ARCHIVE: Forbert Takes It to the River

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Riverside Romeo: Hopping a high lonesome train to Red Bank, Steve Forbert comes to Riverside Gardens for the first in the summer series of Songwriters in the Park events, this Friday night.

By DOROTHY CREAMER (First published on Red Bank oRBit July 9, 2009)

Come Friday night in Red Bank, the air down around the banks of the Navesink will be filled with the fragrantly thought-provoking poetry of some of the best songwriting minds of our generation, delivered over a gentle breeze of acoustic guitars — and with perhaps with the faint hum of a cicada chorus. Yes, it’s time once again for the annual Songwriters in the Park series, presented by Brookdale Public Radio/ 90.5 The Night.

It’s the fifth year for an event that brings seven weeks of name-act, outdoor concerts to the terraformed terraces and waterfront walkways of Riverside Gardens Park. The acoustic-based, singer-songwriter shows are free to the public, and will kick off at 7:30pm on July 10, and continue on Friday nights until August 21.

The series had its start in 2005, when The Night assembled a season that included hit recording artist Jeffrey Gaines to name just one. Since that inaugural year, the event has continued to draw an impressive mix of major, indie and unsigned talent — with last year’s lineup including our very own version of the Jonas Brothers, Manalapan’s own Val Emmich. The triple-threat singer/songwriter/actor (Ugly Betty) joined a group of musical veterans as well as some newer faces like Astrid Williamson — who returns this season in an appearance timed to coordinate with the American release of her debut solo album, Boy for You.

This year’s roster of acts mixes in some new faces with some who have been popular guests in previous years. The schedule includes Guggenheim Grotto andJoe Whyte (July 17),  John Wesley Harding and Cantinero (July 24), Astrid Williamson and Cara Salimando (July 31), Among The Oak & Ash and Keith Monacchio (August 7), Miles Hunt & Erica Nockalls and Wayne Hussey (August 14), and Ari Hest and Beth Arentsen closing out the series on August 21.

Before any of that, however, one of the most familiar faces (and voices) from seasons past inaugurates the 2009 Songwriters slate on Friday, when Steve Forbert comes to the Gardens with storywriting songteller Jon Caspi opening up. With his smooth-as-molasses drawl, Forbert had a huge hit in 1979 with “Romeo’s Tune,” and recently released a new album, The Place And The Time. The new album is a follow-up to his 2007 offering, Strange Names & New Sensations, and continues the Forbert tradition of presenting his musical message in an endearing way that often draws comparisons to Bob Dylan.

Red Bank oRBit managed to track Forbert down somewhere in the wilds of Tennessee —okay just outside Nashville — to talk about a career that has spanned thirty-plus years and is showing no signs of stopping.

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Forbert and Springsteen, captured by ace photog Mike Black during a recent Saint set in Asbury Park. 

RED BANK ORBIT: This is your second appearance with the Songwriters in the Park Series, the last being in 2005.

STEVE FORBERT: I’m glad to be invited back. This time I’m bringing a great keyboard player with me, Paul Errico. I’ve been working with him for years, off and on.

Actually your arrival at the Jersey Shore will really be a bit of a homecoming for you, isn’t that right?

Well, yes. I mainly live near Nashville, Tennessee, but I have a house down near Asbury Park. Unfortunately, I don’t get to spend much time there because the last few months I’ve really been on the go, but that area has been really good to me. The New York-New Jersey-Philadelphia area is fantastic with all its concentrated culture. It’s a lucky thing for me, because people from there are interested in singer-songwriters. It’s my best audience. I don’t play Indianapolis a lot. It’s just not happening.

You are known for being a bit of a road warrior. What keeps you going?

I still enjoy the road. It’s something I like doing, and I’m glad to still be doing it. You never know what to expect. I just work for a living.

Do you have a favorite venue to perform at?

I’ll play them all. It’s the variety that keeps it interesting for me really. I could never do a Broadway play, where I had to go out and be the same character that says the same lines or sing the same way in the same spot on stage. It would drive me crazy. It’s really not about the place. The audience makes up the mood of the evening, or a lot of it, at least…often it’s the events that seem out of the way that turn out better than you expect. I played this little place out in Colorado and we got a really great recording out of it. Conversely, a few years ago I played the big Glastonbury Festival in England and it was just a big, muddy mess! I don’t know why anyone would pay to go there.

You were born in Meridian, Mississippi, but you made the move to New York at a relatively young age. Did you have a plan of action or were you winging it?

I moved to the city in 1976. I was 21 and right in the thick of it! There were a lot of kids around doing the same thing, but I had nothing lined up. I got a job as a messenger and just did whatever I could. You could call it pounding the pavement, I guess, because I wound up singing on the pavement.  You know… singing on the sidewalk when things were moving slowly. I played some clubs, but it was not anything that I would say was unpleasant. It was great. Playing and learning from it was fun.

Your experience in New York clearly was the inspiration behind “Big City Cat.” Would you say that most of your inspiration comes from your life?

