Words // Sarah V
I was fortunate enough to be in New York City for Joe Henry's two concerts at City Winery recently. To add to my great luck, my favorite guitarist, Marc Ribot, was the opening act both nights, and he sat in with the band on a few songs during the main set as well. The band consisted of the same set of musicians that were on Joe Henry's recent studio album, "Reverie," plus his son, Levon Henry, as a guest saxophonist on a few songs. (Unlike other acts of on-stage nepotism I've witnessed over the years, Levon actually did an excellent job!)
Ribot's opening sets were a little on the tame side, compared to some of the wild concerts I've seen him do, but the audience really loved him. It didn't hurt that he was introduced with phrases like "one of the great guitar players in the world" and "there isn't a musician in the world I admire more than Marc Ribot"... you'd be hard-pressed to come up with a more glowing recommendation than that, really.
About half of what Ribot played was from his most recent album, "Silent Movies," and about half was covers - including some standards that he'd played on Allen Toussaint's fantastic "The Bright Mississippi," a couple of John Coltrane pieces, and a Lounge Lizards song ("Blow Job"). For someone like me who follows his career closely, the covers all made perfect sense: "The Bright Mississippi" was produced by Joe Henry, so of course he'd pull out some of those for this night's concert; one of Ribot's more recent bands is "Sunship," which focuses on double-electric-guitar interpretations of Coltrane, so naturally he's been working on some of those pieces lately; and way back in the 80s, he was the guitar player for the Lounge Lizards.
Joe Henry played very similar sets both nights - he played the entirety of "Reverie," in order; plus a couple of covers in the encore. This was both good and bad... on the one hand, I absolutely adore "Reverie" and I loved having a chance to hear every song on it performed live; on the other hand, I would also have loved to hear some gems from the back catalog, too, since his last few albums are unfailingly brilliant. (I had fangirl fantasies of him getting Marc Ribot to break out his coronet so he could play that solo on "Bellwether" from his 2009 release "Blood from Stars," but I suppose that is asking a lot! Still, one or two of the songs from "Civilians" thrown into a second encore would have been a huge crowd-pleaser.)
Joe Henry did an excellent job bringing the album to a live setting; the musicians he had on stage are all top notch, and they added some beautiful flourishes to the music. He brought Marc Ribot back on stage for all of the songs he'd played on the album - "Dark Tears," "Tomorrow Is October," and "Deathbed Version." One change that I particularly loved was giving Ribot an electric guitar instead of an acoustic guitar on "Tomorrow Is October," which transformed it from a spare and haunting ballad to something downright bluesy. The new arrangement was a real highlight of the night for me. Another highlight was Joe Henry's solo acoustic guitar version of "Room at Arles," which is one of my very favorites from the album - a moving tribute to the late Vic Chesnutt.
The last song of the first night's show was a surprise - Loudon Wainwright came out and sang "Motel Blues" with Joe Henry and his band. The audience really ate that one up, and for five minutes it felt like we were transported to an entirely different concert with a much more rowdy and raucous atmosphere. On the second night we had high hopes that Elvis Costello might be a surprise guest, because the guy sitting next to me ran into him coming out of the men's room between sets - but I guess he was just there to see the show since he didn't turn up on stage. The second show's encore - which turned out to be entirely free of surprise guests - included a cover of the old Crosby/Sinatra/etc. standard, "I Don't Stand a Ghost of A Chance With You," as well as Woody Guthrie's "Ramblin' Round" to close the night.
Joe Henry unfortunately doesn't tour very often, but when he does, I'd highly recommend catching his show - especially if you are a fan of things like great songwriting and finely honed musicianship. I'm already looking forward to the next time he comes around!
Joe Henry - You Can't Fail Me Now
Marc Ribot - Fat Man Blues