Concert Review

Junior Brown proves unforgettable

sgilman@newsobserver.comFebruary 3, 2014 

Before I went to the Junior Brown concert Jan. 25 in Clayton, I didn’t know if I would hear the flash of the Haygoods in Branson, Mo., or the soft twang of my bluegrass-singing Coleman cousins in Ohio.

I still don’t know what I heard.

I do know I loved it. Just as much, I loved the closeness Brown seemed to have with his fans: Before he came onstage, someone shouted “Hey, Tanya!” to his wife, who was playing acoustic guitar.

“What?” she said, drawing laughs from the audience.

Dressed in a black suit and large white cowboy hat, Brown walked onstage. He stroked the first chords on his guit-steel – an electric hybrid of a standard guitar and steel lap guitar – and drew whoops from the crowd.

I could have danced. Or clapped. Or cried.

His deep, deep voice sang “Party Lights,” one of his own creations. It was easy and smooth, witty and full of regret. “There’s another kind of party lights/ That I can’t stand to see/ When there’s a man in that patrol car/ And he don’t wanna party with me.”

Before the last notes faded, Brown began the next number, “Mouth to Mouth Resuscitation,” a more upbeat song with the same humor and self-assured drawl.

Brown kept me chuckling inwardly with songs like these and “My Wife Thinks You’re Dead”: “We’ll have to say hello, maybe/ Some other time instead/ ’Cause you’re wanted by the police/ And my wife thinks you’re dead.”

Some audience members sang along to the last two lines.

Brown held my complete attention with his show of slides, riffs and other techniques I can’t hope to name. He sounded alternately like electric guitar and banjo, sometimes both at the same time. One minute, his fingers danced over the steel’s frets; the next, they sustained harp-like harmonics or piercing, electronic squeals.

Over all of his notes croons a voice that can reach a rumbling depth or sustain a high-pitched yodel.

The iconic, double-necked guitar Brown plays is an example of talent inspiring technology, much like the double escapement invented in 1821 for pianist Franz Liszt, who played so incredibly that accounts show women screamed and swooned at his concerts. He was so good that a piano maker invented a way for notes to sound in more rapid succession than ever before.

Brown invented his “guit-steel” in 1985 to avoid switching back and forth between an electric guitar and a steel guitar in a concert. Now he rests the whole thing on a stand, stands behind it and has the abilities of the electric guitar plus the slides of the steel at his fingertips. It makes him unstoppable. He can blend styles, time periods, genres.

Brown is unpredictable, and he seems to know it. As his fingers danced, voice rumbled and white hat bobbed, he sneaked sly glances at his audience.

His fans loved his music; some stood by the railing in the balcony and swayed; those confined to their seats closed their eyes and bounced their heads to the rhythm. They cheered after each song and even for especially fancy riffs.

A woman sitting in front of me wearing a cowboy hat and beaded, tasseled, brown leather jacket said it best: “You don’t even know what you heard tonight. You’ve heard country, you’ve heard western, you’ve heard bluegrass, you’ve heard rock and roll, you’ve heard classical. He is the most eclectic fusion you will ever find.”

Final notes brought a standing ovation. Brown smiled and waved and walked offstage as his band held the last chord.

As I walked out, I heard a woman remark to her husband, “That’s one of the first times I’ve remembered his whole concert.”

I laughed but agreed with her on one thing: I won’t be forgetting Junior Brown and his artistry.

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