Steve Forbert

Wicked Local: Folk rocker Steve Forbert to perform in Plymouth

Steve Forbert has always seemed like a man on the move, the quintessential troubadour going down the road to his next show, and relentlessly creating new music shaped by the here and now.

In that vein, he takes a balanced view of the record label difficulties that marked his early career, is grateful for the fans who’ve savored his music through four decades of change and maturity, and is still looking forward with enthusiasm to his next set of new songs.

Forbert will be swinging through the area this weekend, playing Friday night at The Spire Center in Plymouth, and Saturday at Club Passim in Harvard Square.

Forbert burst onto the national scene in 1979, when his “Jackrabbit Slim” album captured music fans’ imagination with its heady folk-rock, and the breakout single “Romeo’s Tune,” which hit #11 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart. But as Forbert matured and became an even better songwriter, the quest for another pop hit proved frustrating, and he went through a period of record label upheavals, some of which were documented in a long story in Musician magazine in 1988. In that article Forbert talked of the Catch 22 of evolving and growing musically yet being judged, and marketed — or not marketed, based on what label executives thought was his hit potential.

When we caught up with Forbert this week, as he was down on the Jersey shore, we wondered if the advent of the internet and the way it allows artists to find and develop niche audiences offers a far better model for musicians like him. There’s no need for trying to conform to a major label’s desire for pop hits, when your own fan base can keep track of you online, and you can record and release your own music just the way you want it.

“Well, yes, I have a wonderful fan base, and we’ve been all through several decades together,” said Forbert, 64. “But honestly, most of that fan base stems from my start on a major label. From Epic to Nemperor, CBS, and then Geffen, that period of time on major labels is what established me as an artist to most of these fans around the country. It’s true I had some problems with record companies, but I also owe them a lot of thanks for whatever fan base I have. You couldn’t establish that kind of an audience without the support and promotion of a major label.”

“Now, we always said Rounder Records was an independent label, based right up there in Massachusetts, but they were actually a pretty big operation,” Forbert added. “And really, anything smaller than that you would run the risk of being lost, as a small fish in the pond. There are advantages to the internet and staying in touch with your fans, the immediacy of being able to say ‘Hey, I’m on my way to Plymouth for a show,’ and people can see that reminder and come out. But it’s not like anywhere close to the impact of being on Conan O’Brien’s show, for instance, or something like that, which a label might get you. I think the internet presence, all of it, is great for maintaining your audience, but I still feel indebted to those major labels for introducing me to my audience.”

Forbert released his 19th studio albums last year, and “The Magic Tree” has some delightfully varied sounds on it, from the title cut’s buoyant ode to infinite possibilities, to the uptempo romantic reverie of “That’d be Alright” to the classic stripped down folk ballad “Only You (And Nobody Else)”. Perhaps the best pure country feel comes on “Lookin’ At The River in the Rain,” while “Diamond Sky” is the exuberant rock side of the singer. Possibly the most evocative song is “Tryna Let It Go,” a sort of look back at regrets and mis-steps, where the protagonist hopes he’s somehow wiser and able to make some amends. And “Movin’ Through America” is the classic American road song, with savvy details no doubt taken from Forbert’s lifetime of driving between gigs.

“The Magic Tree spans a length of time, songs I’d written over several years,” said Forbert. “I see some of the dates on these songs and I realize it was decades in the making. And then I had my book (“Big City Cat, My Life in Folk-Rock”) last year also, and the album kind of goes along with the book. But I am happy with ‘The Magic Tree,’ and really think it is one of my best.”

But as good as the last album is, Forbert switches the conversation around to his current projects. First of all there’s a 40th anniversary red vinyl edition of “Jackrabbit Slim” coming in November.

“I had put off re-releasing that album for a while, but this seems like the right time,” said Forbert. “I will be doing some shows this fall where I do that album in its entirety. I’m also working on a covers record, which we’re hoping will be out in the spring. It’ll be selected covers, just some of the songs that have meant the most to me over the years, like “Frankie and Johnny,” and stuff like “Supersonic Rocketship,′ by Ray Davies. The only theme is these are songs that I have loved the most over the years. ”

Speaking of songs he’d loved, when we spoke, Ken Burns’ PBS documentary series on Country Music had just premiered, with an episode that spent a lot of time relating the career of Jimmie Rodgers and his impact on the national music scene. Like ‘The Singing Brakeman,’ Forbert is a native of Meridian, Mississippi, and in 2002 released “Any Old Time,” an album of Rodgers songs.

“Yes I saw the PBS thing last night, and I thought that was an excellent segment on Jimmie Rodgers,” said Forbert. “Everything they said about him was true, based on my knowledge of him and his origins. I did that album simply because his songs are so good and so much fun to play. I’ve always enjoyed playing “In the Jailhouse Now,” and an even older one, “Waiting for a Train.” It’s all great stuff.”

“I’m working hard on this covers record now, and looking forward to the ’Jackrabbit Slim” re-issue,” Forbert said. “I’ve been working with such a long list of my favorite songs, I think I could do three more albums like this, and it’s been fun.”

One older Forbert original we always liked was “Mexico,” from his 1988 “Streets of This Town” album. It’s a song where the narrator chides himself for feeling sorry for himself for his mundane problems, and suggests he could cross the border and find people with real problems, poverty, and desolation, crime and little hope. Like all good songs, this folk-rocker has a timeless quality, and of course with all our contemporary border issues, it has a renewed sort of resonance.

“I don’t play ‘Mexico’ often, although I can take it as a request,” Forbert said. “I can get right back into it, and it is still a real complex situation down there. It’s not just Mexico, but a few Central American countries where it’s too frightening for people to live there, too. You would think, after I wrote that song so long ago, things would be looking up by now.”

In our time of such discord, does playing the song, which is full of sympathy for those unfortunates, bring out negative reactions?

“I don’t think anyone could take exception to those things I’m saying in the song,” Forbert replied. “I think my audiences take it as I meant it to be, and they’re more out for a great night of music. I also think I’m drawing — hopefully — the best and the brightest, perceptive, sensitive, and unerringly courteous people.”

While the songs on his most recent album mostly feature four or five piece bands, Forbert commonly tours with smaller formats. On this tour he’s performing in a duo setting with Pennsylvania songwriter and guitarist Jesse Bardwell, who will also open many of the shows, such as the Club Passim date.

“I like the duo format, which gives me a little fuller sound and allows me to be more spontaneous,” said Forbert. “We have fun with it. I play with anything between solo and a full band, at different times, and from my perspective it’s just fun to be able to mix it up.”

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