Wit, Passion and Precision: Joe Henry at the Old Town School of Folk Music


I can’t remember the last time I posted a review of a live show. It may well be that I never have, but what I saw last Saturday night prompts me to do so now.

Back in 2003, I introduced my friend Donna to the the musical world of Joe Henry, about whom I wrote in a post from last year in which I gave a précis of Henry’s career as I know it and reviewed his latest recording Civilians.Joe Henry Headshot I don’t know whether she loves him as much as I do, but I’ll assume she’s pretty close. (More on that below). She braved the umpteenth winter storm to hit the midwest on Saturday, coming down from Appleton, WI, to catch up with friends and to attend the concert with me. And since my car was covered with snow (and hers obviously wasn’t), she drove as well. Ahh, friends.

After having a quick dinner at the Grafton Pub, conveniently located next to the Old Town School of Folk Music on North Lincoln Avenue, we walked into the venue and heard the final moments of the 7:00 show. His group was playing my favorite track from the new album: “Our Song.” As much as I hoped he’d play the song in the second show, I knew he was too savvy a performer to repeat the playlist. Hearing it from the wings was good enough.

After the opening act, Chris Connelly, had played, Henry and his stripped-down ensemble took the stage. He was joined by David Pilch (playing acoustic bass) and Jay Bellerose (on drums). Henry spent the evening alternating between two acoustic guitars that he was constantly retuning in open G, D, and E configurations. After introducing his bandmates and before playing the first song, Henry made a generous gesture to the audience that some, in my humble opinion, simply abused as the night went on. What he did was to say that if anyone wanted to ask questions of him or the band, they could do so at any point during the show. You might see how that gesture could be abused, but I’d be surprised if you could guess the extent to which it in fact was.

I can’t provide a song-by-song review, but I can tell you about the texture of the show. He obviously concentrated on material from Civilians and from his previous album Tiny Voices. On offer, as well, was a selection of tracks from 2001’s Scar, “Stop” from Fuse, and even “Trampoline” from, well, Trampoline. The arrangements on those recordings are so finely detailed, so sonically rich, that one might wonder how well they came across being played by a trio with no one singing backup vocals. The short answer is remarkably well. Reimagined as they were, the songs were still brilliant, and Henry’s harmonic sensibility and arch lyrics came across as well as they ever have—especially on “Struck,” “Stop” and “Edgar Bergen” from Scar; on “Animal Skin,” “This Afternoon” and “Flag” (from Tiny Voices); and on “Civilians,” “Scare Me to Death” and other tracks from Civilians. Indeed, in “Edgar Bergen," Henry wittily changed the lyric “Who's Edgar Bergen?” to “I'm Rick James, bitch!” Moments later, he nodded to the current presidential race (and the candidate who has his support), by replacing most of a verse with the words “Yes, we can. Yes, we can. I know we can, can” from the Pointer Sisters' 1973 hit “Yes We Can Can” (written by Allen Toussaint). But the excellence of the performance was the source of the first regrettable comment from the peanut gallery. Without holding back what I really think, I’ll describe what happened this way: some moron commented that he liked the songs better without “all of the production.” Henry, whose reputation rests not only on his songwriting but also his stellar and inventive production, shook his head, said nothing, and counted off the next song in response.

I won’t catalog all of the other idiotic comments from the audience, but there are a couple worth mentioning. First, there was the guy who asked just as a song was starting (maybe because he wanted other people to know how knowledgeable he was) whether Henry had played the previous one in open G. Henry kindly stopped the band, had the man repeat his question, and then confirmed that the gentleman was right. He then noted that the next song was in open E. I’m sure that, as I did, the other audience member had already sussed that out, having heard the minor third and perfect fourth intervals on the top three strings as Henry picked the strings from lowest-pitched to highest to make sure he was in tune. Then there were the people who asked why he never played shows in their hometowns (Vancouver and Detroit, among them). They also interrupted a song.

Through it all, though, Henry responded with patience and good humor. To the person who indelicately asked which candidate would get Henry’s vote in the California primary, Henry gracefully responded that the person he had submitted his early vote for was “neither a white man nor someone who had lived in the White House.” Nice. And, in a manner that recalls my best experiences seeing Ron Sexsmith, Henry told wonderful stories about the songs. The best of them was about “Animal Skin.” He apparently wrote the song for Rosemary Clooney(!) to sing on a project that was cut short by her death. Donna said to me after hearing the story that it would have been amazing to hear Clooney sing the song, and I could only agree.

All in all, it was a great show, one well worth the decade it took for me to finally hear Henry live. One of Donna’s comments summed things up nicely. She admitted that she was jealous of someone who could both write brilliant music and perform it flawlessly. So am I.

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