Greg Brown at The Hangar Theater

Greg Brown at The Hangar Theater ~ Ithaca, N.Y. March 16, 2012

Dan Smalls Presents presented Greg Brown played at Ithaca’s Hangar Theater on Friday March 16. Hats off to Dan Smalls for bringing someone like Greg Brown to a venue like The Hangar.  It was the perfect venue for this concert; small, intimate, with great acoustics, and not a bad seat in the house. It’s the kind of venue that allowed Greg Brown to establish a personal rapport with an appreciative audience. Perfect fit – Slam Dunk – Total Home Run!

Greg Brown has been an icon on the singer-songwriter scene for a long, long time. He’s from Iowa, born there, grew up there, and even with the peripatetic life style of a troubadour, he still calls it home. My curiosity was piqued by this because I grew up in the midwest and spent a couple of formative years of my childhood in Iowa. I’d heard some of his music, the odd track here and there on various anthologies, and he was a regular on A Prairie Home Companion, but it wasn’t until his epic 2000 release, Convenant, that I got totally hooked. This is one of those rare collections on which every song is a perfect, sparkling jewel. I’ve almost worn out the grooves on this CD from playing it so much. Oh wait, CDs don’t have grooves, but you get the picture. After 12 years and a lot of other music, this still remains one of my favorite collections of anyone’s music. I’ve been waiting to see Greg Brown ever since Covenant came out, and his performance at The Hangar exceeded all my expectations. Part of the beauty was that nearly every song he played was new to me. His planned playlist did not stop him from spontaneously going down unexpected roads. He also played songs “that he wasn’t sure he could remember” and “that just popped into my head.” His cover of Merle Haggard’s Where Did America Go was so poignant, heartfelt and timely that it almost brought me to tears. I so admire that kind of authenticity, and I am honored that he felt comfortable enough with us to take those risks.

Greg Brown is tough to hang a label on. Is he a folk singer – a singer of Americana – a blues musician – a humorist – a story teller ? He is all of these and more. Although, one thing I know for sure, he’s not an opera singer. But I like that about him. His voice is deep, rich and sonorous; often dipping so low down into the bass range that it almost feels like he’s slipping off the edge of the planet, or at least off the edge of his chair, and taking you with him. His vocal style is so relaxed, loose and casual that it feels like he’s not even really trying to sing, almost approaching the notes with a loose approximation before finally zeroing in. But it works – damn it – it really works. His voice reminds me of the most comfortable pair of jeans you’ve ever worn, or a 20 year old Kentucky bourbon that slides down like velvet and warms you right down to where you live. And it’s not an affectation. It’s Greg Brown singing only the way Greg Brown can sing. He fully inhabits his voice and uses it as a true vehicle to tell the stories in his songs.

This is all supported by flawless, crisp guitar technique. An absolute virtuoso of finger picking technique mixed with rich, lustrous strumming, he frequently employs dropped note tunings to add a deep bottom end. Greg Brown is also one wicked good blues player. The first few songs were so deeply rooted in the blues it felt like my feet were stuck in Mississippi River mud. He sings songs and tells stories about people and places, Iowa farmers, long, quiet highways in the midwest that go on forever, love, loss, nature, raising children, dogs, sticky situations, aging and everyday life. Greg Brown is truly authentic and one of a kind. It was a great concert. I loved it, and I’ve already listened to Covenant twice today. If you listen to Pandora Radio, create a Greg Brown station. You won’t regret it. Another thing you won’t regret is going to a Dan Smalls Presents show at The Hangar Theater. If you go, look for me, I’ll be there!