Published in The Coaster, Asbury Park NJ, August 2, 2018 (photo by Alan Messer)
There it was again, just the other day — descending from the supermarket store speakers like a friendly angel; adding a subconscious spring to each shopper’s step with its perky piano-driven promise of “southern kisses” and sneak-on-out romance; blessing each purchase of Entenmann’s Glazed Pop-Ems and Plumpy’s Frozen Calamari with the same cheerful upbeat plea for love beneath sun and stars (or back there“behind the chandelier”) that took it to the Billboard Top Twenty chart in 1979.
Even those patrons of the Neptune Shop-Rite who immediately matched “Romeo’s Tune” with its composer and performer Steve Forbert might not have realized that not only is the veteran music maker “Alive on Arrival” and deliriously active on multiple creative fronts — he could very well be the next guy in the checkout line, having become a full-time Neptune resident some 17 years ago (and prior to that, a frequent flyer to our fair Shore, thanks to the presence of a longstanding Juliet to his Romeo).
For the Grammy nominated native of Meridien, MS who’s a proud inductee of the Mississippi Music Hall of Fame — and whose voice retains its honeydrip willow-weep drawl in conversation (and its fine-grain belt-sander blues-grit in concert), the area served by The Coaster is more than just a place to hang one’s figurative hat. Having written and recorded hundreds of songs since the release of his debut LP a full four decades back, he’s seen his works covered by the likes of Rosanne Cash, James Maddock, Carolyne Mas, Marty Stuart, and Keith Urban — and his established presence on the Asbury Park scene has granted him the local-dude cred to put forth such tunes as “Strange Names (North New Jersey’s Got ‘Em),” “My Seaside Brown-Eyed Girl”— and “Sandy,” a 2013 single that name-checked the communities devastated by that selfsame superstorm (and ended on a hopeful note of rebuild and restore).
Then there was Highway of Sight, the 2011 exhibition (and its 2015 sequel) that commandeered Cookman Avenue’s Art629 Gallery for a intriguing look at an altogether different facet of the musician’s art — a first-rate collection of photographs, showing people and places from one man’s ongoing road trip through the space and the spirit of a blacktop-laced continent. And it was Asbury Park that played a significant part in one of Forbert’s most famous extracurricular endeavors, when he took the stage at the old FastLane to sing Little Richard songs with Cyndi Lauper, then fronting the band Blue Angel — a lark that led to his appearance as Cyndi’s tux-clad beau in the mega-heavy rotation video for “Girls Just Want to Have Fun.”
While he still practices his “glorified hobby” as a lensman, Forbert harbors no illusions about a pursuit in which “you’ve gotta be William Eccleston to be able to do a proper photo book” — and it’s the pursuit of his first and foremost muse that brings him back to the Asbury stage on Friday, August 3, when he pays a visit to the Circuit-side staple Wonder Bar in the midst of a northeastern tour with his band, The New Renditions.
It’s actually a rare full-combo gig on the home front, for a performer whose local appearances in recent years have ranged from duo sets at McLoone’s Supper Club and featured spots at Light of Day concerts, to holding down the Stone Pony SummerStage all by his lonesome, as an opener for Johnny and the Jukes. Backed by an “all Jersey people” organization — Jesse Bardwell (mandolin, guitar), Caleb Estey (drums), Todd Lanka (upright bass), and George Naha (lead guitar) — Forbert promises a retrospective that ranges from the earliest times of his 40-plus years as a troubador, to a preview of his latest album.
Steve Forbert (center) with The New Renditions: Caleb Estey, Jesse Bardwell, George Naha, Todd Lanka.
Scheduled to drop on September 14 as his nineteenth studio release, The Magic Tree is something of a timelord Tardis-hop through a substantial career, given the inclusion of some previously unreleased vintage demos that have been fleshed out for the occasion. Some brand spanking new tracks were recorded at Asbury’s own Lakehouse complex (where Forbert conducted some Tuesday night songwriting classes in 2017) with producer Steve Greenwell, in addition to others laid down at a studio in Toms River.
“All in all, it’s a real good representation of my music,” says Forbert. “And whether it was intentional or not, it syncs up with the new book, in a way that makes it a good companion.”
Oh, about that book: September 14 also happens to be the release date of Big City Cat, Forbert’s first foray as an author, and a long-awaited memoir of, among other things, a time when “a kid from way out in America came to the Big Apple” to get heard amid the rough-‘n-tumble of the 1970s NYC music scene. Subtitled “My Life in Folk-Rock,” and co-written with the singer’s longtime associate Therese Boyd (“she really captured my voice…and she’d tell me flat out when something didn’t read the way that I would say it”), the volume from Porter Square Books is a record of an era when the young “Jackson Browne, storyteller sort of guy” shared a club circuit with the likes of The Roches, Suzanne Vega and Willie Nile; made the scene at a CBGB that nurtured Blondie and Talking Heads, and even had the same manager as the Ramones for a spell. As the author maintains, “it was a great time;” albeit one tempered by “some difficult patches, when I was trying to make the right decisions.”
With the wilder interludes behind him — and “my partying, hanging out days curtailed when my kids started getting older” — the father of three adult human beings looks at the book project as something that “gave me license to reach back and revisit songs that I didn’t release;” an inspiration for the yesterday-and-today format of the forthcoming long player.
It was also, in case there was any doubt, “more work than you could ever imagine,” and an endeavor that, believe it or not, began life as an idea for a play. But in the process of accumulating material for a script writer who was interested in the concept, Forbert asked himself, “why don’t I just keep going and do a book?” — one that, as it turned out, also allowed him the leeway to “put a couple of my pictures in there.”
While the photographs and the memoirs serve to offer up a more complete portrait of the transplanted southerner and his sojourn through the road miles and years, it’s in his formidable body of songs that “Little Stevie Orbit” best bares his soul. There’s the eager romantic of “Romeo’s” and the world-weary narrator of “I Blinked Once” and “It Is What It Is;” the fish-outta-water of “January 23-30” and “Big City Cat,” and the roads-scholar philosopher of “You Cannot Win;” the earth advocate of “Oil Song” and “Good Planets Are Hard to Find” and the playful funster of “What Kinda Guy?;” the “Rambunctious” rocker of “I’m an Automobile” and the fearless channeler of everyone from Jimmie Rodgers to Stephen Sondheim. All assembled for a night in a town where “the music makes the reputation…where the Pony keeps things going, and where the only problem with it all is where to park!”