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Joe Henry's Words Matter, and So Does His Music: Concert Review

Joe Henry Performance - P 2014
John Atwood

The Bottom Line

One of the most literate songwriters working today is a discursive, cinematic lyricist, a sidelong storyteller, his detailed mossy images developing and dissolving into the next.

Venue

Largo at the Coronet
Los Angeles (Saturday, June 21)

Singer-songwriter, joined by son Levon on sax, puts the music on equal footing with his incisive lyrics, forming delicate arcs and unexpected curves.

Midway through Joe Henry’s second set at Largo Saturday night (performed with a band; the earlier set was a solo performance), the South Pasadena singer/songwriter/producer reminded the attentive audience that  “words matter.”

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It’s no surprise that Henry would feel that way. He’s one of the most literate songwriters working today, the kind who explains that the songs on his new album, Invisible Hour (released earlier this month on his own Worksong label) are about marriage, as “a verb, not a noun.” And there’s probably not a lyricist out there who uses “very” and "every” more effectively; “our very blood tastes like honey,”  from “Sparrow," is a swooning heartbreaker of a line.

But the doubleheader of two hour-and-a-half sets put the music on equal footing. The first set was the solo show he recently took to Europe. With only his voice, guitar and piano (he was joined for a few songs by his son, Levon, on sax), it’s easy to fall under the thrall of his words. He’s a discursive, cinematic lyricist, a sidelong storyteller, his detailed, moody images developing and dissolving into the next. But his evocative guitar playing — muted chords on “Sparrow,” countryish picking and strumming for “Lead Me On,” which bears a trace of Kris Kristofferson’s off-hand rumble — made the case for the well-constructed music. Like the lyrics, the melodies form delicate arcs, with unexpected curves, but he manages to bring them in for a soft landing.   

Levon, who is a major contributor to the new album, joined his father for a few songs, his smoky, honking sax turning the deceptively jaunty “The Man I Keep Hid,” into cafe folk, and a lovely, mournful counterpoint on “Our Song,” a more-in-sorrow-than-anger appraisal of 21st century America (and opens with an indelible image of Willie Mays shopping at a Scottsdale Home Depot). He introduced a new song, “Believer,” which he described as being “a cross between ‘Amazing Grace’ and ‘Let’s Get It On’.”  There was also a truly surprising surprise guest: for the encore, Henry brought up Charlie Hickey, the 14-year-old son of friends, to perform “Trampoline.” The kid was good, tackling the song’s tricky, push-and-pull phrasing with a restrained, sonorous, remarkably mature voice.

For the second set, the two Henrys were joined by the musicians who recorded Invisible Hour: Patrick Warren on piano, Jennifer Condos on bass, Jay Bellerose on drums, and Greg Leisz on all manner of stringed instruments. If the solo set could be compared to a pen-and-ink drawing, the band turned the music into gauzy watercolors. From the opening, “Rainy Day Women”-styled woozy march of “Progress of Love,” they performed an easy restraint. There’s an alertness to their playing, as if the new songs haven’t quite settled into themselves in a concert setting. They cloak the music in a mist; like the lyrics, they don’t so much point up but suggest.

Leisz brought a slack-key tropical note to “Invisible Hour,” Condos’ languid bass kept the tango rhythms of “Don’t Tell Me To Stop” (written  with his sister-in-law, “the renowned Detroit folk and protest singer” Madonna) simmering. But Bellerose’s drumming was a consistent, inventive pleasure. He brings a deft and subtle touch to every song: the way his cymbal crashes just after Henry starts the chorus’ on “Odetta” (which moved from a kind of field holler in the solo set to a more cosmopolitan version of The Band), the wooden rumble that undergirds “Every Sorrow.” On a few songs, he uses his left hand to tap a tambourine against his thigh, proving once and for all that even with one hand behind his back, he can outplay most drummers.

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Both sets ended with “Plainspeak” a pleading affirmation of… well, you can’t be sure. A slow-rolling ballad with a chorus stating, “I want nothing more than for you to hear/see me now,” which would either be a declaration of love, or a demand that attention be paid. Words may matter, but Henry leaves the interpretation to the listener. As the lights came up, the crowd (half of whom attended both shows) knew their answer: pay attention, and you will fall in love.

Set list:

(solo set)

Odetta
Like She Was a Hammer
Eyes Out for You
Grave Angels
Invisible Hour
Swayed
Believer
The Man I Keep Hid
Our Song
Monkey
Sparrow
God Only Knows
Plainspeak
_____

Trampoline (w/Charlie Hickey)
Slide

(band set)

Progress of Love
Grave Angels
Odetta
You Can’t Fail Me Now
Invisible Hour
Eyes Out for You
Swayed
All Blues Hail Mary
Monkey
Unspeakable
Every Sorrow
Don’t Tell Me to Stop
Sparrow
_____

Slide
Plainspeak