Steve Forbert

TrackAlbum
Goin' Down To LaurelAlive On Arrival
Get Well SoonLittle Stevie Orbit
Song For KatrinaLittle Stevie Orbit
Ya Ya (Next To Me)Steve Forbert
Baby, Don'tThe American In Me
It Sure Was Better Back ThenMission Of The Crossroad Palms
The Last Rays Of SunlightMission Of The Crossroad Palms
My Time Ain't LongRocking Horse Head
What It Is Is A DreamJust Like There's Nothin' To It
Blackbird TuneThe Place And The Time

 

 

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Steve Forbert playlist

 

Contributor: Peter Mills

Anyone remember twin tub washing machines? When I was a kid in the late 70s one of my Saturday jobs was to do the washing, which involved hauling the sopping linen from the washing half to the smaller spinning half. I’d have BBC Radio One playing to leaven the chore but the machine was so noisy I couldn’t hear a thing. Except for the few moments it took to move that load from one tub to the other. One Saturday afternoon in summer of 1978 – the year punk broke, in the UK anyway – I was mid-way through this task when, in this brief lacuna between the wash/spin cycles, I heard a lovely sound – a rasping, mellifluous wheeze of harmonica. Now, I was very partial to harmonica then, as I am now, so this got my attention straight away. Then the vocal, the tone of which I liked a lot, confidential but also confident, full of startled, delighted wonder. It was a mix I responded to, and it was clear from the following chat that this was a new artist, with something for me. So the washing had to wait.

Steve Forbert’s debut album Alive On Arrival had just been released in the UK and he was in London to play and promote the record. It was the combination of the harmonica (blasted mercilessly on a rack), wide awake vocal tone and wise-beyond-his-years lyrics that got Forbert badged as ‘The New Dylan’, which as Bruce Springsteen, Loudon Wainwright and Elliott Murphy woulda told you, isn’t particularly helpful in the long run. Or maybe the short one either. He had arrived in NYC from his native Meridian, Mississippi in 1976 and busked, hustled and played his way to gigs at folk clubs and rock clubs, even supporting Talking Heads at CBGB’s before being ‘noticed’ and signing to Nemperor, a subsidiary of CBS/Epic (since swallowed by Sony). All of this and more is discussed with warm wit and candour in his 2018 memoir “Big City Cat: My Life in Folk-Rock”.

By my reckoning Steve Forbert has at the time of writing (June 2021) issued 19 studio albums, a handful of live albums, and anthologies of rare and unreleased material – there is also a stack of bundled collections available from his website. Consequently, choosing a mere ten is a tall order. But here I am. Alive On Arrival could stand as a ‘User’s Guide’ in itself, with its mix of in-the-moment busked wit, energy and verve for life, while tracks like Thinkin’ and You Cannot Win If You Do Not Play became instant favourites and have become ever-presents in his live sets. Oh, and the song that slowed up my laundry was Goin’ Down To Laurel, the album’s lead off track, his debut UK single and probably still the perfect introduction to his style. So here it is!

Now you’ll have to indulge me – his most successful and best-known song was on his second album: Romeo’s Tune, from 1979’s Jackrabbit Slim, but it’s not in this Top Ten. Partly because it’s so easy to find, should you wish to hear it it, and, well, it’s just not one of my top ten Steve Forbert songs. So we’re skipping that whole album to pluck a pair from what may well be my favourite album by him, 1980’s Little Stevie Orbit, a dazzling blend of styles and approaches to songwriting and recording. He was well into his stride as a writer by this point and I always like it when someone who has a smash (cf Romeo’s Tune and its parent album) doesn’t just dish up a little more of the same. Pop had moved on a lot since his debut and it was clear Forbert was an avid listener to all kinds of music, which fed into his own distinct style. So Get Well Soon is a high end noisy whirligig of a thing, a glimpse of fast and moneyed life at the top of the pop tree, while Song For Katrina is an exquisite country-folk ode to a beauty quietly observed: “with your reindeer eyes on a Christmas Day”. Listen to how Forbert drops a “yeah” at the end of that line – he knows he’s got it down right. Little Stevie Orbit still sounds great to me, and a 2011 double disc edition adds stacks of bonuses, studio and live.

 

Artistic growth is one thing, the music biz is another and the more modest performance of this album put the pressure on for the next outing simply called Steve Forbert (1982), and you can hear the effort that went into turning the next choice, Ya Ya (Next To Me), into a hit record. I mean, I love it, and the song is bristling with hooks, but you can hear that everything was thrown at it, blasting brass section and all. In this period he also became an accidental star on the fledgling MTV via a cameo in one of the station’s early classic clips, as the hapless boyfriend in CBS labelmate Cyndi Lauper’s Girls Just Wanna Have Fun.

The Steve Forbert album sold, but not enough to satisfy CBS who were probably looking for the kind of breakthrough (and payday) that Bruce Springsteen would provide in 1984 with Born In The USA. Forbert’s next album, recorded in 1983, was rejected by the label and he was summarily dropped; that spurned album would be issued twenty five years later under the bittersweet title of Down In Flames.

