For a second at Natasha’s on Sunday night, it looked as if Steve Forbert might reveal how much of the whimsy, romanticism and domestically inclined darkness that permeates his songs has been pulled from personal experience.
It came when the veteran songsmith cracked open tunes from his fine 2012 album, Over With You. Specifically, the instance revolved around the record’s leadoff tune, All I Asked of You, a tale of emotional “disrepair” told with the sort of sadness, candor and melodic grace that brought Lucinda Williams’ music to mind.
So was it autobiographical? Judge by yourself from this exchange with a patron after the song wound down.
Forbert: “That was a slice of somebody’s life. I hope it wasn’t mine.”
Patron: “It probably was.”
Forbert: “Then I’ll check.”
Such was the mischievous nature of Forbert’s music, and of his performance smarts. His commercial popularity peaked quickly at the onset of the ’80s (courtesy of the radio hit Romeo’s Song, which was served last night as a tasty set closer with a snippet of The Beatles’ Goodnight as a prelude), Forbert has remained a prolific folk-based artist through the decades, with a strong recording catalog that has dipped only through occasional missteps in production choices as opposed to songwriting.
Forbert took wide aim at that catalog last night, serving up several works from his celebrated 1978 debut album, Alive on Arrival. The highlight of the lot was Goin’ Down to Laurel, a reverie of expectations involving a seemingly frequent journey to a “dirty, stinking town.”
But there also was the newest version of an evolving environmental epic that proved to be the evening’s most curious sing-along (The Oil Song, which Forbert stopped and re-started in hopes that a chatty table of patrons would button their collective lips), an intriguing take on the “social environment” of large-venue rock shows (The Beast of Ballyhoo), a gem from 1992’s The American in Me, Forbert’s finest Geffen-era album (Responsibility) and even an unexpected cover (a folky revision of Lou Reed’s Sweet Jane).
As fine as the song selection was, Forbert’s nicely combustible treatment of his tunes was even more arresting. The years have not worn away any intensity or immediacy from his concerts. Forbert’s body regularly bent, jerked and swayed to a song’s intent as he accompanied himself on guitar, harmonica and the steady hammering of a boot heel on the floorboards.
The highlight, though, came in the title tune from Over With You, an atypically good-natured breakup song delivered, despite its obvious warmth, with the kind of disturbing exactness and quiet that you would expect from Neil Young’s overlooked acoustic music from the mid-’70s. It was a meditation that sought solace from personal devastation even as room was left for loss to linger.