This post takes up the subject of stage banter with the hopes of gaining a window into what makes a great artist great. Before we get to stage banter, however, I want to look at Howe Gelb’s spoken introduction to Giant Sand’s cover of “The Pilgrim (Chapter 33).” Stage banter and spoken introductions are, clearly, related animals.
Gelb is the lead singer of the band Giant Sand, and the cover in question first appeared on Nothing Left to Lose, a Kris Kristofferson tribute album. The song was later collected on Giant Sand’s album Cover Magazine. You may know the song–it goes:
he’s a poet/ he’s a picker/ he’s a prophet/ he’s a pusher/ he’s a pilgrim and a preacher and a problem when he’s stoned/ he’s a walking contradiction/ partly fact and partly fiction/ taking every wrong direction on his lonely way back home.
It’s a good song, and Gelb turns in a sound version. But it’s his spoken introduction that really peaks my interest. On Kristofferson’s original he name-checks a number of folks who “had something to do with” the genesis of the song. Gelb repeats the original name-checks, slightly out of order, before listing a set of artists that he, Gelb, learned the song for:
Well, I guess when Kris wrote this song he wrote it for Chris Gantry-he started out doing it though by-ended up writing it for Dennis Hopper, Johnny Cash, Norman Norbert, Funky Donny Fritts, Billy Swan, Paul Seibel, Bobby Neuwirth, Jerry Jeff Walker. Ramblin’ Jack Eliot had a lot to do with it. Me I ended up learning this song for Vic Chesnutt, Jason Lytle, Evan Dando, Polly Jean, Paula Jean, Patsy Jean, Juliana, Victoria, Bobby Neuwirth, Bobby Plant. Curtis John Tucker had a lot to do with it.
The alliterative Bobbys and the matching of Ramblin’ Jack Eliot and Curtis John Tucker make this speech into a mini-poem of sorts, and we know many of the protagonists. Hopper and Cash of course; Jerry Jeff Walker and Ramblin’ Jack Eliot are folk singers, older than Kristofferson; Bobby Neuwirth is a folk singer, multimedia artist, and Dylan confidant in Don’t Look Back. Funky Donny Fritts is a session keyboardist, and I believe Norman Norbert and Billy Swan were session musicians as well. Paul Seibel was also a folksinger-I don’t know him; maybe you do. Kris’ meaning is pretty clear-a song like The Pilgrim doesn’t come from nowhere, and the folksingers he learned from are portals back in time to an earlier tradition to which he generously pays tribute.
Not being myself a 70’s session musician completist I did have to look up a few of the names. The Gelb names are more familiar, expect one. Vic Chesnutt, Jason Lytle and Victoria (Williams) are folk singers (or were, as sadly Chesnutt has passed). Evan Dando, Juliana Hatfield, and P.J. Harvey are/were alt-rock superstars. Bobby Plant would be Robert Plant of Led Zeppelin fame, Bobby Neuwirth is Bobby Neuwirth.
But here’s the point, after listening to Kristofferson and Gelb name-check Funky Donny and Curtis John, I feel an affinity for them-were I to bump into Funky Donny in an airport bar or lounge his presence would resonate with an essential familiarity. Even if I didn’t know precisely that it was he, I would recognize immediately that he was indeed funky, not to mention a serious problem when he’s stoned. And Curtis John Tucker, well, his role is still opaque to me, but he clearly had a lot to do with it.
What both singers hint at in their evocation of the circumstances surrounding the creation of a song is the presence of community behind the music. Behind or beside every Kristofferson is a Norman Norbert, behind every an a Bobby Neuwirth, every Gelb a Curtis John Tucker.
The humanity and camaraderie inherent in the spoken introductions to The Pilgrim remind us that artistic communities are vital in the creation of lasting artistic production–Neuwirth may not have been essential to Dylan’s art in the mid-60’s, but he was instrumental to its vitality; Kristofferson wrote “The Pilgrim” but it wouldn’t have been as good without Paul Seibel. And as for Curtis John Tucker, well he had a lot to do with it.
On the Spoken Introduction of the Band Members of Phosphorescent by Matthew Houck on Live at the Music Hall
On side two of Phosphorescent’s majestic 2015 live album Live from the Music Hall, the band plays a song from their 2005 album Aw Come Aw Wry, called “Joe Tex, These Taming Blues.” Houck’s early Phosphorescent albums are interesting–they are more ambient and keening than his mature work and some of the songs are really long. Joe Tex is one of the better early songs, and Houck puts a little something special into the first couple lines on the live version:
Is it ever gonna not be so hard to see you around/ or am I really really really really gonna have to really gonna have to really have to leave town
Houck is a master at harnessing the power of repetition—here each “really” takes on its own character and valance. The band gives an excellent performance, which goes for about 4 minutes. It is apparently the second last song of the night, because at the end of the song Houck moves to introduce the band. Here he goes, as the band chugs on behind him:
Brooklyn, that’s Scott Stapleton playing that piano right there…
The first “Brooklyn” is loaded with import–Houck is going to drop some wisdom on the folks tonight. Stapleton plays a few understatedly beautiful lilting keys and…
Brooklyn, that’s David Torch playing that percussion right there…
Torch gives a little maracas shake, right on time, as Houck establishes the rhythm and flow of the introductions. The basic elements include a “Brooklyn,” which shifts in valance a little each time, and the band member playing “that (instrument),” “right there.”
Brooklyn, this is Rustin Bragaw playing that bass guitar right there…
A slight shift in the pattern–probably Rustin is standing next to Houck. Bragaw drops a couple of notes on his funky bass and on we go–naturally, the bassist gets the lowest key introduction.
Brooklyn, Christopher Showtime Marine playing those drums right there…
Houck reaches for a higher register here, both on the slightly more breathless and rushed “Brooklyn” and an uptone delivery of Marine’s nickname. Another shift in the pattern–Marine has a moniker. Showtime delivers a healthy drum piece and…
Brooklyn, the trigger finger Ricky…Ray…Jackson playing that guitar and that pedal steel right there, come on…
We’re getting there. The crowd is excited for this one; the pedal steel player is clearly a star. Houck pauses a beat on each name, “Ricky…Ray…Jackson, come on,” and the come on is both an entreaty to the crowd and also a general “come on can you believe this guy!” from the lead singer. Pedal steel is no joke. Also, Ricky Ray’s nickname comes before the name–he is in fact the trigger finger here tonight, his birth name is just data.
The trigger finger plays a couple of high notes and…
Brooklyn, last but certainly not least, the best looking one in the group, Joe Help, playing those keyboards right there, come on.
No fuss around the two-syllable “Joe Help,” which Houck delivers as if it was one word. Joe Help and Joe Tex, good looking guys that’s all.
I can’t tell you what a pleasure this has been y’all. Thank you for being here. Hope you come back again. We’re going to play one more song; thank you guys so much again. This is a song called Los Angeles; this is how it goes.
And the band plays a stunning closer.