(Pictured: Steve Forbert, 2019.)
In the 70s, rock station WIBA-FM in Madison had a show called The Quiet Hour. Every night between 6:00 and 7:00, they played nothing but acoustic music, including lots of folk and jazz. During our first semester in college, my dormitory roommate and I loved it, as an antidote to the junk favored by many of the other guys on the floor. In the fall of 1978, an album frequently heard on The Quiet Hour was Alive on Arrival by a new singer/songwriter named Steve Forbert. I liked it.
A year later, Forbert’s second album, Jackrabbit Slim, arrived with a complete helping of new-Dylan hype on the side. It was in the hot rotation at the campus radio station for quite a while, and in the hot rotation at my apartment for months also. Cut one on side one, “Romeo’s Tune,” became a big radio hit. At the end of 1980 came Forbert’s third album, Little Stevie Orbit. I adored the lead single, “Get Well Soon,” but when I brought the album home, I found it a lot less distinctive than Jackrabbit Slim and Alive on Arrival, and it didn’t get played much after the first few times.
I lost track of Forbert after that. So did everybody else, as a dispute with his label limited him to just two albums between 1982 and 1992. (A third album, originally set for release in 1983, didn’t see daylight until 2009.) Streets of This Town (1988) and The American in Me (1992) were critically acclaimed, if not big hits. They did, however, mark his return to regular recording.
Since 1995, he’s released 12 studio albums and three live ones. [Late edit: Depending on how you count compilations and special editions, it’s more than 15 albums. Let’s just call it “a lot.”] Last fall came his most recent record, The Magic Tree, and a memoir called Big City Cat: My Life in Folk-Rock.
Forbert tours almost continuously—this year, according to his website, through the beginning of August he’s played 65 shows in the United States and Europe. He plays both big cities—Minneapolis, Chicago, and Cleveland just within the last couple of months, for example—and small towns, like Fort Atkinson, Wisconsin, where I saw him on Friday night. Fort Atkinson is an old river town about 45 miles east of Madison, and he played a charming joint called Café Carpe. (Not “car-pay,” as in something French, but “carp” as in the fish.) The performance space is in the middle of the building, between the bar/dining room and a spacious screened-in deck that overlooks the Rock River. Capacity is 60 people, so small that if you buy a ticket in advance, they put a sticker with your name on the back of your seat. (I had to wait a bit before I could find mine; the woman who ushered me to it had to finish washing some dishes in the kitchen first.) I was in the second row, maybe six feet from the stage, which is only a step, raised maybe six or eight inches. The room was full of Forbert fans, many of them more serious than I, some in Forbert T-shirts. They bantered with him and he bantered back, performing songs from past and present in a show that ran a little under two hours with an intermission. It had the feel of a guy showing up in your living room to play some tunes, and I’ve never been to a show quite like it.
Forbert is 65 years old now, but he sounds pretty much the same as he did when he first came to New York from Mississippi. He has played Café Carpe before; “four or five times,” he told me as we talked briefly after the show. It’s a fitting venue for a guy with guitar and a bag full of harmonicas, which is how he started out, busking in the streets of the nation’s biggest city during the late 70s, a time and place where you would not have bet on his brand of folk-rock as a growth stock.
As it happened, Alive on Arrival is just long enough that I was able to listen to nearly all of it on the drive down to Fort Atkinson, and most of Jackrabbit Slim on the way back. I was listening to the 2013 reissues of both, which feature some fine songs that got left in the vaults. Little Stevie Orbit has since gotten a similar archival reissue, and I wonder if I should go get that one and give it another chance. I definitely want to check into some of the other Steve Forbert records I have missed since the 80s.