Greg Brown Mesmerizes Big Top Crowd in Final Show

John Gilbert

Greg Brown poured his soul into every song at Big Top Chautauqua Friday night.
Greg Brown poured his soul into every song at Big Top Chautauqua Friday night.

Imagine visiting a small town in Iowa where you’re invited to come, sit on the porch and listen to this fella with a guitar singing in a low, rumbling voice to a stream of his own songs. Down-home stuff, but with a clever edge to the lyrics, delivered by this guy in bib overalls, with a twinkle in his eye. Between songs, he might regale you with personal stories about what led up to the song you’re about to hear, and his casual conversation is as compelling as his songs.

Then you can imagine attending a Greg Brown concert.

Also, imagine driving to Bayfield, Wis., and heading for the ski hill where a thoroughly renovated tent stands as the renewed Big Top Chautauqua. It is less of a floppy circus tent nowadays, and more resembling an Airstream trailer, only with seats inside for 300, all straining to hear the purity of every note in superbly crisp acoustics.

That’s Big Top Chautauqua, which was the perfect setting, or merging, of last Friday night’s Greg Brown concert. No, Brown didn’t wear bib overalls, although he has before, in frequent concerts in Duluth and throughout the area. The special circumstances surrounding this particular Greg Brown concert was that all the conjecture and rumors leading up to the show was that this would be Brown’s last concert, or at least a part of his last concert tour.

 

Guitarist and long-time sidekick Bo Ramsey accompanied Greg Brown.
Guitarist and long-time sidekick Bo Ramsey accompanied Greg Brown.

He never said anything about it, but there almost seemed to be an underlying theme to his words, spoken and sung, that indicated he might perceive that the end of his performing days are approaching.

Brown, 70, sent Bo Ramsey, his highly skilled, guitar-playing sideman out to do a half-hour warmup set before joining him on stage and opening with “My Home in the Sky,” which ends with him envisioning reaching his home in the sky and looking at the rest of us, “down below.” 

After two songs, he addressed his enthusiastic followers. “Glad to be here,” he said. “Glad to be anywhere on this suffering little planet.” He later mentioned that he knows he has “…a tiny little future, and a great big past.”

Brown has been known to perform some heavy-duty political commentary in songs such as “I Want My Country Back,” but he didn’t approach any of those Friday. It was more sittin’ and pickin’ on his porch, which thoroughly enthralled the near-capacity audience. Three-fourths of the way through his hour and a half performance a heavy rainstorm began, adding a rhythmic percussion to the performance. 

Brown looked up and said something about a little rain, but never flinched, as high winds whipped the outer reaches of the tent. He simply resumed his story-telling, leading to the next song. If Brown is the star his devoted fans are certain of, it is difficult if not impossible to pick out his biggest song, or his best CD. All of them work, and even a song you might dislike might well have a pearl turn-of-phrase in it that you can’t overlook.

People have suggested the Greg Brown is Iowa’s Bob Dylan, or John Prine, or Woodie Guthrie. High praise, all, but he’s mostly like the late Guy Clark, a legendary Texas singer-songwriter who traveled around at his own pace, and wrote about everything he saw that attracted his interest.

In this concert, Brown plucked chestnuts from several of his albums, some dating back to the 1970s. But his treatment made all of them sound new and appropriate.

He told the story of dedicating a song to one of his grandmothers, and then realizing his “other” gramma was quite perturbed that she had been neglected. So he wrote a song for her, and it was one of the night’s highlights — “Canned Goods,” from his “Yellow Dog” CD — and he talked about how memorable his trips were to her house, where eating well was always mandatory.

Brown sent Bo Ramsey, his highly skilled, guitar-playing sideman out to do a half-hour warmup set before joining him on stage. “Taste a little of summer…my gramma put it all in a jar…Peaches on the shelf, potatoes in the bin; supper’s ready, everybody, come on in…When I go to see my gramma, I gain a lot of weight…She cans pickles, sweet and dill, and the songs of the whippoorwill, the morning dew, and evening moon. The kind of food I can buy at the store, ain’t got summer in it any more. Taste a little of the summer; gramma put it all in a jar.”

He sang “Laughing River,” about going trout fishing on the Upper Peninsula, and he strung together an unlikely playlist that included “Hey Baby Hey,” “Skinny Days,” “Bones, Bones, Bones,” “Summer Evening,” “Daughters,” all of them with colorful little bits of byplay leading to the next song.

He talked about how his parents were both skilled growers of crops, but he lacked that skill. He said they’d plant all their seeds in carefully arranged rows, while he preferred to walk out and scatter a handful of seeds to see which ones might make it. Then, he said, he’d go up under a shade tree with a bottle of wine and take a nap.

A few years ago, Greg Brown performed at Bayfront Festival Park, and after the show I spotted him walking away so I caught up to him. We talked briefly, and he made me feel like I’d known him all my life. He gave me his home phone number and said to call him, any time.
 

Greg Brown waved farewell to the audience, saluted as well by his wife, Iris De Ment, who joined  Brown for a closing duet
Greg Brown waved farewell to the audience, saluted as well by his wife, Iris De Ment, who joined Brown for a closing duet

There are several Greg Brown songs, and albums, that are my personal favorites, like “Eugene,” and I have to say he didn’t do any of them — but the show was still overwhelmingly enjoyable.

And I acquired a new favorite, “Ring Around the Moon,” which fit perfectly into the mood and the theme of the night.

“We don’t know when we came, you know it’s been so long. Everything is the same, just like a long song. Ring around the moon, it’s a long time till day; play me one more tune — please don’t go away. I don’t know when we changed; you know it’s been so long. Everything is the same — there must be one more song.”

For me, that was the perfect closing line. Everybody wanted to see Greg Brown, and to witness what might be his final show, at least at Big Top, but nobody wanted to see him go without “one more song.”

Brown talked several times about his daughters and his son. His current wife is Iris DeMent, a forceful singer with a distinctive voice, who has done numerous duets with John Prine. Brown brought her onstage for a closing song, another highlight of the night.

Big Top officials brought Brown and De Ment back after their encore and presented them with gifts, and suggested maybe they should name the place after him just to keep him coming back. He’s got a complete tour scheduled for the rest of the summer, and then…well, maybe he’ll write a song about it.