You cut your teeth in the 1960’s Greenwich Village folk scene. You build a fan base and endure the driest of humor as resident singer-songwriter on Prairie Home Companion (and pick up a mean Garrison Keillor impression along the way). You return to live in your native Iowa, paying attention to overlooked tales of loneliness, loss and doubt that work their way into your records.
And when you come to perform in what’s usually a packed-house city, some flash-in-the-pan upstart who apparently goes by “Dylan” steals your thunder.
What’s an alt-folk troubadour to do?
Greg Brown pondered this very dilemma last Friday in Bloomington, the same night Bob Dylan and Elvis Costello filled Assembly Hall with undergraduates and visiting alumni trying to relive their glory days. In a few minutes, Brown would take the stage at what was still a mostly-full Bluebird. But first he greeted the situation with a second whiskey and the Zen-like acceptance that so many of his song characters seem to be seeking.
“That’s just the way it goes,” said Brown, 58. “It’s not something you can worry about. I thought it was pretty funny.”
He began the show armed with only his harmonica, an acoustic guitar and an upper body that looks like it belongs to an overworked Iowa farmhand. He put his incredibly deep and dark rumble of a voice to work on the Mose Allison cover “Ever Since the World Ended,” a tune so bleak and defiant fans might’ve wondered if he wasn’t a little miffed about competing with the other show in town after all.
But he then introduced himself as “Elvis Dylan” and offered a wry look that suggested he’s long been content with playing mid-size venues well below the mainstream radar. He followed with a string of originals from the 19 records he’s put out on Red House, the label he founded in 1980. His expressive vocals did most of the work as he kept rhythm on guitar. He let his counter-cultural edge cut through on “Spring Wind” and celebrated his Midwestern scruff on “Billy from the Hills.”
“Some folks dance cool, all angles and swaying hips, sensual as all get out and in,” he growled on “Billy.” (His gravelly voice growls even on the most tender of lines.) “Me, I'm a hick and I dance like one; I just kinda jump around and grin.”
The mostly middle-aged crowd tapped its knees in approval. Forget about those amateurs at Assembly Hall — here was a bard with songs of complexity and substance.
Maybe it’s the way Brown deals so honestly with the uncertainties and compromises of growing up that makes his music so mature. Truth be told, a lot of his songs are nostalgic. But when Brown sings about childhood, adolescence and being lost and awake in the world, he doesn’t keep those memories behind glass. Instead, they’re raw and jagged, something you can hear in the back of his throat. When he recounted first kisses and first lovers on “If I Had Known,” the polished rendition he recorded in 1990 gave way to a darker, more doubt-ridden version that channeled Tom Waits and made the melody almost disappear.
If the show had a misstep, it was the sincere but unfinished protest song that began “This war is all about oil” and failed to keep Brown’s usual standards for skillful phrasing. He followed it with one of his most compelling tunes, “Laughing River.” Like most of his songs, this one is simple but melodic, with Brown evoking pathos not through distorted guitars but through complex interior landscapes. The narrator, a minor league ballplayer, wrestles with the fact that he’s run of out time for making it to the pros. He faces up to the inevitable and resolves to move up to “where the houses are cheap” in northern Michigan.
“Goodbye to the bus, goodbye to paying dues,” sang Brown, who knows a thing or two about renouncing upward mobility. “Goodbye to the cheers, and goodbye to the booze. I’m trading in this old bat for a fishing pole. Gonna let the laughing river flow right into my soul.”
Opener and fellow Iowa guitarist Joe Price brought a no-nonsense brand of acoustic farmland blues, but without the depth of Brown’s vocals, he couldn’t reach the same heights. —Jonathan Hiskes