Greg Brown may not be as well-known or revered as some of his contemporaries and colleagues, but at his very best, he is as worthy of reverence as any American songwriter of the past half-century.
Saturday night, Brown drew a nearly full house to Knuckleheads. And for 90-plus minutes, he gave a crowd of more than 250 people an evening of songs filled with humor, romance, love, loss, regret, melancholy and nose-to-the-grindstone wisdom.
Around here, Brown is also known as the spouse of another great songwriter, former Kansas Citian Iris DeMent. But his career predates hers by more than a decade, and it is filled with songs that express in poetic detail the hardships and rewards of a common, hardworking life.
Brown, 64, is a humorist, a preacher and a storyteller. Musically, he favors folk, but he also veers into the blues and country blues. His lyrics are his forte, but he can write a fetching melody, too.
And then there’s that voice, which these days sounds like it’s coming from the bottom of an empty barrel at the bottom of a barren well. He isn’t John Prine nor Townes Van Zandt, but he would surely satisfy most of their most ardent fans.
This evening he was accompanied on electric guitar by fellow Iowan Bo Ramsey, who opened the show with a set of his own. Ramsey and Brown’s collaborations go back to some of Brown’s earliest albums, but Ramsey became best-known for playing along with Lucinda Williams, starting with her “Car Wheels on a Gravel Road” album.
He has also produced and worked with Brown’s daughter, Pieta Brown, an accomplished singer/songwriter in her own right.
All night, Ramsey embellished Brown’s songs and acoustic-guitar rhythms with his haunting and ethereal tones, whether he was applying fills, leads or chord progressions. He has a knack for being at once resounding, elegant and austere.
Brown opened his set with “River Will Take You,” a narrative about a drunken fishing expedition to a swift-moving river that ended in tragedy for four men: “One of ’em was married, three of ’em had kids.”
He followed that with two songs about love: “Why Do You Even Say That” and then “Dream City,” a song about heartache and loss: “I’m living in a palace / I go from room to room / Close my eyes and see you / I’m just chasing your perfume.”
The mood shifted from one song to the next. From the humor of “Bones Bones” and “Fatboy Blues” to the sweet and pretty “Tender-Hearted Child,” a love song from parent to child to the gritty and grimy, working-man blues of “Mercy, Mercy, Mercy.”
For his encore he dropped in a cover of “Samson and Delilah,” the Grateful Dead’s version of an old blues song. He closed with “Freak Flag,” a country-blues shuffle in which he declares his commitment to “raise a hopeful cry” and stand up for what’s right: “I’m singing and stomping by the dawn’s early light / For every soul being beat down.”
It was an appropriate epilogue to an evening of music from a man whose songs express the many lessons he has learned about life and love and the principals and beliefs that have guided him along the way.