Steve Forbert/Sam Llanas; February 25, 2012; Café Carpe
The Café Carpe’s charming curmudgeon/owner Bill Camplin began the show by cautioning us that the two acts playing tonight were great musicians who have written a number of great songs over their careers, so while we may want to hear some of their earliest songs, we should be patient and allow them to play some new material for us. I didn’t quite do it justice, but it was a well worded introduction intended to stop people from yelling for “Closer to Free” or “Romeo’s Tune.” Still that didn’t stop people from calling for the latter when Steve Forbert asked if there were any requests halfway through his set.
No one would blame him if he didn’t play it. The song had been a hit in 1980 (it reached #11 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart), a constant on the radio then, and he was branded yet another “new Dylan.” Though he’s released two dozen studio, live and best of records since then, he never duplicated that song’s success. He must have played it a million times by this point, even so, there it was, the last song of the night. He went into it from another song, so we were unprepared, caught off guard. There was something downright magical about it. Hearing his distinctive voice singing that oh-so familiar song in front of an appreciative sold-out Carpe crowd, yep, magical is about the only word I can think of to describe it.
Thing is, I think we all would have been OK if he hadn’t; the set had been pretty terrific without it. Even so, Forbert is an eccentric performer. There was definitely some OCD on display when he insisted all of Llanas’s stuff be off the small stage before he began, and even though I had okayed taking non-flash pictures with his tour manager, I still half-expected him to yell at me. He contorts his face and body while he plays, not quite to Joe Cocker’s painful proportions, but it did look uncomfortable and some of my furtive pictures were not flattering. But none of that could take away from the fact that he is a truly entertaining songwriter playing great songs.
I don’t know much of his catalog, in fact I only have two records, so I was delighted to hear one of my favorites, “Your Time Ain’t Long” from Rocking Horse Head. It’s a song about living your life and not believing in nonsense like fortune tellers, and it’s catchy as hell. One crowd request was “The Oil Song,” and it was a good one. He says he first wrote the song about an oil spill in 1977, and he’s been adding verses ever since. There are fifteen now. “Don’t buy it at the station, you can have it now for free, just come on down to the shore where the water used to be,” he claims. He encouraged sing-alongs throughout the night, and the best of these was a newer song “Jessica,” where the audience spelled out her name like the most tentative backing vocalists ever.
Forbert looks terrific, his face still boyish, his hair still thick. In fact, at one point when he asked if there were any questions, one smitten female asked “How do you stay so cute?” It was hard to believe that opener Sam Llanas had listened to Forbert as he was growing up. Formerly of the BoDeans, Llanas has aged since I last saw him. His hair has thinned and grayed, and he looked older than Forbert. He still sounded exactly the same though, and I recognized the first two songs as ones he used to play during a residency at Linneman’s in Milwaukee nearly ten years ago. He had just played the Carpe two weeks earlier and I got the feeling this was a last minute addition. He talked about how his songwriting had been influenced by Forbert and even sang a little of one of his songs. “He said I could do that,” he smiled, before ending his short set with the perfect “Far Far Away from My Heart” to prove his point.