Business problems crowded in on him in the aftermath of all this and the next the world would hear of him was 1988’s The Streets Of This Town. That album saw him re-emerge into a changed musical world, in which his kind of Americana was a rising stock, with the huge success of Bruce Springsteen and the slow build of R.E.M.’s eventual stardom both underway. Having sold out Madison Square Garden in the late 70s, this period represented a real return to his musical roots as he attempted to reconnect with his old audience and find a place in this new musical landscape, dominated by college radio and MTV. From 1991’s The American In Me let’s try Baby Don’t, a pleasing soul-country hybrid which I once told him (at a gig in Leeds) was a song Smokey Robinson would have been proud of. He seemed pleased.

Up next are two tracks from another favourite, 1995’s Mission Of The Crossroad Palms. It Sure Was Better Back Then is a cinematic thing, a chatty hard luck story which feels as if it is narrated by a guy who plonked himself next to you in a bar in the sultry mid-afternoon. It choogles a la Creedence arm wrestling with Green-era R.E.M.. The Last Rays Of Sunlight is from the same bag as Song For Katrina, a diaphanously lovely slice of melancholic reflection on happiness felt or lost. Both demonstrate what a great lyricist Forbert is – It Sure Was Better Back Then paints a series of scenes so vividly I feel like I’m there. It’s also proved to be a great number played live, acoustic and solo, perhaps unexpectedly so when you hear the good crunch of the band hitting the pocket on the studio track. If the audience has the beat right – handclap just there, between the chords – it rocks very nicely indeed.

If you were bending my arm, really quite far back, I might name The Last Rays Of Sunlight as one of my Top Three Forbert tracks; it’s an apparently simple, almost weightless little thing, but possessed of such grace and soft sundown loveliness that whenever it comes on I have to put down what I’m doing and pay attention, and feel much better afterwards. I hope you feel like that too.

… and we’re back in the room! This next track, My Time Ain’t Long from 1996’s grittier Rocking Horse Head, is one of Forbert’s reflections on advancing years and mortality: see also 1980’s Carmelita and the more whimsical Middle Age (2007). It’s part hypochondriac fretting, part stocial philosophy. A man – let’s call him Steve – has an encounter with a fortune teller who gives him the uneasy eye and tells him his time ain’t long. The man’s wife scorns this – “if she’s got ESP, how come she lives down there?”, logic that is hard to gainsay. The song finishes with a kind of renewed resolve and advice to the listener to live in the spirit of carpe diem, that is, to seize the day. We don’t know how long we’ve got. There’s a superb clip on Youtube of Forbert performing this tune in a record store, but here is the studio version in case it draws you toward the album as a whole.

Into the 21st century and Forbert was to be found touring the US, UK and Europe almost every year playing venues of many sizes and scales – from historic old music halls to ‘house concerts’. He kind of came to be the embodiment of Robert Fripp’s idea of ‘a highly mobile musical unit’, travelling with his guitar and bundle of harmonicas and building his sets according to the mood in the room. The albums kept band arrangements throughout and consolidated his signature styles while also admitting innovation – here’s one from that latter category, What It Is Is A Dream from 2004’s Just Like There’s Nothin’ To It. I love the slow trip-hoppy beat dragging behind the song’s natural tempo, really communicating the feeling of weary, woozy wisdom, our perception both slowing and deepening. I love the morse-code-meets-harmonium feel on the fade out.

Had we but world enough and time I would direct you to his albums of Jimmie Rodgers material – the yodelling ‘father of Country music’ aka the ‘Singing Brakeman’ was the first famous musical son of Forbert’s home town of Meridian, Mississippi – and also treat you to a selection of his top class covers such as The Kinks’ Starstruck and Harry Nilsson’s The Moonbeam Song (both to be found on tribute albums) and, in concert, Moon River (his own Steve Forbert’s Moon River is an early rarity which I love and encourage you to seek out) alongside little snippets from several songs on The Beatles’ White Album, which is clearly a big favourite of his.

But up last is Blackbird Tune from 2009’s The Place And The Time which I simply had to include as it was composed in my home county of Yorkshire – in fact he namechecks it – and, according to his concert intros, it was written in Beverley (a bonny Minster town in East Yorkshire, near Hull) prior to his appearance at the town’s Folk Festival. It’s like a little pencil sketch or diary entry – and of course nods back to the White Album with that shared blackbird. The tannic richness of the cellos in the middle eight adds another strand to his evocation of the mood. It captures both the pleasures and the price to pay for life as a musician on the road, finding yourself in another strange town, a long way from home.

So there we go – over forty years worth of music condensed into ten tunes. His style has developed and changed, like it will with all truly musical artists, but he is still instantly recognizable and the combination of his voice and harmonica is still one of my favourite sounds. Be my guest and dig it.

 

 

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Steve Forbert Official Website

Steve Forbert Bandcamp

Steve Forbert at Discogs

Steve Forbert biography (AllMusic)

Peter Mills is a writer, lecturer, music lover, with books on Van Morrison and The Monkees. He has contributed to the Time Travellers series for BBC Radio 3. He was singer and lyricist for the band Innocents Abroad who issued two albums, Quaker City (1986) and Eleven (1989), and who are currently recording a new album, Late Spring, to be released in 2022. You can find him on twitter @PEM33rpm.

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