Some forty years after being labelled as the “new Dylan”with his debut album, ‘Alive on Arrival’, Steve Forbert remains a respected, much-loved troubadour. Although that early commercial success is long ago, Forbert has developed a cult following through consistently releasing high-quality albums, regular touring and engaging warmly with his fans. This is the last of three UK gigs before Forbert returns next year for a full tour. Each of these performances, in Oxford, London and Cambridge, is a one-off, with a different song selection and Forbert taking requests from the audience. Forbert has a huge back-catalogue to draw upon and, along with his great experience and confidence, this allows him to fashion a unique event for his audience.
Before Forbert takes to the stage, the audience is entertained by opening act, Molly Armstrong. Accompanied by pianist, guitarist and songwriter, Treana Morris, Armstrong engages the audience immediately with her pure, clear vocals and sincere delivery. Hopeful, upbeat songs with strong melodies, such as ‘Do What I Like’ and ‘If You Were Amazing’ showcase Armstrong’s voice well. The final two songs in her forty-minute set are a fitting climax: ‘Breathe’, dedicated to Armstrong’s mother, who passed away three years ago, builds up into a powerful, emotional piece and the piano-led ‘Only Human’ is a vulnerable closer with open-hearted lyrics and an atmospheric vocal performance. Armstrong is a Cambridge local, returning home, and was well-supported by an appreciative crowd.
When Steve Forbert takes to the stage, he is alone, with just his trusty guitar and a selection of harmonicas. But the large, empty stage is easily filled by Forbert’s presence, personality and musicality. The show is full of humour and audience interaction. Forbert invites questions and requests from the audience; there is a charming exchange with a fan who sent a number of requests into the website. Throughout, the crowd listens quietly and intensely, which draws a number of good-humoured comments from Forbert: “and now let’s see if you can be real quiet for a minute,” and “good job it wasn’t a Saturday night, so you’re more in control this time!” The crowd seem subdued at times, but this is out of respect and a deep connection to the songs – these are knowledgeable fans, who call out multiple requests when invited and join in with singing loudly and clapping along when the time is right.
An early highlight is ‘Lonesome Cowboy Bill’s Song’ with its rhythmic strum and Forbert’s foot tapping out the beat on a wooden board. It’s introduced as: “a song from way back.” It’s a tale about the end of a relationship and, as with many of Forbert’s songs, the audience is pulled into the narrative because his delivery feels like an intimate conversation. In a similar way, ‘Going Down to Laurel’ from the 1978 debut album gets an enthusiastic response. Again, Forbert could be talking to us over drinks, sharing secrets and stories: “She is a fool for loving me / But she’s in love / And love’s a funny state of mind.” As if to demonstrate that he’s lost none of his ability to captivate, Forbert leaps forward in time and the next song, ‘The Magic Tree’, is from the 2018 album of the same name. The lyrics are hopeful and positive: “If winds calm down to nothing / Leaves would still be rustling / In the magic tree…When nothing else is pleasant, / good is always present / In the magic tree.” The guitar jangles and the harmonica solo soars and Forbert whispers his distinctive vocal in this modern classic.
As Forbert hits his stride, the middle part of the set is particularly strong. ‘Baby’ from ‘Jack Rabbit Slim’ gets spontaneous applause when it begins and the rhythmic, upbeat ‘That’ll Be Alright’ has the audience singing along in a call-and-response with Forbert, who asks: “Are you ready for a little dancing?” The audience join in with one of the requests, ‘Quiet Day’. It is indeed quiet, understated and beautiful, with an optimistic message we can all relate to: “Quiet day / No designs / Except for watching stars come out to shine.” The gently philosophical ‘What it is is a Dream’ has much the same feel. Two of the songs in the encores, ‘January 23-30, 1978’ and ‘Stolen Identity’, written many years apart, both offer strong narratives and are popular, melodic ways to end the set. The former’s story about a character returning to his home town to visit old friends seems to resonate especially well with Forbert’s fans.
Forbert, who is immediately flying back to the USA, promises to return in February because he’s: “waiting until it gets nice and cold.” His mixture of new material and older classics will, no doubt, continue to draw in the crowds next year. Never mind the ‘new Dylan’ label; the ‘original Steve Forbert’ can still deliver a captivating set, enhanced by his warm interaction with the crowd. His tour next year is highly recommended.