Grandma, Denver Enjoy Sweet Pieta Brown’s Grand Performance
For anyone lucky enough to catch the final days of guitar god Mark Knopfler’s 28-date “Get Lucky” tour through North America, don’t be late.
Opening the show is Pieta Brown, and she deserves your undivided attention. If you don’t believe that, just ask her maternal grandmother.
June Cleveland is 84 years old, admittedly hard of hearing, lives in southeast Denver and does her darnedest to get where she wants to go. That was never more necessary than on April 20, when she found her way into one of the best seats in the house – Orchestra D, Row B, Seat 4 – minutes before Brown’s 7 p.m. appearance at the Temple Hoyne Buell Theatre in downtown Denver.
Cleveland, acknowledging she didn’t “know Mark Knopfler from Adam …,” was determined to finally see her granddaughter perform in Denver as a warm-up to one of the city’s most highly anticipated concerts of spring 2010. Brown’s big break came as the result of the friendship between Mike Kappus, owner of The Rosebud Agency (which handles her booking), and Paul Crockford, Knopfler’s manager.
Despite suffering a fall earlier in the day, Cleveland still arrived early with daughter-in-law Christine and a family friend, getting help at the ritzy venue from a female firefighter who arranged for Cleveland’s ride in a comfy wheelchair down near the front of the stage. “I must have looked more pitiful than I felt,” Cleveland joked days after the show.
Brown, left, a gifted singer-songwriter whose lyrics – including “If wishes were horses I would ride down to the river where the river is wide” from “Other Way Around” – are pieces of polished poetry, made the effort worthwhile. Her seven-song, 30-minute set included three of the 12 numbers from One and All, Brown’s first full-length album for Red House Records that was released April 6.
Brown even gave Grandma and Aunt Christine a shout-out from the stage after her opening number, “Prayer of Roses,” then visited with them in the lobby, where she signed autographs and met other loyal well-wishers and first-time fans.
Despite her youthful and exotic, Boho Chic appearance (think Angelina Jolie before Brad), Brown is a seasoned performer who has six recordings available (2003’s I Never Told is out of print). Her original recipe of songs includes many ingredients, with dashes of blues, folk and hearty Americana, so trying to categorize her sound would be futile. Comparisons to Gillian Welch, PJ Harvey and Lucinda Williams have been made, but don’t leave out Shannon McNally. The latter is an underrated artist whose cozy, pastoral charms blend with a smoky voice and sassy blues that are products of a career that began on Long Island and settled comfortably in northern Mississippi.
Brown can trace her rural musical roots back to her father, Midwestern folk singer Greg Brown, whose own profile was raised recently when his song “Brand New Angel” was performed in Crazy Heart by Academy Award winner Jeff Bridges. Born in Iowa City, with rambling on her mind during a nomadic childhood, Pieta finally settled down, returning to her birthplace to live with son Memphis and husband, musical collaborator, co-producer and touring partner Bo Ramsey.
When Pieta was 2, Greg Brown and his first wife, Melanie, went their separate ways. She raised her daughter in countless houses and apartments (estimates range from 17-20 moves) on the way to becoming a physician. Melanie Cleveland, June’s daughter, now has a family practice in Iowa City. Greg Brown twice remarried, most recently in 2002 to sweet-sounding songbird Iris DeMent, who naturally is a fan of Pieta’s, calling her stepdaughter “the best poet I’ve heard in a long damn time.”
With all that musical heritage, one would expect June Cleveland to somehow figure in that influential mix. “Not a bit,” she confesses. “Once, I got asked to sing in a choir in one of our churches; I didn’t know they were that desperate.”
The wife of a Congregational minister (Robert), whom she met at the University of Chicago, June Cleveland grew up in West Texas, graduated from Colorado College and lived in Iowa for 15 years before moving to Denver in 1972. She worked a variety of jobs in public relations and as a volunteer coordinator in hospitals before and after the death of her husband, and finally retired at the age of 75.
