Greg Brown sat here. Here is Milwaukee’s Shank Hall, and Brown sat here for his October 14 performance. His sitting is different than past tours where he preferred to stand while singing and playing, but sitting here this time seems to show that Brown has worked more on his guitar chops lately. Rather than simply playing rhythm guitar to constant companion Bo Ramsey’s electric lead, Brown’s acoustic playing was strong, vibrant, the best I’ve ever heard from him in a live show.
For instance, on “Livin’ in a Prayer,” Brown added a fingerstyle blues with a lot of steel sound in it. “Elvis & Jesus” found Brown doing his old bluesman routine, so to speak, and sitting there, you could almost imagine him on some milk crates in a doorway on the street with a open hat for tips.
That bluesman routine seems a bit like an adopted persona, but truly, as I listened to the music that evening, bluesman is what I heard. While Greg Brown is most simply known as a folk singer, there’s much more blues in this man out of the hill country of Iowa. “Down at the Mill” is a rocking blues with a roundhouse rhythm and Ramsey’s slide wash. From Honey in the Lion’s Head, Brown takes the traditional tune “Samson,” giving the biblical story a real sense of urgency through the blues. “Kokomo” was the chant blues tune for the night, and through Brown’s deep voice, the name of an Indiana town comes like the most bluesy name ever.
For this tour, Brown and Ramsey were joining by Rick Cicalo on upright bass. Cicalo gave the evening a jazz combo feel, although with a country tone and a blues, folk harmony. On “Laughing River,” Cicalo kept the traditional folk rhythm going while Ramsey and Brown mused on their guitars and Brown on harmonica. It was Cicalo’s bass that gave the encore, Iris Dement’s “Samaritan,” a jugband Gospel feel—with tender harmony vocals from Ramsey and Pieta Brown, who joined her father on stage for that last tune.
The older song “Poet Game” came mid-set as a reminder that every incident in life leaves him to play a poem for it. What Brown does with those poems is to not only tell emotions or tell stories, but his songs also evoke geography. Like a play with no set, music doesn’t come with pictures. Videos make up for this, but true songwriters let their music create the pictures. “Brand New Dodge” strolled even slower down the main street at Shank Hall. Like a Saturday night Classic Car Cruise, that Dodge purrs up to the malt shop. Even so, the song is also a reminiscent of the glowing light of an old radio, a geography of living rooms and the innocence before John F. Kennedy was shot.
That sense of geography also comes through “Driftless,” like laying in a sun-soaked field in the wind. This seems to be the core song influencing Pieta Brown’s own songwriting showcased during her opening set.
Pieta Brown with Bo Ramsey
Accompanied by Bo Ramsey, Pieta Brown has grown since last time I saw her opening for her father in 2004. Her haunting, heart-filling voice comes through her side-of-the-mouth delivery, akin to Ellis Paul. That voice overall reminds me of Patty Griffith and Lucinda Williams, plenty of country in the air but a voice that calls on plenty of other tones and styles. “All the Pretty Songs” found Brown sounding like the bluesy end of Michelle Shocked. “4th of July” has sections of a Bob Dylan speak-sing.
Rhythmically, “All the Pretty Songs” (a title that’s perhaps a play on a line from Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit”) didn’t have the same energy as the new album, In the Cool. Elsewhere, Brown maintained that energy such as on “Never Came Back” with its road song rhythm that keeps paces with the freight train. On , a country acoustic dust bowl strum is coupled with Ramsey’s blues.
In the Cool as an album comes creeping out of the gate with the bluesy “#807.” The title track is a dirty blues stomp. “Ring of Gold” plays on Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire,” a trap set rhythm for a song about being trapped in a relationship. These are all strong tracks that it would’ve been good to hear in Brown’s live set. Although what Brown did include on October 14 was the old folk song, “Red Apple Juice,” which with its walking, picked guitar line was a sweet treat.
Of course, the best moment of the evening was overhearing someone in the restroom say, “I must be abusing my guitar,” in reaction to watching Bo Ramsey pull so much sound out of his guitar while seemingly just barely touching those strings. The man looks like he’d have a backache, bent over his guitar, turned all odd angles and such. Not sure sometimes how much he can see of the crowd with his cowboy hat pulled low. Yet, that man elicits the most passion from an electric guitar than most flamboyant, arm-swinging guitar slingers. When Greg Brown sings about his dad’s dancing in “Billy from the Hills,” it’s Bo Ramsey’s guitar that does the dance.
Thanks to Greg Brown, Pieta Brown, Bo Ramsey, Redhouse Records, Valley Entertainment, Trailer Records, and Shank Hall, one of the Midwest’s most excellent venues, for their help. Greg Brown photo courtesy of Kevin Atkins.