Despite intense pressure from my Americana UK writing colleagues (which I have to say at times bordered on psychological torture and which has caused me to consider legal remedies), I am not going to cover the Top 10 Steve Forbert albums but instead taking the, in some ways more daunting, route of trying to determine his top 10 songs. Picking Steve Forbert for me was a straightforward choice as he is the artist who opened my ears to Americana, even though that term hadn’t really been invented back in October 1979 when ‘Jackrabbit Slim’ was first released, a record which captivated me and changed my musical tastes forever. The difficulty is distilling down such a huge body of material to a mere ten tracks, but with such a vast choice of songs to choose from it’s no hardship to take a trip down memory lane to be able to sift through such a great back catalogue.
Our AUK readership is very knowledgeable, but if for some strange reason you’ve yet to fully discover Steve Forbert, I suggest you buy yourself a large shovel and start digging, but be warned, you won’t have to dig very deep to find the treasure. It’s hard to believe that Steve Forbert is well into his sixties. He’s hugely well regarded by his peers, and simply a genius of a songwriter.
Number 10: ‘Song for Katrina’ from ‘Little Stevie Orbit’ (1980)
It’s fair to say that after the near-unanimous critical praise for his first two albums (more on those later), his third effort ‘Little Stevie Orbit’ received a much more lukewarm response from the critics and the public alike, and in truth, the overall standard of work had dropped but it still produced some great songs so let’s kick things off with a joyous love song.
Number 9: ‘The Oil Song’ (bonus single) from ‘Jackrabbit Slim’ (1979)
‘The Oil Song’ was originally released as a bonus single (in some markets) with ‘Jackrabbit Slim’ in 1979 and initially, it focused on the oil spills from the tankers Argo Merchant and Olympic Games but in the intervening 40+ years, following the seemingly endless spills in places like Alaska, The Shetland Islands and of course the Gulf of Mexico, Forbert has re-imagined the song multiple time and you can even find a 13-minute version online but here we settle for a mere seven minutes live at the Capitol Theatre in Passaic, NJ.
Number 8: ‘The Magic Tree (Version 1)’ from ‘The Magic Tree’ (2018)
Forty years after his debut album, Forbert proved he had lost none of his mojo with the release of ‘The Magic Tree’ and as AUK writer Elise Kennedy commented, “throughout the album, his folk roots shine clear, as does his songwriting ability honed over his forty years in the music industry” before awarding it a highly merited 8 out of 10. There are two – very different – versions of this song on the album and here is the first version which is also the opening track.
Number 7: ‘You’d See The Things I See’ from ‘Compromised’ (2015)
Based around the day when John Lennon first met Paul McCartney ‘You’d See The Things That I See’ is a bonus track and although Forbert himself sees the album as having an aggressive, roots rock and folk-rock styling, this track is much softer and more introspective.
Number 6: ‘Send in The Clowns’ from ‘Compromised’ (2015)
Throughout his career, Steve Forbert hasn’t done that many cover versions but when he does, he certainly gives them his own spin. This version of Judy Collins ‘Send in The Clowns’ with its radical tempo change from the original is delightfully different and having rediscovered it as I looked through his back catalogue, it’s a song that will be on my playlists for the foreseeable future.
Number 5: ‘Search Your Heart’ from ‘Streets Of This Town’ (1988)
After the almost obligatory record company legal battle which resulted in a five-year hiatus, Forbert returned in 1988 with the high quality ‘Street Of This Town’, and with the E Street band bassist Garry Tallent undertaking production duties he produced another folk/rock classic and while there are undertones of the simmering anger resulting from the lengthy legal battle with Nemperor Records it also ends with the uplifting ‘Search Your Heart’.
Number 4: ‘It Isn’t Gonna Be That Way’ from ‘Alive on Arrival’ (1978)
Confession time. I was intending to limit this Top 10 one track each from ‘Alive on Arrival’ and ‘Jackrabbit Slim’ but there’s no denying these are still his best two albums, so we’ll finish off with two songs from each, starting with this utterly stunning live version of ‘It Isn’t Gonna Be That Way’ live from The Old Grey Whistle Test.
Number 3: ‘I’m In Love With You’ from ‘Jackrabbit Slim’ (1979)
In reality, any song from ‘Jackrabbit Slim’ could have made the Top 10 but ‘I’m In Love With You’ and my number one song (no peaking!) are just sheer musical perfection and even now as I hear the words “I looked up, saw you smile, And then I saw your eyes…I’m in love with you” transports me back to that moment in time when I first heard this and, more importantly, the emotional nerve it struck at that time, and still does today.
Number 2: ‘Goin’ Down To Laurel’ from ‘Alive on Arrival’ (1978)
‘Alive On Arrival’ couldn’t have been more a prophetic title for Forbert’s debut album and it jumps right in there with the folk/rock opener ‘Goin’ Down To Laurel’ and immediately, the directness that has become his lyrical trademark is on show as he confidently sings “Well, I’m goin’ down to Laurel / It’s a dirty, stinking town, yeah / But me, I know exactly what / I’m going to find, Little girl I’m goin’ to see”. The song is a simple story about friends just being friends and the joy of youth, but for one so young it was expertly articulated and a sign of what was to come in the future.
Number 1: ‘Sadly Sorta Like A Soap Opera’ from ‘Jackrabbit Slim’ (1979)
I have no idea why this song resonates so strongly with me. I don’t know anyone who has been in a situation as bad as the one described here but that’s the genius of Steve Forbert’s writing, he can transport you into the world he is trying to portray and the sense of hopelessness he conjures up in this song is almost palpable and every time I hear it, the same emotions surface, they never lessen. It’s hauntingly, depressingly beautiful.