Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Old Friends

Greg Brown Freak Flag Album Cover | Greg Brown Album Covers

My approach to following music is to basically find a performer I like and then stick with him or her. Sometimes I wonder about the wisdom of this approach because (let's be honest) any performer has a limited bag of tricks that, once you're familiar with it, they will keep repeating from recording to recording. Paul Simon will always be acoustic with some interesting rhythm, for example. His lyrics will always be humorous.

Why do I keep purchasing the work of someone who I've followed for decades? Is it some obsessive-compulsive need to collect a history?

In the case of Paul Simon, when I hear a new work I always feel like I'm checking in on an old friend. His words and outlook have been in my head all those decades; there's a weird kind of conversation that's been going on. Sure, I wish it weren't one-way. I'd love to sit and chat with him. But it would be on a level quite different from his polished communication in song. Perhaps less satisfying.

So I've got shelves full of friends: singer/songwriters, some of whom I've followed very intently, others who I've attended to with half a mind. Greg Brown fits in the latter category.

I "invested" in Greg Brown years ago because of his bold difference. I mean, someone who dedicates an album to putting William Blake's lyrics to music has my attention. That's when I first checked him out.

In 1986 he was already 4 albums into his career. He'd founded his own record label (Red House) and appeared on The Prairie Home Companion.

The William Blake album didn't grip me, but I gave him another chance, and took a shine to 1992's In the Dark with You, which features the catchy "Good Morning Coffee" song.

I will bring you your good mornin coffee, will you smile
If not now then have a sip or two and maybe in a while
I love you I love you in the good mornin and in the night
Every day I wait with you wherever we are it's all right
Here's your coffee, it may still be too hot, it is freshly brewed
I'll just pour myself a cup and then I will crawl in with you

There's no one quite like Greg Brown. He's got a low drawl of a voice, but it's quite supple. He swings, he slurs, and he can glide into a falsetto--whenever the mood hits him. He's a true "Americana" artist: you'll find all the classic forms on display in his catalog (blues, jazz, gospel, country, straight-ahead folk).

His lyrics are fabulous too. I must confess that I'm unable to commit them to memory, but whenever I listen to his work I find myself thinking about how simple and direct they are.

My wife and I think of Greg Brown fondly because we saw him in concert several times when we started dating. He's a good storyteller in person, and the music is always engaging. He usually tours with guitarist Bo Ramsey, who has produced or co-produced and played and vocalized on practically half of Greg Brown's recorded output. (He's presently married to Greg Brown's daughter Pieta, 22 years his junior, which I find a little creepy.)

In the late 1990s Greg Brown began to tour less, and my interest fell off. I would dutifully continue buying his work, but didn't listen to it much. At some point I stopped--even obsessive-compulsive music buffs have their limits!

But here's the great advantage of being a collector. I took a chance and recently purchased his new CD, Freak Flag, and I absolutely love it. It displays all of the attributes that diehard fans love: a complete command of musical vocabulary, a rich voice that seems to shift with every song, and lyrics that are so arresting that they ARE staying in my mind.

Now I'm back playing my Greg Brown records and admiring his talent. It's definitely a pleasure that will endure. I'm glad Freak Flag reactivated my interest.

There's a nice description of the CD on his label's website, so check it out and then give some of my choice YouTube cuts a look and listen. Then get out there and support one of this country's great songwriters!

For a nice interview with Greg Brown, click here.

Here Greg Brown talks to Performing Songwriter about Freak Flag.

You Tube links: "Blue Car";"Who Woulda Thunk It";"Canned Goods";"You Drive Me Crazy"

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