Joe Henry at Elisabeth Murdoch Hall, Melbourne Recital Centre (Australia – Sept 12, 2014)
I’ve been a fan since 1992’s Short Man’s Room, and I’d been looking forward for months to Joe Henry’s show at the Melbourne Recital Centre. Save for a brief industry showcase in the early 90s I’d never seen Henry live – nor set foot in the gorgeous Elisabeth Murdoch Hall. Two birds with one stone? You never know. The pairing of artist and venue is fraught. Would it work? Would enough of Joe Henry’s varied catalogue translate to the duo setting of Henry and son?He’s clearly at home in the studio. Is he as comfortable on stage?
Yes, yes, yes and yes.
From the first moments of rising troubadour Heath Cullen’s support set, I knew we were in for a good night. The room filled with every note and nuance. On this evening, at least, Elizabeth Murdoch sounded as good as she looked. Cullen got, and deserved, the rapt attention of the predominantly middle-aged audience.
And Joe Henry? Warm and engaging, fiercely intelligent, a generous performer. Levon was an attentive and sympathetic accompanist, doubling on tenor sax and clarinet. It was truly memorable – low key, subtle and complex, classy entertainment.
As a recording artist, Henry has been on a roll for several years. Although Short Man’s Room remains my favourite, his 21st century albums are the better half of his work – with Civilians (2007) and Reverie (2011) the standouts.
Most of the set was drawn from his more recent work, with five songs from the current album, Invisible Hour, two from Reverie and three from Civilians. Only a welcome reading of “Kindness of the World” (the title track of the follow-up to Short Man’s Room) went back to the first half of Henry’s substantial catalogue. The highlights for me were the three songs performed on piano – “Monkey”, “Our Song” and “God Only Knows”.
Introducing “Monkey” (from Fuse, 1999), Henry remarked that he thought he’d come up with “the perfect pop song”. “That, as much as anything,” he said, “explains why I’m not famous.” He then fluffed the intro, immediately got back on the bike, and delivered one of the evening’s high points. Then he topped it with “Our Song”, a tour de force from Civilians; a six-page ‘rant’ about America’s place in the world, pared down to a six-minute meditation.
In his self-deprecating way, Henry introduced “God Only Knows” as a song rejected by Mavis Staples, failing to mention that it was subsequently covered by Bonnie Raitt. Like so many of his songs, it’s about hope and love, through a veil of melancholy, sometimes edging on despair.
Joe Henry won’t appeal to everyone. His idiosyncratic singing style, owing much to 60s Dylan, tends to flatten the melodies of his songs and lend a certain sameness to them. This is particularly apparent on Invisible Hour, which is actually a full hour in length. It takes time to absorb, but rewards patience. As a dedicated fan, I’ll allow that Joe Henry may be an acquired taste.
Henry’s previous show was at Sydney’s The Basement, a dinner and show joint. The next gig was at the Meeniyan Town Hall, in Victoria’s Gippsland district, where punters bring picnic meals. Such is touring in Australia – recital hall one night, country town the next. I just felt privileged to be in Melbourne for this show, on this night.
2. After The War
4. Invisible Hour
6. Eyes Out For You
7. Dirty Magazine
10. Our Song
11. Lead Me On
14. God Only Knows
15. Kindness of the World
16. (Encore) Slide
17. (Encore 2) Parker’s Mood
(Joe Henry performs at the Americana Music Festival, Nashville TN on Thursday 18 September.)