which remain shrouded in mystery. One possible tune from that period, "The Only Normal People," comments: "The only normal people don't know anything about/ Your world of sleepless nights and pressure and they never once freak out/ They run their lives on course and they keep a steady even keel/ They hear you talk about frustration but they don't know how it feels..."

When Forbert finally won release from his contract in 1988, he brought an uneven batch of new tunes out on the Geffen label under producer Garry Tallent as Streets of This Town, which featured the title song, "Mexico," "As We Live and Breathe," "I Blinked Once" and few others that put his name back on the map and reminded fans of why they had become fans and what they had been missing when his voice was muffled by executive decree.

As Mary Gauthier looks on, Steve, having arrived late to a round-robin songwriters' swap, is informed by Greg Brown that the song theme which as evolved is "derelicts."

Steve, caught wondering if he's ever written a song about an old, abandoned ship.

Three years later, The American In Me brought several fresh staples into the repertoire, including "Responsibility," "I Blinked Once," "Born Too Late" and "Rock While I Can Rock" but didn't receive quite the promotional push it needed for wider notice.

A live solo album in 1994, Be Here Now, featured a rewrite of his blast at the oil industry in "The Oil Song" and some memorable takes from the catalog but, in general, the live albums introduce little in the way new material and are recommendable primarily for the dynamics Forbert invariably brings to live performance but doesn't always translate as powerfully to record. King Biscuit Flower Hour Presents Steve Forbert, with Forbert's famous "Squirrel" band- including our old Woodstock buddy Wells Kelly on drums (ah, but I miss that wild and mellow cuss), contains as solid a session of rock as you could ask for and his current release, Be Here Again, updates the solo act to 1998 with a gorgeous highlight not found elsewhere in "Everyone's Got to Have a Dream."

In between, there was Rocking Horse Head in 1996, which again boasts some fine songwriting but suffers a bit from a questionable production decision on some tunes which deserved more studio attention than the attempt at a "live room" road band sound provided. But, there was coasting space left over from the previous year's effort, the brilliant Mission of the Crossroad Palms, which stands as Forbert's best album to date. From start to finish, the lyrics shine, the melodies engross and Garry Tallent more than makes up for a few over-the-top touches on Streets of This Town with the impeccable care he applies to each take. If there's no Forbert on your album shelf, this is a good place to start.

* * *

The Original `digital interpretation'? Forbert,
fascinated by the hand-signals of Jody Gill
(shown here standing at the end of the line,
signing for the hearing impaired), bantered
with her during his set
Steve doesn't see his approach to song-writing as having changed over the years; "It's really the same thing, exactly. I've always played folk-rock. There's some rock and roll in it and some blues in it and some country in it but the thing about basic folk-rock is that it's a pretty enduring form- pretty much as it was when the Byrds and Bob Dylan invented it- through Graham Parsons and Poco all the way up to Gin Blossoms or Golden Smog. It's still pretty intact as a form; has been for 30 years. The subject matter changes but it's still about perceptions as time goes by," the down-home philosopher shrugs.)

Take Wilco, some of whom Forbert worked with on his Rocking Horse Head album in 1996, call them "country alternative" or "Americana" or "cowpunks," Forbert sees them as essentially in his own genre- "To me Jeff Tweedy is a singer-songwriter with a very good band." Greg Brown, Lucinda Williams, Tracy Chapman, Steve Earle, Dar Williams or Ani DeFranco, "who's done so well in her own very independent way"- they're singer-songwriters somewhere off from pop until the numbers juice them up. They're "more introspective and (have) to take a certain pride just in being part of an ongoing tradition that goes back...to me. How far do you want to go back? Hundreds of years? Certainly, in the sense of recordings- Jimmy Rodgers; that's the 20's...'Folk-type' players are not as prone to self-promotion, These days, in the world of videos, there's an `attitude' (that's different from) a singer-songwriter temperament. It's a more aggressive world out there as far as marketing and the attitudes in a lot of pop music and, let's face it, the more traditional singer-songwriter thing is not going to be in the forefront of that but, if you love what you're doing then you're going to have expectations and you enjoy it."

So taken with the topic and the effort to adequately define his thoughts about it, Forbert called again the next day from Jacksonville to elaborate further but space runs out and the heart of it all is in music as an art rather than as a product. Take it from an authority... Forbert has over dozen albums to testify to his artistry.

There are classics from each one which have never rusted and sound as fresh as ever when trotted out for a live solo appearance like the one at the Town Crier Friday. Consider "So Good To Feel Good Again" or "Responsibility" from his live-in-Calgary Be Here Again album (available only at gigs, in Canada or a few internet outlets). Consider the almost mystical beauty of "Oh To Be Back With You" on his pinnacle recording Crossroad Palms. There are dozens of Forbert tunes that make the cut as Art from an exceptional and somewhat unique singer-songwriter and, if you haven't heard them live, here's an excellent opportunity before a fear of zeroes (already building toward Y2K) swallows the rest of the year and they turn the microphones off.

It's a busy weekend at the Town Crier; Forbert & Pam Bertoli on Friday; Cheryl Wheeler and Fred Eaglesmith on Saturday; Jay Ungar & Molly Mason on Sunday. Reservations: 855-1300.

-Gary Alexander

Gary Alexander 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 to humor.

Posted on August 19, 2001

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