Steve Forbert is a timeless link to an American folk-music tradition, so it was no surprise that he introduced some of his deeply rich tunes at Mexicali Live in Teaneck with a few bars from both popular and lesser-known songs that have become part of many personal jukeboxes.
Whether it was the Beatles’ “One After 909” giving way to “What Kinda Guy?” or Sam Cooke’s “A Change is Gonna Come” segued into (get this) “Romeo’s Tune,” Forbert showed the connections between various melodies that we may have considered separate.
If you love subtle, evocative ballads, foot-stompin’ honky tonk, or the occasional slow blues, you can thank the universe for Samuel Stephen Forbert. Once a hot-shot high-speed coach commuter likened to Bob Dylan (by tone-deaf critics), he now rides that freight train of mid-fame with the same steady rhythm as Dave Alvin and Steve Earle, an old-time busker in dock worker’s clothes, a 57-year-old living link to legends of musical Americana, a shiny Chevelle that’s still a beaut.
He can write the catchy pop tune or spin a line like “How many times can a person say ‘Sorry’ for doing the same damned thing?” And it’s nothing if not sincere. Live music as lifeblood.
I’ve seen Forbert with his sometimes band, the Rough Squirrels, and it’s been fun. But the performances have neglected the man’s singular gifts. He brings a stage-full of spirits with him, anyway, from the late Jimmie Rodgers (the “father of country music,” born, like Forbert, in Meridian, Mississippi) to Chuck Berry, from the late John Lennon to Ray Davies and the Stones (How do “Starstruck” and “Honky Tonk Women” grab you?).
Forbert was as engaging as ever, inviting the Friday night Mexicali crowd to shout out requests, then playing most — while crinkling his nose at others. A group sent up a note saying they were from Italy, so he responded with “Tonight I Feel So Far From Home.”
“I’m buying it,” he said, of their claim.
“E vero,” one of them shouted back.
Later, when a fan (um… me) noted that Forbert skipped a verse from Berry’s playfully subversive “Brown-Eyed Handsome Man” — the part about the baseball player hitting a home run — Forbert played the five bars and laughed, triumphantly.
He thrilled a group in back with “Big City Cat” and held the calls for “Responsibility” at bay before finally easing through the deeply poignant masterpiece, which sounds as relevant today as it did on the brilliant 1992 album, “The American In Me” (he did the title track, as well).
There was the beautiful “My Time Ain’t Long” and “All I Need to Do,” a more recent, achingly sad, lost-love lament:
“All I need to do is to find somebody like you / All I need to change is just the seven letters of your name / M-a-r-i-s-s-a.” (Used to be “Jessica.”)
“That’s the saddest version yet,” he said, as at least one witness capped a swell of emotion. “I think I’m not going to sing it anymore.”
Instead, Forbert said, he’ll do “Love Grows Where My Rosemary Goes” in Hackettstown on Saturday night.
Closing the show, he caught some by surprise with a trippy opening verse of “Strawberry Fields Forever” before kicking into “You Cannot Win (If You Do Not Play),” the barn-burner from his “Live on Arrival” debut album. A perfect closer.
Opening with “Thinking’” and “Goin’ Down to Laurel” was just as skillful. Artists who perform two of their better-known songs right from the jump are tacitly letting you know they believe in their portfolio. And what a rich collection it is.
Following them with “Strange Names (New Jersey’s Got ‘Em”) alerted those who might not have realized just how strongly fans here have taken to the Southerner with the distinctive voice, and vice versa:
“Life’s good in Wayne / Moonachie, too / Not so in Metuchen, though / That’s touch and go.”
Here’s a goodie that Forbert didn’t do Friday night :
Forbert later reminisced about playing a place he called “the Old Tavern” in North Bergen, as well as the Rusty Nail in Parsippany and the long-since-demolished Capitol Theater in Passaic.
He chided the crowd for not being rowdier, though he tried his best — standing on a microphoned wooden board so he could stomp his boot heels in rhythm. Still, the faithful didn’t disappoint when it came to singing along with their favorite numbers, in what become a 25-song set that never lagged.
Mexicali Live has always been the perfect room for Forbert, and he‘s always been a date-night fulfilling headliner. Except for a radio in back, which sometimes could be heard when the kitchen door opened, the direct connection between Forbert and the audience was palpable. The sound system, as always, was crisp and clean, and the crowd drew still for the softer selections. The wait staff moved on its usual cat’s paws, keeping everyone sated (Mexicali’s food is both tasty and reasonably priced, by the way). And every song drew strong, sustained applause.
Live music as lifeblood. It’s that way for some of us.
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