A Tower Of Song: Greg Brown In Concert
Guitarist Jim Mercik and I opened for Greg Brown at the final concert of this season's Zoo Folk series at the Beardsley Zoo in Bridgeport, CT. It had poured during the afternoon and rain still threatened, but Brown was imperturbable, as usual. The two-time Grammy nominee arrived late, smiling affably, and nearly missed his introduction, hanging back in the far pavillion. Considering that this two-time Grammy nominee is one of the best songwriters of our generation, he began with typical humility, a nod to Dylan:
As I walked out one morning
To breathe the air around Tom Payne
I spied the fairest damsel
Who ever walked in chains
He also played "Don't Think Twice It's Alright," two traditional songs - the Appalachian "Foggy Foggy Dew" and the Irish ballad "Carrigfergus," and the lounge standard, "One for the Road." Brown doesn't perform covers, exactly. He channels them, as if though the songs are coming direct from that one place where all songs have their start (in the foul rag and bone shop of the heart...). He tells no stories tonight, yet achieves a steadily increasing intimacy with this crowd of 300 or so people sitting on picnic benches and blankets under the tall pines where free-range peacocks roost. He simply plays whatever comes to him, letting us meander with him through what Leonard Cohen called "The Tower of Song."
In fact, Brown reminds me a lot of Cohen. Both are love poets who refuse to idealize relationships or reduce love stories to platitudes or slogans. But where Cohen has been in the avant garde of the urban/post-romantic tradition - often cool, cynical, analytical, Brown is big hearted. He still believes in the kind of love where two people can spend their lives together in a farmhouse on the prairie, with a big garden, a few kids, a couple of dogs, and a fishing pole when things get too hot in the kitchen. Or at least he believes that, foolish as it seems, most of us still want this - or think we do.
It's a zoo - Greg obliges one fan's request for a special autograph.
Brown plays with this problem - the difference between what we want and what we think we want. One song lists the little joys and many petty aggravations of marital bliss and concludes: "Oh I wish I were married, I wish I were married, Oh I wish I were married - to you." Far from being a clever farce, it ends up being a very tender love song. Romantic even. After a few of these open-eyed connubial ballads, a friend of mine turned to me shaking her head - "He really knows about marriage."
Brown's poetry isn't grand and literary, though he's one of the most well-read of today's bards. His songs are understated, coming up with little bits of folk wisdom - seemingly as if by accident. He achieves this effect through self-deprecating humor and homely metaphors. In "(I Love You) Like A Dog" he sings of his canine loyalty and unconditional love. Mostly it's hilarious, but then, for a moment, the dog is a man again:
If there's anything you want, I'll get it
A dog is not burdened by pride.
Brown, a long-time regular on Garrison Keillor's "A Prairie Home Companion" radio show, was whimsical and studiedly midwestern, and became known for songs like "Rooty Toot Toot for the Moon" and "Early," written for a small prairie town of the same name. But in the mid-eighties, Brown figured out how to turn his imaginary midwest from the quaint, provincial place that PHC requires into a mythic place, the heart of an America that serves as a stage for all of the heart's conflicts. The Poet Game was a breakthrough album for Brown, and every album since then has lost that original regional feel, entering our national literature.