For Brown, songwriters are musical messenger
December 6, 2005
“I feel pretty solidly in the groove,” singer/songwriter Greg Brown said in his deep, rich voice, just a few weeks before his Dec. 15 appearance at the Belly Up.With his daughter, Pieta Brown, opening, and electric guitar magician Bo Ramsey playing both sets, it should be a good show. And when the Pieta and Greg join together for a few songs, “that’s about as good as it gets,” the elder Brown said.Brown started playing music while growing up in Iowa. His mom played the electric guitar and his dad was a Pentecostal preacher, so he grew up telling stories, writing songs and traveling from one small town to the next. At 18, he moved to New York City and landed a job leading hootenannies. But moving around was in his bones, so Brown jumped from Portland to Los Angeles to Las Vegas before moving back to Iowa, recording a few albums and landing a job on “Prairie Home Companion.”
This background lends Brown’s music the seasoned feel of someone who has seen a good deal of the world, but still has roots. When Brown talks about his music, he explains complicated things in simple terms, and says the kinds of things that make people believe in art all over again. “I just kinda follow the muse when it comes to writing,” he said. “I see songs as a painter sees, some songs are dark, some are purple, some are yellow and purple.” He tries not to concentrate on his song-writing, but rather to just let it come as it does.”As a songwriter, I find myself as more of listener,” he said. “If you just listen and see what wants to come out then it comes out a lot better. Writing is like being in a dream state. It’s not a very conscious thing.”Writing is just trying to get the door open and getting out of the way. It’s the same place as where dreams come from. A lot of different artists say the same thing. It’s a source we all have in common. Children have it a lot. They’re not trying to control it. The source of that stuff is pretty close to the beating heart of life, and you just have to be the messenger of it.”Brown speaks of his music in the varied tones and honesty that appear in his lyrics.
“[My songs are] not all pretty and sweet and uplifting. Some of the roots of this life are turgid and dark,” he 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.”That’s the truth of the matter,” he laughed.Brown has released more than two dozen recordings, and another is set for release in the spring or summer. He will be joined on this forthcoming album by artists with whom he has worked before, including Rick Cicalo on bass, Bo Ramsey on electric guitar and Steve Hayes on drums.And though he’s still recording and touring, Brown’s schedule has slowed down a bit of late. “I got married to [folk singer] Iris DeMent awhile back and she goes out on weekends to perform,” he explained. “I try to match up with her so we can have a home life.”And though some of Brown’s children are grown, he and Iris recently adopted a 6-year-old girl from Russia. “I feel kind of like Grandpa-dad,” he joked, but continued, “Anytime you can help a little child out of a rough situation and give help in the world, that’s a good thing.”
The Belly Up is slowly rolling out, one by one, the big names for its first Christmas season. It’s starting to add up to a most impressive list.English-born soul singer Seal is set for Dec. 28, with tickets prices set at $350 and $250. It marks Seal’s first local appearance; he was scheduled to perform at the 1999 Jazz Aspen Labor Day Festival but canceled four days before the show, due to a management change.Playing Belly Up’s first New Year’s Eve gig will be G. Love & Special Sauce, the hip-hop/blues trio who also played the club’s opening week in late January. Other dates on the winter schedule include Colorado rockers Big Head Todd and the Monsters (Dec. 27); Neil Diamond tribute band Super Diamond (Jan. 1-2); ska band the English Beat (Jan. 19); reggae group the Wailers (Jan. 22-23); electro-jam band Sound Tribe Sector Nine, playing one of its Live P.A. shows (Jan. 31); New Orleans jazz-groove quintet Galactic (Feb. 14-15); and roots rockers Little Feat (Feb. 23). Expect some more big names to be added; there are several dates in the late December schedule that are conspicuously empty.At the Wheeler Opera House, upcoming acts include David Bromberg (Jan. 1); Texas singer-songwriter Robert Earl Keen (Jan. 9); New Jersey acoustic band Railroad Earth (Jan. 31); rockers the Cowboy Junkies (Feb. 27); young piano wizard Eldar (March 3); and folk singer Judy Collins (March 13).Joel Stonington’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org