Forbert Encounters Sibling Rivalry at Tewligans

By Bill Ede

There was a sense of deja vu in the coffee house-like listening room at Tewligans, Saturday night, September 30, as Shaking Family members Vince Emmett and Barbara Carter, performing under the partial-Family name Shivering Siblings, again paved the way for Steve Forbert. The performances by both acts were not unlike those at the March concert, but with more generous helpings of not-yet-released material.

Having familiarized myself with Shaking Family's self-titled debut album in the interim period, I was better prepared for the musical onslaught to come. (I could nail the date I became a Family fan to that previous appearance with Forbert, when Barbara Carter flat blew the socks off anybody and everybody, with lambasting vocals and a dangerous-playful stage manner -- a triumph of both pipes and persona. The term "Quaking Family" suddenly struck me as perhaps a more apt group moniker.

September's set featured but a few tunes from the group's 1987 album, including "Girl On the Edge," "Never Get Over You," and my personal LP favorite, "Let Me Get Next to You." The rest of the set consisted of unreleased material including "I Keep the Door Locked," last March's rousing showstopper (literally) "Crazy Woman," and the personal, trust-seeking "Don't Tell A Soul." There was no "Stormy Monday Blues" this time to showcase Vince Emmett's guitar-playing virtuosity, which I would have personally enjoyed, and had kind of hoped for. Emmett seems more at home as a team player, holding back much of the time for the "total effect." (Oh well, maybe next time.) Also missing were Barbara Carter-Layton Howerton collaborations the band has been heard playing recently at Uncle Pleasant's, including the infectious "Tick Tock" and the steamy, defiant "No Man's Land," which require the full-band sound. It will be interesting to see which songs turn up on the upcoming January-release album, which features Emmett and Carter, plus Brendon Lewis on bass guitar, Tim Chewning on drums and vocals, and a keyboard player who will forever live with the label "Love Charles" Ellis, or so I am told.

Meridian, Mississippi's Steve Forbert has certainly been living with labels for a long time now. He was the newest of the "new Dylans" of the mid-to-late-'70s Greenwich Village scene that also gave us Phil Ochs-find for the same distinction, Sammy Walker. He was the "token folkie" at CBGB's, "new wave" spawning ground of the east Village at around that same time. I've also heard him described as a "singer-songwriter with a rock sensibility," having shared stages with the likes of Wendy Waldman, and managers with the Ramones. His record company woes after signing with Columbia bring to mind another Columbia artist, also likened to Dylan, whose mid-'70s career was similarly back-burnered for several years, but who emerged from the "Backstreets" stronger than ever in 1978. Forbert is now on Geffen Records, after four LPs on Nemperor, the last of which came out in 1982. His affiliation with Columbia yielded no releases during its nearly six-year existence, from 1982 to early 1988.

Forbert's recent Tewligans set was a real fine taste of things to come with a full ten of the twenty-two songs he performed not yet on record. One of the unrecorded songs he performed was John Prine's "Speed of the Sound of Loneliness," Forbert's unique way of handling a request for "some John Prine" -- a surprise to say the least. (I'll have to remember that next time he's in town and I want to hear "some P.F. Sloan." Maybe he'll be able to crank out one of the veteran folk-rocker's old gems just as effortlessly.)

Forbert started his set responding to a knock on Tewligans back door with his rendition of Little Richard's "Keep A Knockin'" from 1957, leading directly into "What Kinda Guy" from his Alive on Arrival debut LP, with a "Pipeline"-like lick thrown in for not-bad measure. He continues to neglect material from his much-overlooked third and fourth albums, Little Stevie Orbit and Steve Forbert, respectively, LPs that will one day be appreciated, at least by Forbert loyalists, for the fine song vehicles they are.

Most notable in his set was his lack of throat problems this time around, which he used to full empathy-advantage last spring, having no choice but to send out for brandy to help get a hold of "the beast." This time he had to win the crowd over with music alone, and, after a slow start, proved equal to the task. He performed "Hope, Faith and Love," "I Blinked Once" and "Running on Love," among others, from his recent Streets of This Town LP, which most seemed to enjoy and recognize. His late-'70s material touched an even more familiar chord with songs like "Goin' Down to Laurel," "Thinkin'," and "Steve Forbert's Midsummer Night's Toast," which has been likened to Bob Dylan's "A Hard Rain Is Gonna Fall."

From where I was sitting, I was struck by just how much like a young Dylan he looked, skin and bones that he is. This perception was underlined in general by the roaming way he moved about on stage, and in particular when he launched into a stripped-down, bare bones version of his early-1980 hit "Romeo's Tune," with an "I Want You"-like harmonica base filling in for all the instruments that had appeared on the record. It was easy to see how the Dylan comparisons might have first come about. And speaking of that harmonica -- he tackles it like his life depended on it, pushing it to its limits, with nuances Dylan could barely contemplate much less master.

But what's really impressive is the fine new material this guy is turning out, seeming to approach his high quality level in quantity. The new material seems to reflect his recent coming to terms with that old bogeyman, "Responsibility," which he addresses directly in a song by that title. This is also evidenced in "(Tomorrow's A) New Working Day" ("Daybreak is dutifully broken ... ), and "The American In Me" ("I need me a destination .... I ain't the kinda cat to just jump in his car and drive.") This all seems to tie in with the embracing of his role as father to twin sons, something which could certainly have that effect on one.

Also included in his set was the tender "You're Safe With Me" and the bluesy "No Use Runnin' From the Blues," another in his line of philosophical titles which also includes "It Takes A Whole Lotta Help (To Make It On Your Own)" from his aforementioned fourth album (which, sorry to say, he did not play), and his final encore for the evening, the apropos "You Cannot Win If You Do Not Play," with the audience joining in on vocals a la Springsteen's "Thunder Road." A fine time was had by all and a fine performance by one of music's truly enduring troupers. It can best be summed up in a quote from a Forbert song from late-1979's Jackrabbit Slim LP:

Singer man, do your work

Sing your song, make it hurt

Sing the tears, sing the pain

"Make It All So Real."

They don't come any realer than Steve Forbert.