It is easy to understand why Steve Forbert’s Alive On Arrival was a hard sell in 1978. The ’60s had given us singer-songwriters like Dylan, Paul Simon, Leonard Cohen, and Laura Nyro. The early ’70s had given us tie-dyed troubadours of both genders like James Taylor, Carly Simon, Joni Mitchell, and Neil Young. All of these artists were considered voices of their generation. They reflected and helped shape the views and tastes of their times.
By 1978 this breed of performer was largely in the rear-view mirrors of disco divas on one side and punk minimalists on the other. Where would a songsmith like Steve Forbert fit into the mix? Well, with the exception of his 1980 hit “Romeo’s Tune”, he simply didn’t make much of a splash. Back then, he seemed a talent building his resume, waiting for his time to come. In a sense, he arrived too late to ride on the Greenwich Village/Laurel Canyon folk rock waves and too early to be marketed as Adult Contemporary radio programming.
Now it’s 2013 and Forbert’s first two albums, Alive On Arrival (1978) and Jackrabbit Slim (1980) have been re-issued together in a new collector’s set, augmented by a dozen previously unreleased tracks. Now Blue Corn Music hopes the time might have finally arrived for Forbert’s early work to be appreciated. After all, he’s recently gained some notice for his Grammy-nominated Jimmie Rodgers tribute Any Old Time and 2012’s critically acclaimed Over With You.
Seems to me they’re probably right. While very different animals, these two albums are easy on the ears and likely to appeal to listeners who feel a bit out of step with harder-edged contemporary sounds. For example, you can hear Forbert’s countrified Mississippi roots in the jaunty “Goin’ Down to Laurel,” the opening track of Alive On Arrival. The wheezing harmonica is one reason for the early Dylan comparisons, just as with the long-line lyrics in “Steve Forbert’s Midsummer Night’s Toast,” which evokes the Woody Guthrie-inspired talking blues of old.
According to publicity for the reissue, Forbert chose Steve Burgh to produce the album because he didn’t want an overproduced sound, so he avoided overdubs and reverb. As the foot-stomping on “What Kinda Guy?” signals, this was intended to be a bare bones début. Apparently it was Bonnie Raitt who convinced Forbert some reverb would enrich the sound, and he agreed.
These days, the set would probably be classified as Americana or roots, even as we hear his transition from Southern acoustic player to mellow New York street observer in songs like “Big City Cat,” “Grand Central Station,” and “Tonight I Feel So Far Away from Home.” Perhaps if more of the selections were like the original album’s closer, “You Cannot Win (If You Do Not Play),” more folks might have tuned in. Goodness, someone even plugged in an electric guitar on that one.
Of the 15 songs on disc one, five are bonus tracks. None are throwaways. I suspect that were this a 2013 original release, these songs, especially the melodic “House of Cards” and “Steve Forbert’s Moon River” (no, not the Andy Williams’ hit) would have made for a good EP.
Jackrabbit Slim is a different kettle of fish. If listeners thought Dylan when they heard Alive On Arrival, perhaps they remembered Phil Ochs of the Pleasure of the Harbor vintage when hearing Forbert’s sophomore outing. Producer John Simon (The Band, Simon & Garfunkel) gave Forbert’s shift in style to tinkling piano-bar melodies more polished settings. Simon apparently insisted on more retakes to get the right depth for “Romeo’s Tune.” In addition, other lovely tunes like “I’m in Love with You” and “Say Goodbye to Little Jo” find Forbert backed by a small group of gospel-flavored girl singers. They were just part of the expanded musical palate for the then new songs.
The disc is also far more urban and gritty than its predecessor. For example, “Wait” has a touch of social commentary with lyrics exploring the plight of the lost and lonely in harsh winter time. A saxophone sets up the nightclub-set “Make It All So Real,” where the audience is asking the singer to touch them with his songs. If it’s not the same bar that inspired “Piano Man,” it’s just around the corner, both musically and lyrically. “Complications” is a wry litany of just that—the matters that throw us off track each day. “January 23-30, 1978” is a story song in the old-fashioned style, an acoustic guitar and harmonica strummer evocative of Alive On Arrival.
Speaking of old-fashioned, the spirit of Pete Seeger is front and center in “The Oil Song,” with lyrics about an oil spill ruining beaches with plenty of blame to go around. It’s the first of seven bonus tracks that include alternate takes of “Make It All So Real” and “Romeo’s Tune,” the latter recorded live at the Palladium, NYC, November 1979. It’s easy to see why the clichés of “Witch Blues” didn’t make the original cut. The most interesting element in this outtake are a few bars of an unusual quivering harmonica. The jaunty “Oh, Camile” is more engaging with a witty travelogue described in a letter. “Smoky Windows” sounds like a work in progress, with intriguing lyrics about Forbert’s birth and more dramatic musical phrasing than elsewhere on the set. Again, had this group of songs been taped in the 21st century, a solid EP could have been available for download to supplement the main release.
The package includes liner notes by David Wild which are more appreciative than informative, but there’s nothing wrong with that. In the end, this is a collection of songs without the distinctive stamps of any particular era. They sound like they could have been recorded last year just as easily as the days when Forbert was an emerging performer sharing the stage with groups beating out very different rhythms. Alive On Arrival is for those enjoying the folk, roots, and Americana tradition. Jackrabbit Slim should appeal to fans of club performers who play at venues specializing in fine wines rather than almost cold beer.