The Place and The Time is the record Steve Forbert Fans have been waiting for. From the first sound of the clear and ringing acoustic guitar that introduces Black Bird Tune - a wistful ode to finding beauty in ‘a chimney top town’ - it’s evident that his listeners are in for something special.
The Place and The Time - Forbert’s compelling follow up to Strange Names & New Sensations, his 2007 album on 429 Records - is full of the kind of down to earth songs with heartfelt vocals and engaging melodies that define his best work. It is an especially endearing set of songs that celebrate and recapture the magic of the mid ‘70s sound that made his early hits so appealing.
As ever, it is Forbert’s deep, slow-as-molasses drawl that first invites the listener into his confidence as he continues a conversation with his fans that began over thirty years ago. Each of these new songs emerges from an unhurried place and time as Forbert’s music continues to casually draw people into his vision and the world-view he presents to anyone who cares to listen.
Lyrically, the stories Forbert unfolds on The Place and The Time continue to follow the arc of his recorded work that - from the beginning - has focused on an exploration of the different phases of a person’s life. If his first album, Alive on Arrival was a celebration of the freedom of youth and the promise of early adulthood, and his 1992 album The American in Me was a dignified exploration of accepting life’s responsibilities, The Place and The Time - like its predecessor Strange Names and New Sensations - is an understated and unflinching look at survival and the joys and problems of middle age.
Perhaps the most impressive thing about this new collection of songs is how Forbert succeeds in the difficult task of sounding natural and off the cuff while still respecting the craft and toil that goes into producing a well constructed song.
“From the beginning of my career,” Forbert explains, “I’ve always been about the songs. However, the songs can’t fully exist on paper. It’s the recording that people actually hear. That makes for another kind of challenge. In this role I relate to (legendary producer) Jerry Wexler. I’m the person picking the songs who has a vision of what the end result oughta be, but needs the collaborative talents of others to help me get there.”
For this project, Steve Forbert enlisted Robby Turner as his co-producer to help him achieve the distinctive period sound he was searching for. Forbert explains, “I’ve been trying on the last few projects to make a bona fide ‘70s singer-songwriter record. I’d say I’ve accomplished this most completely with Robby’s help on The Place and The Time. We went for a simpler production that allowed for a bit more space in the sound. He understood that I was inclined back towards that era of James Taylor, Gordon Lightfoot, America and Seals and Crofts.”
It only takes one listen of The Place and The Time to realize that Forbert has achieved the sound he was searching for - in spades. For perhaps the first time, the music Forbert conjures up to support his songs is just as compelling as the stories they tell.
The decision to bring his core touring group into the studio with him - Paul Errico (keyboards) Steve Allen (electric guitar) and Bobby Lloyd Hicks (drums) - helped amplify the feeling of loose confidence that characterizes each of the songs on the album.
To achieve the sound he was looking for, Forbert enlisted some special guests including backing vocalist Bekka Bramlett, acoustic guitarist Anthony Crawford, cellist Jenny Lynn Young and legendary electric guitarist Reggie Young, who played on such enduring classics as “Son of A Preacher Man,” “Slip Away,” “Suspicious Minds,” “In The Ghetto” and many Willie Nelson favorites like “The City of New Orleans”. His distinctive guitar tone is one of The Place and The Time’s many sonic treats as Young evokes classic R & B sounds while still serving the songs in the here and now. In addition to handling co-production duties, Robby Turner (who played steel guitar on Strange Names and New Sensations) makes essential contributions on bass, six string bass, national steel guitar, keyboards and backing vocals.
The title of the album comes from a line in “Sing It Again, My Friend”, a song that expresses a longing for a reconnection with a more idealistic time of life. Other tracks such as the wistful soft rocker “Who’ll Watch The Sun Set?” (which showcases Young’s crisp guitar textures) evoke a similar desire for a simpler place and time while the folky “Clear, Blue Sky” with its fleeting glimpse of childhood lost stands out as one of the set’s loveliest songs.
“Simply Must Move On” and “Hang on Till the Sun Shines” cover familiar thematic territory as life in all of its joys and hardships are communicated in simple yearning lyrics and melodies that hit the mark every time.
