Many musicians play sincere music, but that doesn't necessarily make it good. In addition to possessing a performing persona that is warm, gracious and sincere, the singer-songwriter Greg Brown uses a homegrown amalgam of folk, blues and country to create great songs. Balancing traditional Midwestern ideals and '60s hippie attitudes, Brown's music can be humorous, charming, dark, heartwarming, sexy and spooky.
He was all those things at the Rialto last Sunday night. During the course of a concert that lasted—with a brief intermission—for almost 2½ hours, he played a few songs from each of his two most recent albums, Freak Flag and Hymns to What Is Left, as well as reaching as far back as "Daughters," from his 1981 album The Iowa Waltz.
Brown has never been precious about his art, and this night was no different. He regaled the crowd with rambling intros, some as long as the songs were, and he read a poem he had written that day, in which he rhymed "saguaro" with "tomorrow" and mentioned the late Tucson music legend Rainer Ptacek, a close friend who died more than 15 years ago.
He slyly reinterpreted older tunes such as "Canned Goods," "Poor Backslider," "The Poet Game," "Just by Myself" and "Good Morning Coffee," and some were arranged differently enough that they were at first tough to recognize. This was a good thing, proof that his songs are not static or frozen in time. Songs change with the years, like people do, and many of these have gotten more gritty and bluesy.
Which is appropriate, in a way. Brown, at 63, has become a bit more grizzled, a little thicker in the middle and with more than a little gray in his beard. Then again, many of us who have been listening to him for decades have, too. Several recent songs referred to age and aging, such as the creaky "Bones Bones" and whimsical "Fat Boy Blues," but that's nothing new. Brown has addressed those subjects in song at least since the mid-1980s.
And, although he is known for a chest-rumbling baritone, Brown adopted an atypical falsetto for "Besham's Bokerie," a haunting folk-blues fever dream. The show ended with tributes to two of Brown's heroes; he covered Johnny Cash's "Folsom Prison Blues" and Bob Dylan's "Highway 51 Blues."