Otis Gibbs maintained ties with his hometown by holding the CD release show for his new album Grandpa Walked a Picketline
at the Vogue Saturday night. But he did have to break one tradition. Gibbs had played every prior CD release show at the Patio, the now-defunct Broad Ripple club that closed a little before Gibbs, who was born in Wanamaker and later lived in Broad Ripple, moved to East Nashville. Gibbs reminisced about his time spent at the Patio - including a couple years spent working the door in the early '90s - saying that, while he apologizes to those he sent away because their papers weren't in order, they didn't look old enough to get in anyways.
But this wasn't a nostalgia trip, and the Vogue proved a perfectly amenable venue for Gibbs' show on Saturday night. Seats lined up on the dance floor and a no-smoking policy created an atmosphere that mimicked that mid-sized, music-friendly, sit-down theater that Indianapolis doesn't have (although there is one out in Danville in the Royal Theater).
As a songwriter, Gibbs follows in the tradition of Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger and Ramblin' Jack Elliot, singing political material that's rarely didactic (but that does acknowledge forerunners and important political concepts when need be), telling of relationships and friendships that encourage or sustain political action (love behind the barricades if you will, though in Gibbs' world, that means challenging ingrained behaviors as well as powerful oppressors), sketching the natural world and life on the road with an eye towards working people and working from a vocabulary of traditional music and song structures.
Gibbs, who wore his IWW hat (that's Industrial Workers of the World, not International, as we redundantly had it last week), a black sweatshirt, jeans and a foot-long beard, opened the show alone with the train song "Long Black Thunder." He was soon accompanied by his longtime girlfriend and fellow singer-songwriter Amy Lashley on backup vocals, with whom he belted out a great rendition of "Ain't Nothin' Special," a song set at a now-landfilled pond in Wanamaker, a boyhood fishing spot become idyllic after the construction of condos in the area.
Gibbs engaged the crowd for the first sing-along on "The People's Day," an anthem from Gibbs' 2004 album One Day Our Whispers
that was selected by British singer-songwriter Billy Bragg as one of his "Top Five Songs with Something To Say" in an interview with the Wall Street Journal
earlier this year. The chorus to "The People's Day" - "One day our whispers will be louder than your screams / The people's day will come" - has a "We Shall Overcome" resonance and power, and the song's references to Mother Jones, Emma Goldman and Big Bill Haywood plant Gibbs' politics in a far-left lineage of anarchists, organizers and rabble-rousers. Gibbs ribbed the somewhat laid-back crowd after the song: "There's a fine line between radical folk, punk rock exuberance and 'Kum-Bye-Ya,' so be careful."
Gibbs might be most readily identified as a solo, acoustic guitar toting performer, but the show Saturday night really started to cook when, about a half-hour into the show, he brought out his backing band to accompany him for the remainder of the set. Gibbs worked with top-shelf Nashville session players for the recording of Grandpa
, so it's a credit to the local boys that played behind him - guitarist John Byrne, bassist Tad Armstrong and drummer Wayne Parrish - that they sounded just about as good as those session cats, particularly with much less rehearsal time. Byrne reeled off several lyrical and economical steel guitar solos (and acquitted himself just as well on electric guitar and dobro), while Armstrong and Parrish unassumingly held things together on every tune.
The highlight of the night, at least in terms of Gibbs' typically strong lyrics, was "Damn Me," a shuffling story-song that chronicles the attempts of the narrator and a friend to sort out the influence of the church, school and other ideological influences on their lives, and includes one of Gibbs' many statements of purpose: "Fanning the flames of discontent, that's what I like to call the Lord's work." But "Damn Me" is just one strong song among many from his latest album, which is rich with vignettes about a family full of union men ("Everyday People," which opened with the title line "Grandpa walked a picket line when he was 19 / Daddy did the same, it was his turn too / Made things better for me and you."), about a huckster ("Preacher Steve") and another moving statement of purpose ("To Anyone," with its moving chorus, "Calling out tonight to anyone who's tired of being down / Were you born to bring me down?"). All these tunes were orchestrated in a kind of roots-rock fashion, with Byrne filling in the violin parts on steel guitar, including a strong take on "Damn Me."
"If you buy anything tonight, buy with confidence because the workers control the means of production in this outfit," Gibbs told the crowd just before he left the stage to make way for the Vogue's Saturday night dance party. (Gibbs noted that he would be seeking out a party somewhere else than the Vogue because it "might kill the Vogue's business if people see me dancing on the bar.")
So while Gibbs' CD is available as a free stream at his Web site (otisgibbs.com) or nuvo.net, the crowd gathered Saturday night at the Vogue could take pride in the fact that they were supporting a locally-born and -raised independent artist.