A week before Christmas, Iowa folkie Greg Brown played a concert that, like the holiday, was variously a celebration, humble exercise and occasion for worship. “I’ll start with this poem,” said Brown, taking the stage at the L2 Arts and Culture Center on Saturday alone in wide-brimmed hat, dark sunglasses, and sleeveless shirt. The e.e. cummings poem, “most this amazing day,” set a commanding, reverent tone that never receded. Lines like “This is the birthday of life and the birthday of love, and this is the birthday of wings” hint at joy and innocence, but seeded by Brown’s heavily seasoned growl, they acquire an edge that suggests darker things to come.
Brown played several songs that grasped the Christmas feeling — not chestnuts-roasting-on-an-open-fire sentiments (though an encore was “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas”), but deeper like “I Wonder as I Wander,” a Christmas carol-turned-popular-folk-song. For much of the set, longtime John Prine guitarist and show opener Jason Wilbur joined Brown.
Sprinkled amid songs that hinted at the ineffable were humble heartland ditties. “Cheapest Kind” celebrated a stoic “preacher’s family in pressed clothes and worn-out polished shoes,” with love cemented by “years of makin’ do with the cheapest kind.” “Fat Boy Blues” was simple self-deprecation, not overplayed as musical-humorous sojourns can be.
Frequently, Brown would sing lines so fresh and evocative — such as “the sky is a dirty sock” — that I latched on them, the song soldiering on without me. It can make it difficult to corral an entire Greg Brown song at first, with lines that are almost too rich for the songs they inhabit. He played nothing from the three Greg Brown albums I own (“Slant 6 Mind” is a favorite), and most of Saturday’s set was unfamiliar to me. That’s the thing about having hundreds of great songs and no hits: each concert can be a randomized selection from Brown’s canon. I’ll trade familiarity for discovery.
Brown has appeared often on Garrison Keillor’s “A Prairie Home Companion,” and given their mutual mellifluousness and Midwestern affinities, they’re a natural comparison. I’ve always felt closer to Brown, his darkness feeling more authentic, Keillor’s musings striking me as a phony cliché of contented humility.
Brown recently said, “Certain writers that are known as writing dark songs, you meet them in person, and they’re happy. But the people who write the happy ones, watch out for them backstage.” Keillor’s milquetoast reputation has been recently soiled with an angry column that derided “lousy holiday songs by Jewish guys that trash up the malls” and explaining “Christmas is a Christian holiday — if you’re not in the club, then buzz off.”
As a Jew (“trashing up the malls” less than I’d like these days), I prefer Greg Brown’s club, anyhow — one in which the season isn’t yet another opportunity to take sides, but a chance to slow down, feel, and listen.
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Jeremy Simon is a Lafayette freelance writer and regular contributor to Reverb.