Yep. Joe Henry at Brighton Music Hall. I was, by any measure, unreasonably excited about this show. I keep a concert calendar with a list of dates, names and venues with a note about whether I have or need to buy tickets, and this entry read: ZOMG JOE HENRY IN BOSTON!!! Poking a little fun at my own excitement, of course, but I’m pretty sure I was the first person to buy a ticket and I was definitely the first person to arrive at the venue (but that was mostly because Brighton Music Hall tweeted the wrong door/set time for the show and I got there an hour earlier than intended). I actually went and lurked across the street to watch the door because I was afraid they would think I was a stalker if I got in line that early. When I saw some other people start waiting in line I went over and joined them. This worked out well, because those other people in line turned out to be really nice and we spent the next 75 minutes or so chatting about music until the show started.
I’d just been at this same venue two nights earlier for Jolie Holland (see my previous blog post), so I was surprised to see that they’d set out chairs – I’ve been there a bunch of times and I didn’t even know they did seated concerts. Joe Henry’s music is definitely sitting-down music and not standing-and-dancing music, so I was happy to see that. Plus it was a week where I managed to see four concerts in three states while also working full-time, so I was just plain tired and happy to be sitting.
The concert had been advertised as a solo set, although I suspected that we’d be getting a duet instead, since Joe’s son Levon had accompanied him on his European tour and there was a second microphone stand on stage when we walked in. Indeed, after a few solo songs (Odetta, Believer, and a great version of Like She Was A Hammer), Levon came out and added his talents to Eyes Out for You, from Joe Henry’s penultimate album, Reverie. (Can you say “penultimate” for a living artist who’s almost certainly got more albums coming? It sounds so finalized. Where did I leave my English language consultant?)
It wasn’t until the fifth song of the evening that we finally got something from the new album, Invisible Hour – and oh, yes, it was the one I’d been crossing my fingers for weeks that he’d play: Grave Angels. Such an incredible bit of songwriting. One of those songs that’s got obscure enough lyrics that you don’t really know what it’s about, but the words and music are so evocative and yearning that it touches you anyway, as you search for hidden meanings that may or may not be there.
Mr. Henry continued with a couple more excellent songs from the new album – Invisible Hour and Swayed – the latter of which got an extra big round of applause, I think in large part due to Levon Henry’s musical acrobatics on the clarinet. Levon switched over to the saxophone for the next track, The Man I Keep Hid, from the 2009 release, Blood from Stars. I love that album, and in the three times I’ve seen Joe Henry live, it was the first time I’d heard him play a song from it, so I was pretty thrilled about that one. It’s a really bad-ass song. You can see a similar version to the one I saw here, from a concert in Copenhagen a few weeks earlier:
Speaking of Blood from Stars, at some point in the show, Mr. Henry paused between songs to tell us that we should feel free to ask him any questions we might have. A couple of people took him up on it here and there, asking for a lyric clarification. I immediately thought of a question I wanted to ask, but alas, I am not the sort of person who awkwardly shouts things out at concerts. So I guess I will never know: who played that awesome trumpet solo in Bellwether? The liner notes list Marc Ribot on cornet, but musicians aren’t listed song-by-song and I can’t quite believe it without confirmation… [After-the-fact edit: Mr. Henry was kind enough to let me know that it was indeed Marc Ribot playing that solo!]
He continued delving into his back catalog with Short Man’s Room (1992), which I’m not sure I’d heard before – a sweet ballad that received a big round of applause from the enthusiastic audience. After that it was back to Blood from Stars with Progress of Love, another great one with some of his more playful lyrics:
Freedom doesn’t need to be free when it sells
Like ocean waves offered from inside of shells
We bet the farm trying to ring its bells
While love still goes for a song
Your sailor is my lawyer
Your seamstress suits my king
But you are the mouth of the river
At the start of my every dream
At this point he solicited some more questions from the audience, one of which he answered with “have a young person Google that for you” (ouch!); the other was a question about his guitars, which he answered at length, telling us that his Gibson was from 1935 and his other guitar was custom built from mahogany wood that was salvaged from a sunken ship. This was the point at which someone in the audience outright called him a liar (!) and he replied with “There’s all kind of reasons I would lie, but I wouldn’t spend one now!” I’ve seen concerts where that sort of accusation would probably end with someone getting a bloody nose, but Joe “The Nicest Guy in Showbiz” Henry let it pass, of course.
He brought us back to the new album next, playing Lead Me On, the first single which was released a few months back. (Of course, it’s 2014, so when I say ‘released a single’ I mean they posted it on Soundcloud). This song – I have a relationship with it that probably has very little to do with anyone but me – it was released at a moment in my life when I desperately needed something to calm me down and make me feel better about everything, and somehow this song was just what my brain needed – something about those sweet vocal harmonies, I think. I played it over and over. I think at this point I’ve trained myself so well that hearing the first few bars probably makes my blood pressure drop 20 points. I hardly needed it at this point in the show, but I kind of melted in my seat a little bit anyway. A brilliant piece of music.
Next up, some more new songs: Sparrow from Invisible Hour and After the War from Reverie. He tied in a little medley of Ol’ Man River with After the War, which I specially appreciated – my dad used to play that when I was little, and when I was older I learned how to play it on the piano myself. One of those random little childhood memories that sticks with you; I still have the elderly sheet music encased in plastic for protection. Then he moved on to another relative oldie, Stop from 2001’s Scar. It’s a really good song on the album, but I loved this live version with Levon on clarinet. Live, it was a little more raw and stripped down, and it just laid bare what an excellent piece of songwriting it is: deceptively simple yet devastating lyrics over a killer melody. Oh heck, just listen:
(…that isn’t Marc Ribot on electric guitar, is it? My CDs are all packed in boxes right now…)
The set closed out with Plainspeak from the new album, but after a standing ovation he came back out for a couple more: Slide, and another track from deep in the archives, the country-tinged Kindness of the World (the title track from his 1993 album). It was a perfectly beautiful way to end a perfectly beautiful concert:
Tonight I feel I’m floating
For minutes at a time
Just listening to the bells
And trusting in the kindness of the world…
It’s rare that I walk out of a concert feeling outright thankful, but this was one of those. Thank you, Joe Henry, for coming to Boston, and thank you for writing these songs and letting us hear them. (And thank you, readers, for letting me self-indulge a bit in an overly long blog post. I needed to write it. I hope you enjoyed reading and listening.)