In concert March 8, 2008, at the Van Duzer
For some people in the crowd last Saturday night at the Van Duzer, the first half hour of the Greg Brown show was fraught with doubt, confusion, even a little disappointment. Who was that masked man up there on stage? He was good, but he sounded ... different. He had no greeting for the crowd, just got down to business — walked on stage in a felt brown fedora, dark glasses and gray suit, sat down on a standard-issue metal-frame office chair ubiquitous in standard-issue meeting rooms in offices across the nation, picked up a guitar and started to play. His pencil-thin lips set in a straight, grim line opened a little to whisper-groan out some trackside blues, one after the other.
The songs had their healthy chunk of clichés — trains and banjos, small towns and stray men buried alone with nobody but the preacher and an old woman watching from a nearby hill. Catchy, though, and professional. But, still, this wasn't Greg ... some wondered... . A man in the audience kept shouting out, in between songs, "Welcome to Humboldt, Greg!" No answer from the man on the chair with the guitar. Others fidgeted, wowed by the masked man's guitar prowess and bluesy authenticity, but confused.
His set ended, he stood up and walked off to cheers. A few minutes later, Greg Brown — of course! — came on stage. Because, folks, that last man was Bo Ramsey — the guy who's played and recorded with everyone from Joan Baez to Lucinda Williams to, for the past decade and more, Greg Brown. Ramsey's an old pro in his own right, and though he's pale and grim his fingers float over the guitar strings like an angel's.
Brown, however, is magnetic. Anyone who'd been a little confused felt foolish the moment Brown swept on stage looking like some kind of softened biker pirate in his pale blue suit over a black V-neck shirt, dark glasses, big hoop earrings, headwrap hat and graying goatee. He set his big frame down on another office chair next to Ramsey and opened up those full lips to rumble out half-swallowed vowels.
When Brown sings it's as if he's eating something delicious, or swirling whiskey around in his mouth. His teeth gleam through his mustache. He's energy personified, and something else a bit more disconcerting, something sleepy, relaxed and roguish. Between his lover's drawl and Ramsey's hypnotic picking and sliding, it was easy to fall into a meditation that swung back and forth between the intimate and the funny, the love-found and the damned-I'll-go-my-own-way-now, from "I'm goin' away, 'cause I gotta busted heart. I'm leavin' today, if my TravelAll will start," to "And you move through my dreams like a trout moves through a pool. Sure I will do anything, but I blush at the reverie. Sleeper come and go with me."
One oddly out-of-character — but very in-place — moment came early on, when Brown bust out his Bush Administration protest song. Most every folksinger and rocker has one. But that doesn't mean it's their best work. And while it jarred the mesmerized crowd out of its reverie into a frenzy of appreciative whoops — see, he gets it! — at least one annoyed person muttered after the show that it was a gross display of pandering; the audience ate it up because it was so obviously meant to be eaten up. Too easy.
Brown's best moments were before and after that. And though a man who can write a hilarious, down-home lyric, Brown excels when he hits those notes that make you feel you're going to begin weeping even though you're feeling pretty good. As he sang somewhere down the road toward the end of his set, "Some things just get better and better and better than they've already been." Like his show.