The Screen Door Slams… Brent Kirby Holds the Ghosts of the Midwest with Bruce & Gram Parsons
Out in Hollywood, all the pretty people were swirling down the red carpet. Decked out to be seen, glittering and sparkling, heels that theaten nosebleeds or spinal injuries, clothing folded like origami armor or barely there to catch the eye.
They tromp that camera-line, professing their undying love for Bruce Springsteen, a working class hero who rose from the practically Asbury boardwalk to sing their truth with bravura and an insistence that let them know that someone saw. For him was not the fancy, but rather racing in the street, tales of the failing fates of “Youngstown,” and the slow daily payment on death by boredom and inertia in “Factory.”
But even knowing the reality of the realm, Springsteen knew the blue collar wasn’t a prison camp. You might be trapped by your job but you could celebrate the beautiful thrill of being alive. Your spirit was your’s, and couldn’t be taken from you – as long as you decide to live.
Live right where you are. Live out loud. Live with every spec of your being. And throw your hands in the air when you do it! After all, tortured is easy, but breaking free of the cage of your own design is where the real exuberance is…
Just outside Cleveland, Ohio in a crummy bar that’s designed to use its skankiness as a marketing ploy, two drunks girls weave across an empty dancefloor to talk to Brent Kirby, the leader of among things the precision-shifted Jack Fords, who’ve just taken a break. They are making a point, and the bearded sandy haired man takes them in, nodding.
It is another night in the Rust Belt flyover. Drunk girls, not quite pretty, swill bad booze and pretend they’re gonna get out alive. The other patrons are the sorts of boys who squire those kid of girls around, and older middle-aged folks either out of marriages and trying to remember the mating rituals or remember how they felt when they were much younger and free. The thicker waists and whitening hair set knows what music can do, the younger ones just want to be out finding out.
Kirby comes back from his break, back from the cold night air and stakes his claim on a second set. Explaining to the crowd that someone has a birthday, and he’s gonna play a song just him for them… and then the band will be back, the crowd draws a little closer.
A few laconic downstrokes, as pensive as they are authorative, and Kirby eyes shut, exhales the words now tattoed on generations of plain girls souls,
“The screen door slams, Mary’s dress waves
Like a vision she dances across the porch
As the radio plays…
Roy Orbison singing ‘For the Lonely,’
Hey, that’s me, and I want you only…”
The two drunk girls almost shake with pleasure. It is their song, as much as Springsteen’s, a song about no matter how average or simple you are, there is someone who will desire you, just you, exactly you as the way, exactly you as the way you are. And in that you will be enough, and complete, and wonderful.
In those moments, being a supermodel at the club isn’t necessary. Just being the girl “with that smile on her lips, because she knows that is kills me” is everything. And that is the holiest part of what Springsteen does: part the curtains and let the light shine in on the people who populate this world and make them see the power within their struggles.
For Brent Kirby, a fine songwriter who straddles the neo-country and raucous basic rock line, it is a fitting homage for him as well. He may not be swinging for the football stadium and instant coast-to-coast radio adds, but he – like Bruce – understands the potency of actual connection with real people.
He’s out there every day, playing for’em. Actually, this day, it’s his third gig. A farmer’s market in the afternoon, a listening room early set with his more folkie things and now onstage at the Greenville Inn, duking it out with a high impact four-piece.
But with a voice slightly weathered by life and miles, a bright smile and the will to play, he recognizes the wrinkles, the heartbreaks, the hopes and spins them into his own kind of American stew. Not Americana, not country, not rock, but a place where Creedence can find Van Morrison, Petty merges with Gram Parsons, the hard pistonry of the Black Crows is slashed and burned with urgency and Little Feat is given their own cosmic boil.
Just as importantly, he’s a true believer. It’s about the stories told, the people seen, the way you can take your pain and hold it, watch as the bar folks nod in recognition. The urgency of the Jack Fords onstage, men who have families, bills to pay and problems to solve, is its own excorcism of sorts, jettisoning what sucks for the sweaty twist of wringing it out: Bobby Latina’s face contorting with rapture peak release, torturing those guitar strings as he tears another blistering solo from his electric, while gun shots snap from the wrists of drummer Greg Campolieti.
