By Steve Graham
It has been more than forty years since Steve Forbert rode “Romeo’s Tune” onto the pop charts. He was dubbed “the next Bob Dylan,” and sharing famous New York City stage with the Talking Heads and John Cale.
He’s never reached the chart peak of “Romeo’s Tune” again, but neither is he a nostalgia act, riding on his former glory. Last year, he wrote a memoir about his journey from Meridian, Miss., to New York City, then to decades of touring behind his 18 studio albums of catchy and heartfelt folk-rock songs.
He also released a new album as something of a companion piece to the memoir, with four new recordings alongside six tracks built on unreleased demos dating back as far as 1985. Producer Karl Derfler added some backing tracks to his old recordings. Forbert was pleased with the result, even though the process was unusual.
“It was an odd record as it was made in the greenhouse, not in the field,” he said in a phone interview from his new hometown on the Jersey shore.
Forbert said he will likely play something from the new album, but he never knows what will happen at his shows.
“I like a lot of spontaneity,” he said. “I take requests, and I just let it be what it wants to be. … It will end with ‘Romeo’s Tune’ but the rest is up for grabs.”
Likewise, he tells young musicians to just play as much as they can. He has said one of his goals in writing a memoir was to show new artists his path to a long and largely satisfying career in music.
“To me, it’s always been really organic,” Forbert said. “Just go to open mics and whatever. Just get in front of people and play and play.”
Forbert has been playing music everywhere he can since he started busking on the New York streets before recording his first record, the aptly titled and now-classic “Alive on Arrival.” The 1978 album opens with a quick harmonica riff that perhaps helps explain the early Bob Dylan comparisons, which have been described as an albatross that kept his career from soaring to higher peaks.
He then starts singing an opening verse that could presciently describe Forbert’s career.
“Look at Johnny jivin’ across the floor / He can play the fool and make a few mistakes /But all the same he’ll never be a bore,” he sings on “Goin’ Down to Laurel.”
Forbert admits to his mistakes in his memoir, “Big City Cat: My Life in Folk Rock,” but also said he can hold his head high when looking back on his career — from the first record to the latest.
“I’m most proud of the fact that the first record still holds up and stands the test of time, Forbert said. “And I’m happy with the new one, and I can objectively say it’s a very strong record.”
Steve brings a career-spanning set of solo spontaneity to the Armory at 7 p.m. Friday, March 8 (visit armoryfoco.com for tickets and details), and to Swallow Hill in Denver on Saturday, March 9.