Fans of Forbert’s rocking side will enjoy the handclapping, back porch blues vibe of “Labor Day ‘08” and the Zydeco-tinged “Stolen Identity” in which the singer asks ‘what have I done?, where have I been?’ as he humorously explores one of the downsides of life in a credit card culture. The irony of the lyrics in “The Beast of Ballyhoo (Rock Show)” with its sly rumbling ruminations on the arena rock experience won’t be lost on long time Forbert fans.
The elegant and charming “Blackbird Tune” which Forbert wrote after hearing a bird singing in East Yorkshire paves the way for his raw and engaging cover of Clarence Ashley’s “The Coo Coo Bird.” This song, more than any other in the set, establishes Forbert’s link in an unbroken chain of American song craft. This classic of ‘old weird America’ that most people heard for the first time on Harry Smith’s Folkways compilation “Anthology of American Folk Music” has been covered by artists from Taj Mahal to Janis Joplin, and was referenced by Bob Dylan on his 2001 album Love and Theft. The other cover tune is “Building Me A Fire” an energetic rootsy number written by a young Philadelphia songwriter named Devin Greenwood.
Growing up in Meridian, Steve Forbert first picked up the guitar at age ten and spent his high school years playing in a variety of local bands. Frustrated with his job as a truck driver, the restless singer/songwriter moved to New York City at 21, where he performed for spare change in Grand Central Station before working his way up through the Manhattan club circuit. Performing at Folk City and eventually opening for artists like Talking Heads and John Cale at CBGB, Forbert became something of a local sensation and signed his first record deal with the CBS-distributed label Nemperor.
Released at the height of the new wave explosion, his 1978 debut Alive On Arrival offered a first look at his colorful mix of spare acoustic introspection and scrappy rock ‘n’ roll and became one of the year’s most acclaimed albums. While critics tagged him - like Bruce Springsteen and John Prine before him – “the next Dylan,” Forbert never put too much stock in the comparison and forged his own path, expanding his audience substantially with 1979’s commercial breakthrough Jackrabbit Slim and his era defining hit single, “Romeo’s Tune.”
By this time, the heyday of the classic ‘70s singer- songwriters was quickly fading. Songs by America, Carole King, James Taylor and Gordon Lightfoot were quickly giving way on the pop charts to Van Halen, Foreigner and Pat Benatar. As the seventies gave way to the eighties, Forbert’s plainspoken, heartfelt early recordings were among the few keeping the joyful and innocent spirit of the genre alive.
Given the mythic nature of Forbert’s early career, one can be forgiven for wondering what he’s done since parting company with Geffen Records after they released The American in Me in 1992. The fact is that Steve Forbert has never stopped writing, singing and performing and has released twelve studio albums, three live sets and four DVDs since 1978 - to say nothing of the several compilations and archival releases that are available through his website (www.steveforbert.com) The freedom to release music when he chooses to and follow his own muse without having to kowtow to the fickle whims of musical fashion has ironically resulted in his creating albums like Evergreen Boy, Mission of The Crossroad Palms and Strange Names and New Sensations that must surely be considered amongst the best releases of his career.
As the years pass, the indefinable honesty and dignity of Forbert’s approach to music continues to have an almost magical spell on his small but loyal coterie of fans. Undeniably, there is something immensely appealing in his laconic delivery and hesitant assertions which still draw listeners into a universe where common people make difficult choices and occasionally win. (as was proven when Forbert was inducted into the Mississippi Musicians Hall of Fame in 2006.)
Finally, Steve Forbert in 2009 is a songwriter who not only appears comfortable with his place in life but who also - like the narrator of his early tune Steve Forbert’s Midsummer Night’s Toast - still rejects a nine-to-five existence in favor of hewing to his own road-less-traveled.
“Music should be truthful and real,” Forbert once said, “but it should also be uplifting and healing.” That’s a philosophy he’ll be honoring throughout 2009 as he continues his very personal and spirited relationship with a loyal fan base that is growing old gracefully along with its favorite troubadour.