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Steve Forbert Revisited – From Gerde’s in Greenwich Village to Swindon, England

June 29, 2013
bradspurgeon

Steve Forbert today

Steve Forbert today
photograph by Alan MESSER [alanmesser.com]

OXFORD – It was September or October of 1976, and I was attending an open mic at Gerde’s Folk City in Greenwich Village, about to take to the stage to sing something – I’m not sure what – when the MC woman announced the next number. A scruffy, thin, threadbare guy two or three years older than me took to the stage and greeted us in a raspy voice. He started strumming his guitar – I think it was a worn out Martin – and broke into a howling, haunting, high-pitched, emotional rendition of the Hank Williams classic, “I’m So Lonesome I could Cry.”

The room filled with his presence, and I felt a bolt of something overcome my senses and turn what was until then your average dreary open mic night – even if it was at the legendary open mic where Bob Dylan and all the other 60s icons got their start – into an electrifying experience that left me, for one, not just entertained but also mystified. What’s going? Who is this guy? What’s he doing to the room? Where did he get this voice? Can I find one of those somewhere? How does he do this? And why? What does it represent?

Those were the thoughts going through my teenage mind at this period in my life when although I would have loved to have “been a singer songwriter” I felt far, far from any such ambition. (I would later that night at Gerde’s give a terrible, shaky, non-rhythmic version of Raggle Taggle Gypsies or some other traditional Celtic song, and I don’t know what else – maybe a Bob Dylan, maybe one of my own songs.) So I had all these questions going through my head about who this guy was and what I was feeling in the room. He was clearly known to the MC, so he had been there a few times before – and perhaps even a lot.

I would see the guy, whose full name I learned was Steve Forbert, two or three more times, and on one of those occasions I found myself standing just ahead or just behind him in the line up outside Gerde’s where the musicians waited to sign the list before the open mic. It was cold, and I recall clearly the inner lining and stuffing of his jacket was bursting out at the seams.

I decided it was time to try to find some answers to those questions and I asked him how old he was and how long he had been playing in bars and open mics. He said he was 21 and had been doing it for a couple of years.

Of course, he was not from New York City. He was from Meridian, Mississippi, and his strong southern accent is apparent not only in his speech but in his singing. But I did not learn all that much more about him, and I left New York City myself with many questions about just what it was I had witnessed.

I would go through many travels and trials and spend a four-month period down and out in London busking in Marble Arch (where I would discover the beginnings of a voice), then rent a room with a well known American DJ in London, and spend a period in Iran during the revolution and then finally on my way back from the revolution in Iran, while taking a black cab from the airport to the home of my American DJ friend, I suddenly heard the voice in a song on the radio. It was now 1978 and I recognized the voice instantly and just waited for the DJ on that station to announce the guy’s name: Steve Forbert.

Forbert's Alive on Arrival cover

Forbert’s Alive on Arrival cover


He had just released his album “Alive on Arrival,” and this was a song from the album – although I cannot remember which one. Suddenly, however, I now had the answer to my questions of that night two years earlier: What I had witnessed in Gerde’s Folk City was quite simply a future giant of American pop music, who was about to go on a roll of about three years of success.

He was, in fact, greeted with the doubtful and unfortunate acclaim of being “the next Bob Dylan.” Like so many others. His song, “Romeo’s Tune,” hit No. 11 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart in 1980.

Sometime in the early 1980s when I was living in Toronto, Forbert came to do a concert and I may or may not have attended the concert – no clear memories – but I do recall being thoroughly surprised to discover that the liner notes of his latest album were written by that DJ friend of mine – Paul Gambaccini – from London, who, it turned out, was a huge fan of Forbert’s. How strange the way people’s paths cross, I thought.

Over the years I have thought back many times to that period in New York City at the open mics, and my meeting with Forbert. I moved to France and for many years ceased to perform in public until I started again nearly five years ago, once again at the open mics, but now feeling much better about my reception as a performer. One of the songs I would try to perform would be that Hank Williams song as I tried to reach the same emotional and melodic heights not of Hank, but of Steve Forbert. Another song I would occasionally try was “Romeo’s Tune.”

In neither case would I ever feel satisfied to have achieved that level of what I recalled from Forbert’s performance, or his recordings on his records, which I later bought.

