Greg Brown played to a rapt audience at DC’s elegant Hamilton stage last week. It would be sacrilege to suggest that Greg Brown has the voice of God, and Greg Brown’s father was an open Bible preacher. “We’d have revivals, which lasted a week, to revive us, because we were so tired from so much church,” Greg said, introducing a song he wrote for his uncle and grandfather, “Down at the Mill.” It would not be out of line, however, to suggest that Greg Brown’s ocean-trench deep bass and unhurried cadence have the character of an Old Testament prophet.
Brown’s set, fourteen songs that began with “One Wrong Turn” and ended in his encore of “Jesus and Elvis,” is full of stories and anecdotes. Throughout, Greg was accompanied by his brilliantly talented sideman Bo Ramsey, who played a set of his own to kick off the the evening.
Greg explained that he wrote “Small Dark Movie” for the Coen Brothers, but that it ended up cut from the intended film. After singing “Think About You,” Greg painted a picture about the origins of the song “Bones Bones”: “I don’t care much much for gardening. I did a lot of it in my life. There’s a lot of good farmer’s makets now. I was raised by gardeners…I tried to make raised bed out of railroad ties. I got tired and drank wine under the apple tree. Wrote this.”
“Bones Bones” is as bluesy a folk song as it gets. This was segued into a classic country song: Merle Haggard’s “What Happened?” and Greg’s openness to a wide range of music and artists was on full display. He and his wife, Iris DeMent, are known for their progressive stances, and the Haggard song dovetailed nicely with the socially conscious one he performed next: Malcolm Holcolmbe’s “Ellis Island/Yours No More.”
“Freak Flag,” written in Kent, Ohio, signaled a bit of Greg’s weirdness. He may wear a jacket and a tie, but he has earrings, too. This led into one of the stranger and more charming stories of the evening, the tale of the Early, Iowa centennial. At the town’s centennial celebration, Greg played his song “Early,” and a man in overalls and a cap kept asking Greg to play it again. Greg obliged, and obliged, until he had played the song some 12 or 13 times.
While driving in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan in his car, nicknamed Slant 6–hence the title of his album, Slant 6 Mind–Greg stopped by a river. He recalled, “I wear my waders when I’m driving through the UP. It saves time.” There, he wrote “Laughing River.”
“Of the song “Hey Baby Hey,” Brown said, “I always wanted to write more pop songs. I thought I would make it happen with this song, but it got away.” He continued on to share that one of his daughters had consoled him by saying, “you might write a good song like Billy Joel one day, too.”
Greg and Bo finished the set with “End of the Party,” and came back for an encore of “Jesus and Elvis.” Greg graciously met with eager fans, signing CDs and taking photos for their personal archives.
While Greg Brown’s work is often characterized is as folk/country, seeing him live, I couldn’t help but notice that just how much blues is in it, too. Brown’s version of a folk song is just a great, rootsy mix of old-school blues, country, and folk. The songwriting is fantastic, and the vocals will send shivers down your spine. If you’re an Americana lover, you have to catch Greg Brown.
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