My songs are by and large from life. I’m part of the singer/songwriter thing that became popular in the late ’60s, early ’70s, and I’ve just been coming from that. But sometimes my work will include message songs like “Good Planets Are Hard to Find” and others are just about personal experiences like “Big City Cat.” That song was just about what life in New York entailed. You can listen to that song and you can hear the description of being a face in the crowd in the big city, a stranger. A lot of it’s autobiographical, but it varies. A song on the new album is about a blackbird in England that I heard singing and just decided to write about this experience of hearing the birds sing.

What is your thought process when you set out to do a new album? Have you just compiled a set of songs or is it about experimenting with something different?

One of these days I might go really strange and do an instrumental album, but my goal is usually just to treat each song the best I can. You go through a lot of trouble to write these tunes and you want to make sure you don’t distort the intent of the music and the best emotion of the song.

Did you always play the guitar or did you play other instruments as well?

I played guitar and piano. I had teachers in Meridian. One of my teachers, Virginia Shrine, had a studio in Mississippi that was a converted chicken coop. She had me pick a song I wanted to learn and she would write out the chords for me.

It always seems like musicians will have more than one guitar. How many do you own?

I own about seven or eight guitars, but I really only have one that use for live shows. It’s a vintage 1949 Gibson that I bought at Matt Umanov’s in the Village right after I got my first record deal. It’s just very reliable and has a great sound.

Your sound seems to have a no-frills, “just-a-man-and-his-guitar” sound. Is that a conscious decision?

My sound is mostly acoustic. I like the natural thing. I am not trying to preserve it, and I’m not on any kind of crusade. It’s just what sounds best to me. I’ve never really liked the stranger sounds or trends that come and go. It’s easier to stick to the natural message and sound, it’s better.

You received a “Best Traditional Folk” Grammy nomination in 2004 for your album ANY OLD TIME, a tribute to Jimmie Rodgers. Did you attend the ceremony?

That was a pleasant surprise! We didn’t win; I want to be clear on that. June Carterwon the award in my category, posthumously. But, we went out there and saw Beyonce sing with Prince. It was fun, but I really don’t think about it. It was just such a nice bonus to be up for the award.  I’m from Meridian Mississippi and so is Jimmie Rodgers. He is considered the father of country music, and I just felt like if you are from Meridian and you’re making singer/songwriter, Americana or acoustic records, at some point you have to do a proper tribute to him. It was almost like an obligation that I had to take care of. I mentioned it to Garry Tallent, who produced the record with me, and he said he’d love to do it. We did it for the love of the music and had a good time making our own treatments of these songs that are 80 years old. The rest was just a shock. We never mentioned the word Grammy in all the hours we spent on it, I can assure you.

If a Grammy nomination doesn’t symbolize success to you, what would you say was the moment you realized you were “making it” in the music business?

Well I suppose getting the first record contract. That was really validating.  It’s probably true for anyone. Back then, especially, because you couldn’t make your own record and have it pressed, that didn’t happen much. So that was definitely a milestone for me.

What have you noticed that has changed the most in the industry since you started?

Well, even just the last five years has changed so radically. Basically it’s all about the visibility. If you have the power behind you and the promotion, you can make an impression. It seems to me though, that it’s become a lot more dominated by the business concerns and the marketing areas are much more defined. The categories are very rigid, this is country, that isn’t; this is pop, and that isn’t; this is rock, and that isn’t. Honestly, to me it’s not as much fun. Things used to be more unpredictable.

What sort of music do you listen to?

Anything from Jefferson Airplane to Jimmie Rodgers. I also like Albert King a lot.

Who would you say were your musical muses?

The Byrds were an inspiration to me when I was a kid and they still are! Something about those early records of theirs from “Mr. Tambourine Man” to “Turn! Turn! Turn!” They called it folk rock, and something about it was even more attractive than The Beatles to me. I don’t know what it was about that folk element, but it was irresistible to me.

Are there any more modern acts that you appreciate?

I think The Strokes were a great rock ‘n’ roll band. I just think they’re great. In my opinion, they have been the best thing to come along and it’s been awhile since they even first came on the scene.

When you’re not touring yourself, do you get to see many concerts?

Most of the people I would pay to see are dead. That kind of limits my concert motivation. Albert King and Lightnin’ Hopkins…most of them are gone.

With such a hectic touring schedule, how do you find the time to write songs?

I write every day, on the go really. I keep things in my mind and then I put it together into a song. The lyrics usually come before the music for me. It’s not very organized. I have scraps of paper all over the place and lately I have even taken to writing on leaves. Magnolia and poplar leaves are good for that. You gotta get these ideas down even when you’re just out for a walk.

I have to ask you about your appearance at the end of Cyndi Lauper’s “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun” video as the boyfriend. How did that come about?

It’s so weird that this has been going strong for 30 years! People still ask me about this and it is still getting played all the time. It never gets out of date. Cyndi used to be in a group called Blue Angel. I heard them play in Asbury Park a few times at theFastlane and I thought she was fantastic, just really unique. She decided to launch a solo career and she invited me to be on her video. Music videos were a new phenomenon at the time, so I thought it would be interesting.

Your career has certainly sustained the test of time. What do you see in the future for Steve Forbert?

It’s really all about the next song, just trying to write good music. The tried and true are my fans and there are particular people who have stuck with me for a long time. I hope it goes on for another 25 years.

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