Greg Brown hides
by Seth Rogovoy

(PITTSFIELD, Mass., January 19, 2003) – Singer-songwriter Greg Brown entertained a sold-out auditorium at the Berkshire Museum on Saturday night with two sets of bluesy, rootsy folk music.

Backed by the husband-and-wife duo of Karen Savoca on percussion and vocals and Pete Heitzman on guitar, Brown, who also played guitar, sang his original compositions and several well-chosen cover tunes in his trademark voice, halfway between a growl and a mumble.

Brown, who is from Iowa and who first gained a modicum of renown as a regular on Garrison Keillor’s public radio variety show, “A Prairie Home Companion,” sang about love, lust, obsession and the malling of America in acoustic, rootsy arrangements that relied heavily on the blues, variously dressed up in country, folk and jazz arrangements.

“We are the folk-roots exhibit,” he joked at one point, alluding to the concert taking place in a museum.

But Brown is no museum piece – at least not yet. He breathed new life into old favorites like “Think About You,” about obsession bordering on pathology – “even when I’m sleeping/I’m gonna think about you” -- which Heitzman turned into a jazzy, blues-noir tune with eerie bent notes and chords, and new songs like “Steady Love,” a jaunty, Caribbean-inflected tune off his most recent album, “Milk of the Moon.”

Brown was at his most Dylanesque on “Rexroth’s Daughter,” an epic search for an elusive love. And the trio stretched out on a version of the Gershwins’s “Summertime,” which Brown personalized with some very knowing lyrics about Pittsfield – “it ain’t really that bad a town/things gonna get better.” On that tune and several others Brown and his trio worked the groove to its outer limits, carving out a style of improvisational new-folk tailor-made for the younger jam-band crowd.

There is, however, an air of creeping self-indulgence taking over Greg Brown’s performances in recent years. Whereas other singer-songwriters of his ilk put themselves out front, Brown has been progressively withdrawing from his audience. This plays out in many ways. For one, he tours a lot less than he used to. Fine, but when he does perform, as on Saturday night, he plays seated on a low-slung stool, hidden in a wool cap down to his eyes. He made little effort to connect directly with his audience. Instead he increasingly hides behind his gruff, misanthropic persona. He is morphing into a caricature of his obsessive, pathological narrators – fictive constructs who seem to have taken over his actual persona and turned him sullen and smug.

Adding to the effect, the lighting for the entire show, while perhaps pretty and artistic, wasn’t even deserving of the word “lighting.” Instead, it shrouded the performers in deep, dark reds and blues, only enhancing the sense that Brown – ensconced behind totally unnecessary dark sunglasses -- had something to hide. Either that, or he just plain despises his audience.

[This review originally appeared in the Berkshire Eagle on January 21, 2003. Copyright Seth Rogovoy 2003. All rights reserved.]

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