Just Like There's Nothin' to It
Good Soul Food: Live at The Ark
First Appeared in The Music Box, April 2005, Volume 12, #4
Written by Douglas Heselgrave
It is tempting to view Steve Forbert’s musical odyssey as a cautionary tale designed to illuminate the nasty side of the star-making machinery that develops artists only to toss them aside at the first sign of flagging sales and diminished public interest. Between 1978 and 1980, it was impossible to miss Forbert on the radio. It Doesn’t Have To Be that Way from his debut Alive on Arrival and Romeo’s Tune from his sophomore effort Jackrabbit Slim not only were FM radio hits, but they also were great pop songs.
The tale of how Forbert, a 21-year-old boy from Mississippi, came to New York to play his songs on the street quickly became a part of the music world’s mythology. It’s one that has been repeated throughout history, with the familiar combination of a man and his harmonica cast in the hero’s role of conquering the world. For a year or two, everyone loved Forbert; he seemed incapable of generating bad press or getting less than stellar reviews for his songs and live shows. Alas, the mantle of "new Dylan," which has been hung on artists from John Prine to Loudon Wainwright III — and almost always turns out to be a curse rather than a blessing — was applied to Forbert with unprecedented regularity and enthusiasm. His descent from the top of the pop music world in 1980 to relative obscurity by the middle of the decade is an equally commonplace story, one that revolves around bad management, fickle record companies, and integrity that is dashed and chewed up by the unforgiving nature of commerce.
It’s tempting to end the story there with a shrug, a sigh, and a shake of one’s head at the injustices of the universe. In fact, Forbert could have been relegated to "Whatever happened to...?" status, and it wouldn’t have been surprising had his life turned into another sad tale, like Peter Green’s or Syd Barrett’s, where he was left biding his time while living in his mother’s basement. Fortunately, his early successes are only half of his story. A quick look at his discography reveals that his new outing Just Like There’s Nothin' to It is not a comeback, but rather it is his 25th album since 1978 and his first since Evergreen Boy was released in 2000.
Through the years, Forbert has remained a working musician, quietly issuing, through a variety of labels, good records that have continued to please a small, hardcore group of fans. Just Like There’s Nothin' to It isn’t likely to win Forbert many new converts to his cause, even though it deserves to do so. Quite frankly, Forbert is the real deal. His work doesn’t have the visionary quality of, say, Bob Dylan or Van Morrison. Instead, he focuses upon delivering simple, yet profound songs cut from the cloth of everyday life. His singing continues to improve, and the songs on his latest effort demonstrate how he has matured as a vocalist. His phrasing is full of nuance; it’s uncomplicated, and he’s always in control. In short, his voice has become a subtle instrument capable of conveying a wide range of emotions. Indeed, Forbert’s greatest strength continues to be his ability not only to interpret lyrics that occasionally look trite on paper but also to invest them with depth and resonance.
The first and last songs (What It Is Is a Dream and About a Dream) frame Just Like There’s Nothin' to It, and they highlight Forbert's fascination with hope and the possibilities that it suggests. These are songs of survival, struggle, and solace, and they are about finding comfort with one’s place in the world. Supported by beautiful harmony vocals from Edie Brickell, these tunes instantly sound like campfire staples that, like the singer and the characters in his songs, should stand the test of time.
Also featured is a tribute to Rick Danko titled Wild as the Wind. While many laudations tend to be hit-and-miss affairs — and subsequently are to be approached with trepidation — Forbert’s ode is, thankfully, a pleasant surprise that grows stronger with each passing moment. It works both literally and musically, in part because of an offhand personal anecdote — "Rick was backstage loaded/I was sorta shocked/The man said, ‘Rick, it’s show time’/Rick walked out and rocked " — which gives the final stanza — "There’s a certain kind of free heart/That’s never bought and sold/There’s a certain kind of wild child/That never should grow old/Getting old/Who'd picture Rick getting old?" — a concentrated emotional edge. In addition, Wild as the Wind’s production, with its swirling currents of organ and off-kilter backing vocals, are a nice touch that make the song sound like a long, lost vintage track from The Band.
As for the rest of the tracks on Just Like There’s Nothin' to It, they expand upon Forbert’s familiar themes of loss, experience, and rebirth, while grounding them in the private everyday victories of a world that is too busy to care. Oh Yesterday and I Married a Girl are particularly good examples of the kind of heartfelt aural snapshots that he clearly loves to write. In essence, the material on the album reflects his strengths and features the most comfortable playing and singing that he has recorded to date.
Forbert’s biggest weakness, however, is his music, and all of Just Like There’s Nothin' to It is solid, if unadventurous. Even so, Forbert’s acoustic playing, like his voice, continues to improve, and it feels "just right" on all his new songs. With the exception of some poorly mixed percussion on several tracks, the rest of the instrumentation is appropriate and understated. Session veterans like bass players Victor Krauss and the E Street Band’s Garry Tallent make very tasteful contributions to the album’s overall sound.
For those who like their music unplugged, Forbert issued live, acoustic versions of seven of the tunes from Just Like There’s Nothin' to It on Good Soul Food, the latest in his independently released series of concert recordings. While neither of these albums are likely to spark a major change in anyone’s life — or instigate a shift in the course of popular music, for that matter — they both are excellent, honest collections of songs that reflect the life and experiences of their composer.
Just Like There’s Nothin' to It —
Good Soul Food —
Just Like There's Nothin' to It is available
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1 Star: Pitiful
2 Stars: Listenable
3 Stars: Respectable
4 Stars: Excellent
5 Stars: Can't Live Without It!!
Copyright © 2005 The Music Box