CD Reissue Review: Steve Forbert – Alive on Arrival / Jackrabbit Slim (Blue Corn, 2013)
Steve Forbert fell from recording star escape velocity with surprising quickness. His 1978 debut, Alive on Arrival, was a precociously well-formed introduction, recorded only two years after leaving his native Mississippi, and the 1979 follow-up, Jackrabbit Slim, was refined with a sufficiently light hand by producer John Simon to garner both critical plaudits and commercial success for the single “Romeo’s Tune.” But his next two albums failed to satisfy his label’s ambitions and a subsequent disagreement led to his being dropped and embargoed from recording for several years. Forbert continued to perform, and picked up his recording career in 1988, but the mainstream possibilities charted by these first two albums was never really re-established. The loss of commercial trajectory probably induced few tears from his fans, though, as he built a terrific catalog across thirty-five years of recording.
What still must have puzzled the faithful is the time delay in seeing these titles reissued on CD, with Jackrabbit Slim not having entered the digital market until 1996. Both albums have seen spotty availability over the years, with downloadable MP3s [1 2] finally turning up in 2011. Blue Corn’s 35th-anniversary reissue not only returns full-fidelity, hard CDs back to the market, but augments the original track lists with a dozen studio outtakes and live cuts. A few of the bonuses were cherry-picked from a reissue Forbert has available through his website, but this two-fer is a perfect introduction. From the start Forbert was witty and smart, but understandable and easily empathized with. There’s are flecks of Loudon Wainwright’s humor and Paul Simon’s poetic connection, but without the East Coast archness of either. Forbert was neither wide-eyed nor jaded, but instead showed off a measure of introspection and awareness unusually deep for a twenty-something.
Listening to the earnest folksiness of his debut, it’s hard to imagine Forbert tramping about the mean streets of New York City and dropping in to play at CBGB. Steve Burgh’s production adds welcome punch to the recordings, but Forbert’s guitar, harmonica and vocals retain a folk-singer’s intimacy in front of the guitar, bass, drums, piano and organ. Incredibly, both albums were recorded live-in-the-studio with no overdubs, an impressive feat for a road-seasoned band, but even more so for a young artist’s initial studio work. The recording method pays additional dividends in the completeness of the bonus tracks; as complete as the original albums have always felt, the bonus tracks assimilate easily and must have been tough to cut at the time.
In addition to the five session tracks that didn’t make Alive on Arrival, the bonuses for Jackrabbit Slim include the still-topical promo-only single “The Oil Song,” an alternate version of the album track “Make it All So Real” that drops the original’s opening saxophone and highlights the arrangement’s country flavor, and an electrifying 1979 live recording of “Romeo’s Tune.” Reissuing these albums together completely dispels the sophomore complaint that an artist has twenty years to create their debut but only a year to record the follow-up; Forbert’s second-album is neither light on material nor artistic growth, and sounds urgent rather than hurried. Blue Corn’s dual digipack hides the eight-page booklet in a tight pocket behind one of the trays, so you’ll want to use some tweezers to extract the it – a minor inconvenience for the terrific payoff of these bonus-laden jewels.