While musically challenged, June had a love for music (the late Nat King Cole was her favorite entertainer) that she passed on to her daughter Melanie, whose only instrumental instruction as a child involved playing the flute in high school. “That was not a great love of her life,” said June, who lives with her son Christopher and his family. “But somewhere, not too many years ago, she got interested in taking drum lessons. She practiced, but now that Memphis (who’s turning 4 in October) is on the scene, I don’t think she has much time. She spends her spare time sort of looking after Memphis (when Pieta and Bo make quick tour stops).”
Pieta’s musical initiation came early, when this only child and restless heart first started writing songs on the piano, then waited until she was in her mid-20s before teaching herself to play the guitar. “She didn’t learn that from her dad at all,” June said of her granddaughter, whose acoustic strumming in concert was complemented by Ramsey’s riveting electric licks on a Stratocaster and Reverend Flatroc slide guitar. His contribution is particularly noteworthy throughout Brown’s “How Many Times?,” a passionate cut from 2005’s In the Cool, and while taking a moody blues cruise on “Hey Run,” from 2007’s Remember the Sun (Ramsey and Brown are pictured at right.)
Pictures of concentration, they capably anticipate each other’s moves. Ramsey, wearing a Western swing suit, dresses the part of a sharp-dressed man, even if the droopy cowboy hat conceals his eyes from the audience throughout most of the set. In a zebra-striped top and basic blue jeans, Brown appears both easygoing and elusive, her dark bangs and narrow gaze adding to the musical mystique.
Spending her formative years in Birmingham, Alabama before returning to Iowa, Brown developed an appreciation for Southern sounds. But her relationship with Ramsey was homegrown. A native of Burlington, Iowa, Ramsey was a session guitarist who started recording and touring with Greg Brown, fronted several bands (The Backsliders and The Middle of Nowhere) and became a high-profile producer, with Lucinda Williams’ Essence among his many accomplishments.
He went on to produce Pieta’s 2002 self-titled debut and several more before Brown was signed by Red House Records, the Saint Paul, Minnesota label founded by her father. After Don Was handled the production chores on her Red House debut in November (a stripped-down, seven-song EP called Shimmer), Brown and Ramsey teamed up to co-produce One and All, with Brown doing most of the heavy lifting. Recorded in Iowa City practically like a live performance, the album’s tunes are hypnotic (“Other Way Around”), wistful (“Wishes Falling through the Rain”) and deeply personal (“Calling All Angels”).
Those beautiful words can’t always reach June Cleveland, who confides that she has trouble understanding their clarity because of her hearing problem. But that’s OK, she says, because she can read the lyrics at home while still enjoying the music, all along cherishing those precious moments spent with her first grandchild.
“I guess one of my big memories of Pieta was, when she was little, they called us from Alabama, and she was about 3, I guess, and she said to my husband, ‘I was gonna write you a letter.’ Of course, she couldn’t write, but anyhow …,” Cleveland recalls, with a laugh. “So my husband proceeds to sit down and write her a big, long letter about the giraffe in the backyard. So from that day to this, we have a thing about giraffes. We exchange figurines and other things with giraffes.”
Maybe more mementos will be shared later this summer, when June, right, plans to visit Pieta in Iowa City. For now, she considers herself one of the lucky ones who managed to catch her granddaughter’s show while many of the 2,884 seats at the Buell Theatre were still unoccupied. It wasn’t totally a family affair, though. Others in attendance responded warmly to Brown’s performance. Shouts of “you go, girl” and whistles of approval were clear signals that this emerging talent will go places beyond the Knopfler tour that ends May 9 in Albany, New York.
Of course, Grandma June already knew that. Her mini-review of the evening was straightforward: “How could I not enjoy it!” she exclaimed, followed by a boisterous laugh.
“The main thing I would say about (Pieta) is she is a very pretty young woman,” Cleveland added. “And she’s always been just as sweet as she is pretty. She is a really, genuinely nice person. That I can say without any bias because I think anybody that knows her would agree.”
Ain’t grandmotherly love grand?
• Pieta Brown talks about the making of One and All, directed by Sandy Dyas:
• Denver concert and June Cleveland photos by Michael Bialas. See more photos of the Denver concert featuring Pieta Brown and Mark Knopfler at flickr.com.