Saturday, August 22, 2009

Severin Browne - House Concert Review

Writing songs is tough stuff. I know, I've tried many times with VERY limited success. So I am always impressed by a songwriter who can write high-quality songs prolifically. Throw in the ability to perform these songs entertainingly for audiences and you have the makings of a major talent. Since the early 70's Severin Browne has been accomplishing such magic and this past Saturday night we got to experience this talent first-hand, close-up at the Boney Mountain House Concert series in Newbury Park, CA. Again, here is a link for the concert series:
Severin Browne may be best known as Jackson Browne's younger brother, a fact he failed to mention all evening, but in the early to mid 70's he was a staff songwriter and recording artist for, of all labels, Motown Records. He never really fit in or hit it big there but he began developing songwriting and performing chops that still serve him today. We had seen Severin Browne once a few years ago at a songwriter showcase where he performed a few songs we loved and we have been looking forward to seeing a full night of his music ever since. Because Severin predominately makes his living as a guitar and music teacher, his performing schedule tends to be a bit light and it had taken us a long time to get a chance to hear him again. It was an opportunity worth waiting for, but I hope we don't have to wait so long to see him again.
So, as you have hopefully already read in my venue review, the Boney Mountain House Concerts have a unique feature. Our host, Steve Brandick, performs a short opening set personally before the main act takes the spotlight. This practice is endearing in concept and quite a lot of fun in practice. On this night Steve took the stage to perform two songs before the first set. The first song was a blues he performed with a guest harmonica player named Russ. The second song was one of Steve's originals, a hilarious take on growing older called "I'm In Pretty Good Shape For the Shape I'm In". It was a great warm-up for the rest of the evening.
Then Severin took the stage looking more like a grown-up member of the Bowery Boys than a pop star (see above picture). His first song was a song called "CatWoman" ( note to Zoe - this one's for you!) about a woman who feeds the cats of New Orleans from the back of the fast food chicken restaurant where she works. A typical Severin song mixing humor and poignancy with a catchy melodic nature it got the evening started. The first set featured quite a few humorous tunes, most notably "My Midlife Crisis" a great follow-up to Steve's similar take on aging and "The Other Man" a minor key ballad comparing an extramarital affair to life as a pirate that he describes as being in the "key of Aaargh". Maybe the funniest tune of all was one he didn't write. "Would You Like To Play The Guitar?" was the classic "Would You Like To Swing On a Star" with new lyrics by Pat Donahue, guitarist for Prairie Home Companion, lampooning the music business at all levels. Hilarious and cutting satire that had added mirth for all of us guitarists in the audience. Mixed in with the humor were some "serious" tunes also, including "To The Light" a song he cowrote at a songwriting workshop with Freebo, James Lee Stanley and David Roth ( not my cousin or David Lee Roth from Van Halen, but the singer/songwriter Kerville Festival winner). We've heard Freebo's version of this song and, while it was the best song Freebo did, the lyrics bordered on New Agey excess in his delivery. In Severin's low-key vocal delivery the song takes on more weight and the interesting chord progression and melody are able to save the song from triteness and bring it towards the transcendence the song strives for. And for me, the highlight song of the evening was "Dear Ruthie" a moving spiritual lesson in song form that Severin had dropped from his repertoire and had to be talked into performing again. This is one of those "perfect" songs where you wouldn't change a note or word or nuance and that us mere mortals can only dream of ever writing. That he stopped performing such a masterpiece I find astounding, like Michaelangelo leaving the Sistine Chapel ceiling out of his portfolio.
Intermissions are always fun at house concerts, great pot luck appetizers and desserts, mingling with those we know and meeting new friends, enjoying the great backyard of our hosts, the Brandick's, and meeting the artist and buying CDs. I was lucky enough to get to talk to Severin quite a bit while purchasing a CD and having it signed. He is extremely friendly and approachable and I found him charming and very interesting to talk to.
The second set began as the first, with Steve getting up to do one more opening tune. Inspired by Severin's "Dear Ruthie" take on spirituality he chose his tune "You Went And Got Religion", a hysterical documentation of the power of religion to screw up relationships. Severin then came back with a song from 1996, "Uptown" followed by a couple from his last album, 2001's "This Twisted Road", the title track's healing reaction to the Oklahoma City bombing and "Strange Life" another one he has only recently added back to his performing repertoire. The second set was more reliant on "serious" songs than the first , working in the love song "When Its Right, Its Right" and the catchy singalong of "I Am and I Will". But humor did reappear when Severin did the song I requested at intermission, the bouncy rockabilly-sounding "Angelyne" which he co wrote with Paul Zollo and its catchy upbeat rhythm inspired "chair dancing" behind me by Julie Paris of Russ and Julie's House concert and Renee Bodie of Bodie House Concerts. And when the show finally ended the audience had really experienced a well-rounded, balanced show that had covered quite a bit of stylistic and emotional territory.
Severin's performance style is laid-back. I'd be tempted to call his voice average or mediocre but when I think back on his show he NEVER hit a bad note at all, so maybe I am more noting the lack of vocal "fireworks" than any short coming. In fact this vocal approach shows deference to the songs themselves, never putting the focus on him rather than his songs. One interesting note, Severin is the first singer/songwriter/guitarist that I've seen in ages that never changed tunings on his guitar or switched to another guitar already in a different tuning. All of his songs were performed in standard orchestral tuning. His guitar playing is INCREDIBLE, technically brilliant but at the same time tasty and always appropriate to serving the song. And ultimately a night with Severin Browne IS all about the songs, humorous and moving and as warm and accessible as the man himself. Do yourself a favor and catch his act sometime, he is a truly unique talent that is way under-appreciated in his own home area. Here is a link to his website so you can keep your eye on him:

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