Singer-songwriter delivers an artful growl
By JOSEF WOODARD
Straight out of his own corner in the folk music universe, cult hero Greg Brown showed up on Saturday for one of his periodic visits to Santa Barbara, at the Lobero Theatre. No one can accuse this guy of resorting to showbiz clichés; Brown sauntered onstage in a floppy, Festus-style hat and dark shades, with his bright red shirt contrasting his low, dark demeanor as a singer-songwriter.
Dispensing with entertainment niceties and never even addressing the crowd until just before the last song — and then just to hype an album — Brown got down to business and stayed there. For 90-ish minutes, he called up songs from a discography of almost 25 titles by now, mostly on the company that he built, Red House. (He was doing it for himself, long before the current craze for artist-run labels.)
In the expanding singer-songwriter universe, Brown is an artist in a field of his own, and his following is fiercely devoted. Opening Saturday’s show, part of the “Sings Like Hell” concert series, was a short but inviting set by Bo Ramsey. Ramsey is Brown’s longtime creative cohort, producer and backup man on guitar, who dished up some especially tasty slide guitar licks between Brown’s rambling guttural verses.
Like Brown, in his opening set, Ramsey sported a big old hat — this one a crisply creased cowboy model — dark glasses and a low, brooding voice dealing with folky-bluesy tunes, with salty wit attached. With his growlsome voice and his guitar bathed in throbbing vibrato effect, Ramsey specialized in stirring up back alley atmosphere, but with a faint wink.
Brown’s set, basically a long, rambling trip to his artistic heartland, projected a hypnotic coolness and a refreshing lack of pretension. On the title song of his latest album, last year’s “The Evening Call,” Brown sings “I had my fun, my fun had me.” The line is as close to a mission statement as any for his songbook, a mixture of philosophical melancholy, fragmentary tale spinning and word playful asides.
He’s a fine guitarist, too, who moves seamlessly from strumming to riffing and back, to suit the landscape of specific songs. After various folky-bluesy stylings, Brown showed fingerpicking finesse on the sweetie of a song, “Vivid,” from his album “Slant 6 Mind.”
Often, Brown’s songs veered toward obliqueness and the stuff of poetry, rather than easily translated folk music logic. Two of the odd songs out included his satirical tirade against the Iraq war and a funny spoken-word piece from the perspective of a dubious small-town preacher at a sparsely populated funeral for an especially obese woman.
Come encore time, Brown called up the song “Living in Prayer,” from his 2000 album, “Covenant.” It’s one of many of his songs warmed by the friction between pleasure principles and spiritual yearning. In it, he sang, “Every time I turn around, some ghost wants to buy me a beer / Feel like I’m living in a trashy novel where plot’s the only thing.”
Plot’s definitely not the only thing in Brown’s book — a fascinating, uncompromising body of work yet to be discovered by the masses, but beloved by the adoring mini-throng.