Saturday, July 24, 2010
Posted by Nick Toloudis at 7:14 PM
Last night, I headed up Route 47 and onward to Northampton to meet up with my friend Alison for the great Loudon Wainwright's gig at the Iron Horse, which has come to feel like a proverbial (metaphorical?) summer home for me. I don't think it was a sold out show, but it must have been close. The man draws a crowd. This was my first time seeing him since his opening gig for Hot Tuna this past December. I could scarcely have been happier with last night's show.
The opening act was a singing, songwriting piano player named Rob Morsberger. He opened with something called "The Last Song," a sad, beautiful goodbye, from a husband to a wife. He sang and played with strength and warmth, sounding like a slightly gravelly version of Dan Bern. His 30 minute set went by quickly, and that's a complement. His melodies are very strong, and songs like "Old Jolly Farm" and "Details" are detail-oriented, wise and experiential. And I'm partial to his singing voice. Worth checking out.
On to the featured act. I was amused to see LWIII fumble around a bit, looking for a place to rest his glass of water, a routine that I recall from his last Iron Horse show. He wound up putting it on the piano, before launching into a song from High, Wide, and Handsome: The Charlie Poole Project (2009) called "Moving Day," a funny one. From there, the pendulum swung to the other end of the emotional spectrum with "Dead Man." And then all the way back with "The Morgue," a song that combines, as he told us, "shitty love" with "death and decay," the themes that have defined his career. I love that one, myself.
As has been the case with most of the LWIII performances I've seen, the man had us in the palm of his hand almost immediately. His stage presence is amazing, with that expressive face and voice, along with the facial contortions and gesticulations in the middle of songs that signify...all sorts of emotions. Sometimes, they're just plan silly. But he's so mastered all these mannerisms that they transcend mere shtick. In the middle of a couple of songs, including a serious one, "You Can't Fail Me Now," he retuned a guitar string a bit, and he did it while barely breaking his stride, and with a big grin on his face. It barely disturbed the feel of the song at all. He once said in an interview that all his facial ticks were, at the beginning of his career, the expression of very real nervousness and stage fright. Over time, though, he began to realize that he could control all the ticks, and they have since become very much a part of his performance repertoire. In any case, Loudon was in fine form last night, very funny and passionate.
His set focused on newer material, for the most part. He played 3 of the 10 Songs from the New Depression (2010) which, he did not tire of telling us, were his attempt to cash in on the current economic downturn. These included the very best one of those 10, "House," which was a highlight of his performance with Richard Thompson at the Calvin back in October. Along with "Moving Day," he did "High Wide and Handsome" and "Rowena" from the Charlie Poole album. He also played the first three songs from Strange Weirdos (2007), "Gray in L.A.," "You Can't Fail Me Now," and "Daughter," and my favorite two songs from Last Man on Earth, "Surviving Twin" and "White Winos," the latter being a song that always gets requested at the man's shows. Someone at the back of the Iron Horse cried out for it rather forcefully, early in the set, prompting Loudon to very gently explain that perhaps he'd play it a bit later on, that he in fact had been considering playing it later that evening, and that he probably would. "But, in the meantime...SECURITY!"
Family is Loudon's great theme. All of his talents are on full display when he mines this topic, one that few singer-songwriters really address, and no singer-songwriter gets into with the depth that LWIII does. Last night, he played songs about being a father ("A Father and a Son"), a father's son ("Surviving Twin," "Dead Man"), a mother's son ("White Winos"), a grandchild ("Nanny"), and a brand new grandfather (a new song; can't remember the title). After a little recap of his own father's career as a Life Magazine columnist, he played his dad's song "Handful of Dust," which is from the History album (1990). But most moving of all was when he put down the guitar and sat at the piano to play "Another Song in C." That was the most powerful moment of the concert for me, a performance that conjured/elicited/displayed laughter, sadness, anger and regret. It was the greatest moment from the last time I saw him at the Iron Horse, and it was the highlight from last night too.
He played several songs that he has yet to record, including "Another Song in C" and the one inspired by his having become a grandfather. He debuted a powerful anti-drunk driving song that, I imagine, will be called "The Cross." And, much to my delight, he played the song that describes the mishap with his guitar. Check it out.
A couple of other tidbits....About halfway through the set, he introduced his teenage daughter, who was sitting at a table across the room from me. Apparently, they were taking some time during the tour to visit colleges, including Amherst and Williams. He wondered aloud how he was going to pay for it, before giving us (and, probably more to the point, his daughter) a big smile and saying, "we'll figure it out somehow!" Rufus came up a couple of time. First, he introduced "A Father and a Son" by saying that the song was about Rufus and himself, also prompting him to marvel at the fact that the song was over 20 years old. Then, in the middle of "Nanny," he inserted a spoken word interlude in which he described his grandmother's reaction to hearing the name of her first great-grandchild: "Rufus? RUFUS? That's a DOG'S name!" And he showed off his sharpie to us several times, letting us know that he'd be happy to sign the CDs that he had for sale. And he'd even pose for a photo, even from a cell phone "as long as you're under 30 and actually know how to work the damn thing!"
For the two-part encore, he gave us "Tip That Waitress," followed by "Middle of the Night," which is one of the New Depression songs.
I see from his website that he'll be back in New England in March of 2011, for gigs with Shawn Colvin at the Colonial Theater in Pittsfield, MA and at Fairfield University in Fairfield, CT. I'll be sure to get to one of those. You should too.