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Although Steve Forbert has recorded and issued several albums since 1978, he remains something of a well-kept secret, largely as problems with two of his record labels hindered promotion and therefore did his potential sales no favours. As an American singer-songwriter, there's something of a younger, poppier Bob Dylan, John Cougar Mellencamp or Bruce Springsteen about him, even down to the acoustic guitar and harmonica on a neck rack. Significantly one of his main producers was Garry Tallent, who was a longtime bassist with Bruce and the E Street Band. I'd say that when compared with the others there's a sort of wide-eyed innocence or freshness about him as a singer, without the sheer ruggedness, lived-in vocals, but that's certainly not meant as a criticism.
Steve's songs are basically folk-rock, and as a performing writer he may not be in the first rank, but he's not far behind. The Rough Squirrels are a five-piece band, and this collection is more or less a 'best of' live, drawn from most of the nine studio albums he had issued up to that time, recorded at the Bottom Line Club, NY, in July 2000.
The mid-tempo 'Real Live Love' gets things off to a good start. It has a belter of a chorus, driven by some stinging lead guitar and organ. It's followed by the slower 'Goin' Down To Laurel' which immediately brings the Dylan influence to mind, with the harmonica and passionate lyrics about going back to 'a dirty stinkin' old town' - all in the name of love.
There's an ecological message in 'Good Planets Are Hard To Find', more or less rock'n'roll in its structure and with lyrics about 'true currents in thrivin' seas, winds blowin' through breathin' trees, strong oceans and safe sunshine, good planets are hard to find'. A couple of slower, more moody songs follow in 'Strange' and 'The American In Me', before the pace accelerates for 'Now You Come Back', and 'Evergreen Boy', with a catchy lead guitar lick and a constant speeding up, slowing down trick.
'Rose Marie', nothing to do with other songs of the same name, is a rather touching love song, with atmospheric keyboards particularly strong on this one. Then it's back to a rock'n'roll beat on one of the most immediate songs, 'It Sure Was Better Back Then', as he reminiscences on a life spent working on the railroad - 'passing out at night still in my mud caked , I was living off of berries and beans' - but 'it sure was better back then'.
'So Good To Feel Good Again' has a definite Springsteen feel, with one of those choruses I can't get out of my brain, and the organ playing is particularly atmospheric. A lightly-picked acoustic guitar leads into the romantic, intimate love song 'Oh To Be Back With You' with only subdued, lightly tinkling piano and drums.
'Something's Got A Hold On Me' is a great country-rock shuffle, a little like Dylan's 'If Not For You'. After the slow, subdued 'She's Living In A Dreamworld', the more lively 'Complications' with countryish guitar and organ speeds things up , with its brisk tempo.
Then we get to the two songs from 1979 which came close to launching him as a star. 'The Sweet Love That You Give (Sure Goes A Long, Long Way)' is as close to disco as he ever got, though on this live recording, they have to make do without the brass and saxophone which were on the original. I have fond memories of playing this at the time as a 45 in my very early DJ days. (Sorry, Steve, I suppose I did try to help make it a hit, but I was hardly big time!). After that comes his best-known number, and in 1979 his sole US Top 40 hit the one song which you may have heard on the radio at the time, or occasionally these days on more enterprising programmes, the utterly lovely 'Romeo's Tune'. Ken Bruce has played both these tracks on his Radio 2 mid-morning show in recent months. Top man, Ken. Spot the Springsteen flavour on the piano, and if you don't know the song already, after a few listens you might well warm to it.
To close the show the band let rip on a bit of rock'n'roll with the only cover version, a cracking blast of Chuck Berry's 'Nadine', segued with his own 'You Cannot Win (If You Do Not Play)'.
Before I heard this, I only knew Steve from having heard three or four of the singles. Initially I thought he was OK, pleasant, but a bit of a lightweight. Having played this set several times, nearly all the songs have grown on me to the point where I really love this set and I'm tempted to get out and investigate the back catalogue further. Had it not been for a few strokes of bad luck, he would almost certainly be a much bigger name than he is at the moment.
Last time I checked on Amazon, the new price was £17-£18 (only available as an import), but Marketplace were also offering new copies for under a fiver. If you're unfamiliar with him but are interested and want to try before you buy, there are clips of several of these songs on Youtube.
[Revised version of a review I previously posted on ciao]