Live Review: Joe Henry’s Inclusive Reverie

February 2, 2012 § Leave a comment

On the first of two nights that he appeared with his band at City Winery, Joe Henry announced they would be playing songs from his new album, and those songs only. “We’re gonna do it like a play,” Mr. Henry offered, and he meant it.

His band plunged into that album’s opener, “Heaven’s Escape,” kindling its slow-burning tempo, which crackled and flickered around Henry’s ragged tenor. He sang like a wretch indignant with his lot in paradise: “Somewhere there’s a heaven for you and for me / But oh, won’t you please tell me now / Just how, my love, will we escape?”

In general and certainly in Reverie (Anti-), his latest recording, Henry is a songwriter most concerned with shifting shapes and settings. Judgment and perspective are the seeds of his craft. Reverie is Henry’s thirteenth solo record, and it positions the reedy-voiced crooner like an actor; he channels an array of personae, ruminating and sometimes wandering in their socks before changing them entirely. The instrumentation is acoustic, the arrangements spare and purposefully disheveled—precise in their imprecision.

Little surprise then that Reverie‘s strongest moments arrive whenever that shabby exterior suits its characters. And in this format it’s sorry saps like the grass-is-greener protagonist of “Heaven’s Escape” that Henry plays best. In “Odetta,” he’s a daydreamer waiting to be discovered; “Please carry me along,” Henry begs the song’s titular character, too forlorn or indifferent to try and walk alone. The bluesy “Sticks and Stones” follows a down-at-heels narrator always on the move—or on the run. Its refrain: “Every new leaf I had is gone.”

This was the type of harmony on display during the performance at City Winery. Accentuated, even. During “Sticks and Stones” Henry’s rhythm section embodied the song’s ramshackle ethos, separating away from the frontman’s simple guitar line into arrhythmic improvisation—similar to the recorded track but decidedly more furious and intent on chaos. They buried the pulse, pushing the clamor to what seemed like the edge of order before snapping back to support Henry’s last verse.

In sound, Reverie is less than a far cry from its predecessors—notably the 2001 album, Scar. That remains a watermark for Henry, who emerged in the late eighties as part of the so-called alt-country movement alongside peers like the Cowboy Junkies and the Jayhawks. More than a decade later, he leapt for more melancholic terrain, enlisting a trés ensemble that included Brad Mehldau, Brian Blade, Marc Ribot, and even featured Ornette Coleman. Together, they painted Henry’s folk songs into darker corners, with stronger shades of jazz and blues.

Henry had some help from Mr. Ribot here, too. The guitarist performed earlier in the evening, extemporizing a meditative arc of post-tonal blues on acoustic. He also joined Henry at points in the main set, particularly rendering “Tomorrow Is October” into a memorable duet. A master whenever it comes to circumscribing a singer inside a musical climate, Ribot exaggerated the space surrounding Henry’s teetering vocals. Rarely did they rise or fall in unison, though one always seemed to dissipate into the other.

Henry was even joined by his son, Levon Henry—who he introduced as his “favorite living tenor saxophone player.” But the guest that made the biggest impact—took the reigns, really—was Loudon Wainwright III. The prolific folk singer, with whom Henry composed music for the movie Knocked Up, walked out from the wings to lead the entire group through his own “Motel Blues” and close the show.

“I’ll write a song for you / I’ll put it on my next LP,” the 65-year-old bellowed: “Come up to my room / Sleep with me!” Wainwright is still playful and a singer of inarguable command, but this was a former self, a younger model—one last character, just passing through.

—M. Sean Ryan (February 2nd, 2012)

**This review appeared here first, and was revised for the Winter/Spring issue. **

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