Tag Archives: southern songwriters

Brian and the Nightmares Remembered

It’s 10 o’clock on a chilly, November night. You cross the street to the tiny barbeque joint and from the curb you can already feel the energy inside. You’re excited, but you approach the doorman with reticence – you’ve been told that your name is “on the list,” but if it’s not you’re out of luck, because you aren’t legal, you’re only 18.

At last, you squeeze through the door. Bodies are already packed to the point of having to breathe and move as one. You somehow make your way into the middle of the crowd, wedged between a couple of girls with long, dyed black hair and a red-faced guy wearing a dirty John Deere cap. On stage are the musicians – they have to be onstage, because there is literally nowhere else for them to be. Even on that small stage, bathed in the meager glow of a few track lights pointed in their direction, they look larger than life.

Before you have the chance to really register what’s going on, the drummer, whose long, lank hair reinforces his resemblance to an un-permed Tommy Lee, strikes the count on his hi-hats – “one, two, three …!” You feel, more than hear, the music as it rolls through the room. You’d dance, if there was any room to do so; instead, you move with the crowd as it responds to the bass and drums, locked together in a ferocious 4/4 assault. The singer, miraculously, cuts through the wall of sound with a baritone that is both Hank Williams-thin and Springsteen-powerful. With his black hair, hat, coat, boots, and faded black pants, he looks like some sort of nineteenth-century “medicine show” barker. He stands at the microphone, his big, hollow-bodied Rickenbaker guitar in hand, singing and blowing harmonica like a preacher delivering a hellfire and damnation sermon while cursed with the knowledge that he has some serious sins of his own to pay for.

To his left is his foil, his black, shaggy hair bouncing, by turns smiling and frowning, playing his worn Telecaster with a speed, fervor and accuracy that betrays many nights holed-up alone in his bedroom with a guitar, surrounded by records. He seems to be in a world of his own, and when he comes forward to take the microphone, he sings with a sincerity and emotion that makes even his most humorous lyrics seem heartfelt. On the opposite side of the stage the bassist stands stock-still, impervious to the chaos going on around him. All that seems to move are his hands and fingers; his only flourish is his right wrist snapping to emphasize a chord change or to follow the song’s dynamics. In contrast, the drummer is all movement, playing hard and fast, digging into the beat, staying inside the music while keeping it right on the precarious edge between order and confusion.

You are watching Brian and The Nightmares, circa 1988: Brian Relleva, Kurt Hagardorn, John Smith, and Mark Ryalls. You are where I stood on that chilly November night at Quarterback’s Barbeque, the night that changed my life, the night I was saved by rock and roll.

Steve Forbert (Great Rockers You Should Know, #2)

Mississippi-born Steve Forbert came to fame in the late 1970’s, springing out of the NYC coffee-house scene with a style that combined punk-rock energy with a sweeter, poetic sensibility. With a distinctive voice and a gift for combining words and melody that can leave you humming (or crying) before you know it, Forbert was — like Loudon Wainwright III, young Springsteen, and so many others — somewhat cursed by the “New Dylan” mantle critics handed him with the release of “Romeo’s Tune” (which rose to #11 on the Billboard charts) and the album Jackrabbit Slim in 1979.

You may have heard “Romeo” covered by others, most recently Mr. Nicole Kidman, but here’s a very good — better than the record — live version from around the time Forbert’s career was picking up speed. Dig the hair and clothes and the fact that it’s on a NYC channel that promotes itself as the home of “classics” and “disco.” Disco, this ain’t.

Romeo’s Tune (1979)

After a few frustrating years of record company shenanigans — an equally successful follow-up to his surprise hit was not forthcoming — Forbert got another shot at the brass ring in 1988: a new record deal, a new producer (Springsteen’s bassist, the great Gary Tallent), and a new batch of songs that are, in my opinion, his very best.  Streets of this Town is a record I’ve come back to at various points in my life, and every time it feels even more poignant. My favorite, if not the best, song on the album, is “I Blinked Once.” Here’s a great live performance of the tune from the year it was released.

I Blinked Once (1989)

Again, the fame didn’t last: great reviews in Rolling Stone and elsewhere never translated into the fame he (or this album) deserved.

Over thirty years removed from his brief “one hit wonder,” Forbert is still out there playing, making records, and writing songs. He still has the gift, and the passion: I hope he never stops.

If you like what you hear, check out more at Steve Forbert’s home on the web.