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Sunday, March 7, 2010

Over the Weekend: Joe Henry at the Great American Music Hall

Posted By on Sun, Mar 7, 2010 at 7:28 PM

click to enlarge LAUREN DUKOFF
  • Lauren Dukoff

Joe Henry
Friday, March 5, 2010
Great American Music Hall

Better than: A musical supergroup featuring Raymond Carver, Flannery O'Connor, and Tennessee Williams.

"I know that sounds like thunder," Joe Henry writes in the sleeve notes to his new album, Blood from Stars, of the giant marching drum played by Jay Bellerose. "Or a great sack of walnuts dropped on the hood of a Crown Victoria." During his show Friday night at the Great American, that antique percussion instrument rumbled, sometimes ominously and sometimes elegiacally, through an all-too-short performance of uplifting but often-lonesome songs. 

Henry and his band ambled onstage and the singer-songwriter strapped on a small Gibson acoustic guitar and launched into "Bellwether," from the new album. His voice is a croon that sometimes cracks, but he makes the most of it. He lurched away from the microphone to let his words trail off, even though those words are worth hearing. Like other American chroniclers Paul K. and Mark Eitzel, Henry tells stories of love, loss, regret, and life.

"I sing a lot of dark, confusing songs in a minor key," he explained. "Apart from the shoes" - he gestured to his shiny footwear - "we're gonna try to keep the showbiz out of the show tonight." Indeed, the sedately dressed audience - lots of men with good hair, wearing sharp jackets, and aging well, much like Henry himself -- would have been disappointed at anything else. With no boozed-up young troublemakers to deal with, bouncers leaned idly against the walls, while bartenders took no orders for rounds of shots. 

With that huge, booming drum and occasional guitar or piano crescendos, Henry's music sometimes sounded menacing or mournful. But the Great American was transformed into a cozy haven, with muted chandelier lights reflecting the warmth of faces turned raptly toward the stage. It felt like an intimate living room show. 

Henry's band -- longtime keyboardist Patrick Warren, percussionist Bellerose, and double bassist David Piltch -- conjured up a spare, often jazzy sound, with lots of spaces between the instruments. Opener Dayna Stephens joined them onstage for several songs, adding his soaring saxophone to "Bellwether" and "Truce," tunes that, on record, are played by Henry's teenage son, Levon. 

When Henry sat and pounded at the grand piano, he noted that playing and singing simultaneously was like "driving and scaling a small fish ... but I'm hungry!" He described "Lighthouse" (from 2003's Tiny Voices) as "sort of my version of 'I Got a Woman.'" Blood from Stars opener "The Man I Keep Hid" was a twisted carnival Waitsian stumbler, with Henry repeating the unsettling line "Somebody used my mouth to laugh out loud" over the roiling fairground music.

The songwriter explained that he played a "familial game of rock paper scissors" with Madonna (his sister-in-law, whom he described wryly as "a singer from Detroit") over his song "Stop" (from 2001's Scar), which she revamped into "Don't Tell Me." As he noted to much laughter, "I recorded my version as a tango; she recorded hers as a hit." As he played it, it started as a gentle vamp, but ended in a loud racket that sounded like all the instruments colliding. 

"Our Song," from 2007's Civilians, started with Henry at the piano, using the image of baseball legend Willie Mays at a branch of Home Depot to tell a story of America's decline, but with a glimmer of hope: "This was our country, this was our song/Somewhere in the middle there, though it started badly and it's ending up wrong." 

After a brief encore, which ended with a couple of verses from Cole Porter's "I Got You Under My Skin" that sounded like a lament rather than a celebration, the band slipped offstage and into the night. Henry may tell mournful tales, but how can you not love a musician whose web site is titled

Critic's Notebook
Personal Bias: Joe Henry might be one of music's best-kept secrets. He has recorded 11 solo albums in 25 years. He produces other musicians (recently winning a Grammy for his work on the latest Ramblin' Jack Elliott album; he has also worked with Bettye LaVette, Ornette Coleman, and Solomon Burke, to name just a few). He's a wordsmith who writes thoughtful and evocative lyrics and blog posts

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