Steve Forbert and Ray Mason warm a Club Helsinki crowd

Steve Forbert

by Seth Rogovoy

(GREAT BARRINGTON, Mass., October 19, 2001) – “So good to feel good again” sang singer-songwriter Steve Forbert at Club Helsinki on Thursday night, undoubtedly summarizing the feeling of many in the room who have suffered pain and anguish for the last five weeks and who were searching for relief from the harsh realities of these times.

Forbert’s warm, quiet, cuddly manner was an infectious tonic for the packed crowd of fans, many of whom judging from their familiarity with when to sing choruses and when to clap were obviously huge fans of the singer-songwriter who first came to fame in the 1970s with the pop hit “Romeo’s Tune.”

Since then, Forbert has maintained a small but intensely loyal following for his well-crafted character sketches and story songs, as well as for intimate performances such as this one, where he worked hard to keep the songs flowing (he rarely pauses in between numbers, except when his guitar falls out of tune) and to fully inhabit his narratives.

Forbert wore his influences on his sleeve. Most obvious was Bob Dylan, with Forbert’s scruffy presence, battered acoustic guitar, harmonica in a wire rack and raspy voice all echoing the man who created the mold.

But Forbert brings to his material a more realistic, literary approach derived from his Southern background, and in the realism of his portraits and his characters’ marginality he echoes as much writers like Eudora Welty, Flannery O’Connor and Bobbie Ann Mason.

In its dramatic arc and its sense of struggling with powers greater than could ever be readily apparent, a song like “Goin’ Down to Laurel” seemed of a piece with early Bruce Springsteen; indeed, Forbert and Springsteen both came up in New York folk and rock clubs around the same time in the early 1970s. And Forbert’s tightly coiled, springy stage presence, heavy on foot percussion, also set him apart from the typical folk singer-songwriter and made clear that the heart of a rocker beat inside this balladeer.

There was also the bit of the classic pop songwriter in some of Forbert’s material, and he made his penchant for pop apparent by inserting a few phrases from classics like “Some Enchanted Evening” into his own songs. Love songs like “Rosemarie” and “Something’s Got a Hold of Me” also suggested that a young Steve Forbert might have grown up listening to the Latin-inflected doo-wop of groups like the Drifters.

Massachusetts’s own stellar singer-songwriter Ray Mason warmed up the crowd for Forbert. Performing solo and accompanying himself on electric guitar, Mason played stripped-down versions of his unique, eclectic pop-rock songs which variously addressed issues of love, heartbreak, cats and living room furniture.

At one point during his set, Mason revealed his songwriting and performing philosophy: “Say what you need to say and get out.” It’s a lesson learned from studying pop songcraft for over 40 years, nearly as long as Mason has been performing, and one of which he is a master. So many aspiring and even better-known songwriters could learn a few tricks from Mason’s economy of phrase. He finds a good one, that is, and hangs a two- or three-minute song on it and doesn’t leave it lying around long enough to grow stale.

Mason’s songs aren’t simple three-chord garage rock, however. He builds his unpredictable melodies on jazz chords, unlikely modulations and tempo shifts, yet always with an ear towards the catchy hook or riff. In performance he comes across like a fusion of Neil Young and Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, or – as his T-shirt tellingly revealed – like a one-man NRBQ.

An idiosyncratic singer, writer and performer, only Mason could pen an unforgettable ode to an ottoman – “Foot rest, so true/Foot rest, I’m always on you.” He’s a regional treasure deserving of wider renown.

[This review originally appeared in the Berkshire Eagle on October 22, 2001. Copyright Seth Rogovoy 2001. All rights reserved.]

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