Folksinger songwriter Greg Brown (seated, right)* went straight for the vitals of his Cambridge audience in Harvard’s Sanders Theatre on Saturday night, January 9. He started out with a number by an iconic local figure: Edward Esklin Cummings (1894-1962), better known as poet e. e. cummings. Brown intoned the full name in a preacherly style and followed up with a moving recitation of “i thank You God for most this amazing day."
In the songs that followed, Brown was backed up by guitarist Robert Franklin “Bo” Ramsey (left), a fellow Iowan and long-time musical collaborator.
A lot of folks first got to know Brown’s deep, laid-back voice and rootsy midwestern persona from “A Prairie Home Companion,” Garrison Keillor’s radio show. The performer at Sanders Theatre was that same guy: the resonant voice (more gravel in it now); the authoritative guitar; the songs full of wry but basically good-humored reflections on life, love, poetry, happiness and grief, politics, and fishing.
The difference is in the directness. The Greg Brown of the year 2000 on National Public Radio pitched straight to listeners. The Greg Brown of 2010 at Sanders Theatre was no less engaging: clearly the audience loved him and loved his stuff. But his absorption in the music/poetry was so deep, and the delivery of the lyrics so individualistic, that sometimes a listener was left wondering what a song was about until it was nearly over, especially since titles were not announced.
That said, there was no missing the point, or the wit, or the musical delight of numbers like “Blues Go Walking,” “Jesus and Elvis,” “Fat Boy Blues,” “Laughing River,” and “You Drive Me Crazy.”
A rich stream of old-time country music and blues runs through Brown’s music. His “Train Carrying Jimmie Rodgers Home” memorialized the beloved depression-era "blue yodeler" shown on the cover of this 1934 songbook. Brown's song even included a commemorative yodel.
Old times weren’t the whole story. One song that drew a ripple of laughs described people reaching for their cell phones when a bird sings at a back-yard barbecue.
Bo Ramsey opened the show with several of his own songs. The laconic statements (example: song titled “I Don’t Know”) seemed to look back to a time when false illusions hadn’t been invented. Another song refers to something that happened or existed “before cement.” Ramsey's lean accompaniments, the amount of open space in his music, and his hypnotic, introspective delivery make it clear that he is an artist, a formidable technician, and one of a kind.
The show is part of the WORLD MUSIC/CRASHarts series. Information about the program is on line at www.WorldMusic.org.
* Photos were not allowed at Sanders Theatre. This one, used under Creative Commons, is from from SD Dirk's photostream at http://www.flickr.com/photos/dirkhansen/2906065169/. It was taken at Solana Beach, CA and is dated 9/28/08.