Concert Manic’s most famous Belgian correspondent, Bjorn Weynants, is back with another excellent guest post! Many of my music-loving European friends have been catching shows on Joe Henry’s current tour, and their reports are making me really look forward to seeing his concert here in Boston in a few weeks. Have a listen to one of the songs from his brand-new album, Invisible Hour, while you read. – Sarah V.
Joe Henry is the not the kind of artist who tours regularly. The fact that he planned a massive European tour (at least massive to Joe Henry’s norms: only 12 dates, from Sevilla in the south of Spain to Bergen in Norway) with a stop in Ghent, Belgium is big news for his fans. His last Belgian concert was in 2007 (in the same venue as tonight’s show), as his Brussels gig two years ago was suddenly cancelled for undisclosed reasons.
The Handelsbeurs is a beautifully converted 19th century Trade Hall building in the centre of Ghent, which has been used for concerts for the past 10 years or so. (They have a rather Concertmanic-friendly programming as e.g. Ceramic Dog played here last April.) For this concert chairs were put around tables, giving the concert hall the feel of some kind of smoke-filled New York jazz club in the fifties. An ideal setting for a Joe Henry concert.
Joe Henry just released his 13th solo album, the excellent Invisible Hour. Just like his previous albums, it’s one that only discloses its full beauty after repeated listens. Add to that way-better-than-average lyrics and the result is that this is an album which will score very high on end-of-year lists (or at least it will on mine). Unfortunately, this is the kind of music that you won’t hear on the radio, as his music sits somewhere in the no-man’s land between folk, blues and jazz. And that’s a place not a lot of people (let alone your average radio DJ) venture into. While he is one of the great singer-songwriters of the last twenty years (and a great producer as well), the best known fact about him is that he’s the brother-in-law of you-know-who.
While the concert was advertised as a solo gig, Joe Henry was accompanied by his son Levon on reeds for about half of the songs (he also has a prominent role on Invisible Hour). The combination of a guitar (or piano) with a saxophone is not one you often see, but it added a lot of atmosphere to the songs and moved them to an even higher level.
During the concert he picked songs from throughout his whole career – or at least from the second part of it, as he only played one pre-1999 song. Because it was a (near) solo gig this reduced the songs to their bare essence and proved the extreme high quality of songwriting that his songs have. It’s quite hard to pick my favourite songs yesterday as they were all good, but some made an extra impression on me. “Grave Angels” is one of the best songs of Invisible Hour and got a great rendition here. “Our Song” is a song about the USA, but it could also have been about Belgium (“This was my country / This was my song / Somewhere in the middle there / Though it started badly and it’s ending wrong”). “Invisible Hour” and “Swayed” really shone in their naked version and worked even better than on the album. “Lead Me On,” apparently written in the ‘atmosphere of a Kris Kristofferson song’ made me want to check out Kristofferson’s work a bit more.
Also, his in-between song banter (much more informative than the average banter you’ll hear during a gig) resulted in some nice quotes (Joe Henry is as much a poet as he’s a musician), here are a few of them:
“Would you mind stop doing that? You are not going to make it as a spy” (to a stealth taper)
“I come from a strange and broken country. This is my anthem for it” (about Our Song)
“A song I wrote with the protest folk-singer from Detroit, Madonna” (about Stop)
He came back for two encores, of which “Kindness of the World” (the only ‘old’ song he played) was especially moving after his introduction about how he rediscovered this song during a tour in Japan 1.5 years ago, where he (as an American) played a show in Hiroshima and how astonished he was that he got a warm welcome there.
A great show, hopefully we won’t have to wait another seven years before he visits Belgium again.
The full setlist: Odetta / Like She Was A Hammer / Grave Angels / Invisible Hour / Eyes Out for You / Swayed / The Man I Keep Hid / Our Song / Monkey / After the War / Lead Me On / Sparrow / Stop / God Only Knows / Plainspeak // Slide/ Kindness of the World
Tomorrow is the last night of Joe Henry’s European tour, but click right here to see his upcoming U.S. and Australian tour dates.