Living in France I never had a chance to see Forbert again, but I always vowed to go to one of his concerts in England, should I be here when he did a concert. So it was that this weekend I noticed that Forbert was doing a small tour of England that involved not only the famous Glastonbury Festival today, but yesterday, an appearance in Swindon.

Swindon is a 50 minute drive from Oxford, where I am staying during my reporting of the British Grand Prix in Siverstone. So I bought a ticket online for his show at the Swindon Arts Centre, and after my day of work yesterday, I drove off to encounter Forbert again – after 37 years!

It turned out to be a small theater, and as I entered the room to take my seat 10 minutes before the performance was to start, there was Steve already on the stage, tuning up and preparing his equipment. He was up there for the full 10 minutes, just waiting for the spectators to enter and preparing. Now 58 years old, wearing jeans, T-shirt and another open-collar shirt over that, in full possession of all his hair, I felt instantly as if no time had passed whatsoever. Later, during the show, he mentioned there were CDs for sale and asked people to kindly not hold the cover up to his face – in reference to the fact that his youthful face on the CDs would be a contrast to the one he has now. In fact, he looks in great condition, physically trim and fit, and as I said, I had the feeling from my seat in Row F, that I was seeing exactly the same “Little Stevie Orbit” as I saw at Gerde’s Folk City.

The concert was, again, for me in particular a very emotional one, and one in which I was constantly trying to figure out what had changed in his voice, his delivery, his persona, his music. Had anything changed? If not, why was Forbert a big star 30 years ago and today known mostly to aficionados and grey-haired people walking down memory lane?

My conclusion, after two 45-minute (or more) sets of Steve playing his guitar solo and with no electronic effects and entertaining us purely with his magic, rhythmic playing, his harmonic and his raspy voice, was that not much had changed at all, in fact. Unfortunately, before the concert, his assistant announced that Steve preferred that no one make a video or take photographs. So I had to set my Zoom Q3 HD aside and not grace my readers with material to make up their own minds about his performance today.

But what I did come away with was the thought that Steve had not changed that much, but that I now had a new and different interpretation of his voice and of my own encounter with him playing 37 years ago before he became a success. What I realized was that his extremely distinctive raspy and emotional voice is one that may sound different according to the circumstances – be it live or recorded, with a band or solo, in a large room or a small bar – but that behind it all is the same “center” of Steve Forbert’s poetic, musical world.

And that world is all about, guess what? Our passage through life. I bought his re-released first album last night to hear its 11 bonus tracks – and they are fabulous, some outtakes and some live stuff from the time, as well as demo stuff – and on one of the songs I noticed the lyric about time passing and him now being “23 year’s old,” as if he was much older and wiser now…. And there was a lot of talk of this kind of thing last night, too, and I realized that he had not changed – Steve Forbert the observer of life is still there, and still Alive well past Arrival. If he had not changed, then perhaps popular tastes change; but that means they’ll perhaps come around again….

Forbert’s patter with the audience was a blessing, a brilliant way to connect, and I admired how he warmed up both us and himself through the patter, the songs, and as he did, his voice warmed up, got stronger, warmer. He had a constant, excellent, drole rapport with the audience, asked for requests – I asked for the Hank Willams song, but did not get it – and he played many of the old hits, as well as more recent stuff, including stuff from his recent album from last year.

It was admirable to see how he carried these two sets without a band and without electronic looping or other cheating gadgets: Just his own musical world and the songs his fans love.

After the show he came out to sign CDs and speak to the spectators. This gave me the chance to present myself and tell him about meeting him at Gerde’s 37 years before.

“Those were great days, weren’t they?” he said.

They were, I said. And he said something upon my departure about how maybe he’d go through another 35 years and we’d meet again. During the show he had mentioned visiting his dad who was 90 years old. So I told him that his dad was 90, and my dad was 88, and so we’d both get there, wouldn’t we?

During the show, by the way, he said if you don’t have the recent re-editions of his albums then you don’t have the albums, because he has added so many bonus tracks. I can confirm that the Alive on Arrival is definitely worth buying. I’ve been listening to it in my rental car driving around England and I realized that while we were fed the slick, well-produced 10 tracks of the original, there was a treasure trove of more raw but perhaps more pure gold in the outtakes and live stuff….

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