If Sam Clemens were alive and kicking today, possessing a musical bent to go along with his scathing wit, the targets of his swinging dead cat would likely be “singer-songwriters” as opposed to simple scribes. That’s not to discount the proliferating breed of artists who both forge and perform their visions; genuinely earned, the moniker is a true badge of honor, a mark of artistic integrity in an industry that too often rewards pretty thieves.
But with singer-songwriters coming down the pike like so many widgets on a production line, any opportunity to revisit the earthy origins of the term is a welcome one. And though it wasn’t coined to describe Steve Forbert specifically—by the time he hit the scene with 1978’s Alive on Arrival, Forbert was one in a long line of so-called “new Dylans”—much of the meaning vested in “singer-songwriter” comes from the gangly kid from Mississippi who, at age 23, was discovered pounding an acoustic guitar at New York’s famed punk haven CBGBs.
The Forbert story is as close to a creation myth as the genre has, and it’s worth retelling. Country boy packs guitar and harmonica for the promise of New York’s Greenwich Village, busks at subway stations until given a shot at the most unlikely of venues, records a head-turning debut and a critically acclaimed follow-up that nets a number 11 hit, and is hailed as the Next Big Thing.
Country boy takes obligatory (whenever integrity and greed collide) nosedive into the seedy morass of the music business, lying commercially dormant for much of the ‘80s while a contract squabble with his record company plays out. He resurfaces with a couple of stunning albums and is re-embraced by critics and a fan base that, while not as large as a decade earlier, is devoted and utterly convinced of his particular genius.
For the past 10 years Forbert has done just what he’s always done, touring in mid-size clubs, dropping periodic albums chock full of sublime gems, and generally staying the true course while the music industry roars about him, unheeded. And that’s a perfect place for him from a fan’s standpoint, for the sort of brilliance that mark Forbert’s songs and performances is rarely an accessible one.
On Saturday, we’ll have the great fortune of an intimate encounter with that brilliance in the cozy confines of the Blue Heron. It’s an ideal setting for such an event. The room practically begs to be consumed by a creative force such as Forbert, whose stage presence provides a crystal-clear conduit between song and audience.
Those with a vague recognition of Forbert would most likely know him from “Romeo’s Tune,” his hit from 1979’s Jackrabbit Slim. A sweet celebration of a lover’s anticipation, the song careens joyfully around a signature piano hook while Forbert croons: “Meet me in the middle of the day/let me hear you say everything’s OK/bring me southern kisses from your room/Meet me in the middle of the night/let me hear you say everything’s all right/let me smell the moon in your perfume.”
Like any artist in full command of his abilities, Forbert incorporates a wide array of styles in his music, from R&B to blues, folk and rock. And while his conglomeration of influences prevents the pigeonholing of a Forbert style, perhaps his most remarkable ability is that of creating laments that showcase a forlorn beauty that is somehow more sweet than bitter. Songs that, inexplicably, make you deliriously happy about feeling sad.
Take the smooth bass lines and soaring Hammond organ of Jackrabbit’s “Sadly Sorta Like a Soap Opera,” for example, as Forbert mutely cries the anguish of an ex-lover and then eulogizes the lost love with a lilting harmonica riff that brings tears to the eyes. Or the lost-time dirge “I Blinked Once” from 1988’s incomparable Streets of This Town, where Forbert’s high-register warble knocks home nostalgia in a simple guitar-and-vox intro: “Childhood often seemed a pain to me/so hard waiting to be grown/childhood climbed up in a wide oak tree/I blinked once and it was gone/Airplane flying across a midnight sky/His tiny lights blinked off and on/I watched him moving across the moon on high/I blinked once and it was gone.”
It’s a rare and special treat to find an artistic force of this magnitude in these parts, folks. Don’t blink.