It isn’t rage, but the kick inside is evident. Songs like “Who Do You Trust?” and “Old Habits Die Hard” speak to the state of being working class, but then “Last Call Whistle” bounces back with all the blazing glory of the pinnacle point of the party. It is bold, relentless, rumbling. Everything rock & roll is supposed to be.
And that’s just one facet of what Kirby is trying to do. For like all true journeymen, he finds the pleasure and the poetry in many facets of making music. His own work has a naked take on country, long on open space and pedal steel – mournful emotions, stark vistas, the sense of belonging nowhere, and needing to connect.
Not quite so tradition-bent as Parsons, for whom Kirby helms the homage band New Soft Shoe, but evoking that sparseness that AM Country radio once embodied. Not Bristol Sessions austere, mind you, but slightly more spacious, porous and Al Moss’ steel guitar front and center.
As the notion of local expands and seems extinct all at once, the need for an artist who knows, who’s been there, who is willing to dig in and scrape away at the painful stuff to offer understanding, recognition, comfort in the fury, frustration, sadness is a critical thing.
Anyone can sing their minutiae, but can they, like Springsteen, offer a broader reality what is so singular? Conjure the universal in the personal? To transcend one’s individual experience and make it a container for others’ sole experience, that is the mark of those who create larger truths and insight in the things most people miss.
Brent Kirby probably doesn’t think about these things very much, if ever. He wouldn’t know where to begin weighing his life and what he sees against the realities of anyone else. But someone he manages to get to the bone, to seethe and twist, doubt and falter and still get back up.
Like Maya Angelou’s poem “And Still I Rise,” Kirby isn’t worried about what’s been handed to him, what kinda trouble he’s got to weather or bad cards he may’ve been dealt. He doesn’t seem concerned with those sorts of facts that become stumbling blocks or anchors, no, his eye is on the horizon and he’s getting smarter and stronger every day.
Once upon a time, Bruce Springsteen was just a ratty looking kid with a beat generation sense of rhythm, a Phil Spector obsession and too many words to shovel into his beach rat narratives. One more lanky comer, he was brash and hoping for so much more; just like his audience, just like so many generations to come, it was about loving the moment while staying in the game.
Out in Cali, they say after the performances by Neil Young, Patti Smith, Mumford & Sons, Jackson Browne, Tom Morello, Kenny Chesney, John Legend, Elton John and Emmylou Harris, Springsteen got up and spoke. As host Jon Stewart had said earlier, “This is just what Bruce Springsteen loves: fly to California, put on a suit and listen to people talk about him like he’s dead.”
But even more than what he said, it’s what he did: strapped on that Telecaster and Let It Rock. Maybe those several-hundred-a-plate-people wedged into the room were renewed by the vigor of rock and roll passion. Maybe they were inspired by the spark that all the those drew from and threw at a man who embodied so much of everything music and music careers should be made of. Maybe they didn’t even realize how much the were absorbing.
Back at the Greenville Inn, there’s nobody thinking about the spiritual renewal or release coming off that stage. They are there to drink and forget, maybe hook up or possibly find another way to get past the things that plague you.
Onstage, the Jack Fords have made their way back to their positions. As the moaning outro of “Thunder Road” fades, the girls melt into each other’s embrace and Kirby smiles knowing he’s delivered another dog-eared desire for some people who most likely don’t even know what’s transpiring this very night for the song’s writer.
After less than a pause, the drummer lifts the sticks, brings them down with a crash as the guitar slashes out chords and leads and the band feels like the velocity may life them offstage. The only way to follow a Springsteen classic is with a Springsteen obscurata like “Light of Day,” the title theme for the Joan Jett/Michael J. Fox film about a little nowhere band that can’t get ahead.
For Kirby, much remains to be seen. What he shows, though, is a sense that Springsteen’s seeds have carried far enough that there are acolytes of the flame, as well as fans who come out to believe – even when the believing is more about the ones you can touch. In Brent Kirby, a lot of hope, faith, truth and music is traversed.