It will be a celebration when Greg Brown performs two retirement shows at the Englert this month. A lot of reverence will be there too, as a town gets the chance to pay tribute to one of its musical patron saints, hearing for a final time many beloved songs straight from their maker’s mouth.
Seth Avett of the Avett Brothers paid his own kind of tribute back in November, releasing Seth Avett Sings Greg Brown. There’s something about tribute albums that follow that title formula, Artist Sings X, that always feels profound, as if presenting their songs in just the right way will summon the artist themself out of the speakers. Seeing as Avett recorded the album in various hotel rooms in towns wherever he and his brother were playing that night, it feels particularly so, like he was inviting Brown to spend some time jamming with him in those many rented rooms.
Beginning with one of Brown’s most widely celebrated tunes, “The Poet Game,” Avett is remarkably delicate, careful to get every word exactly right. When he sings, “Why does the color of your skin or who you choose to love still lead to such anger and pain?”, he does so with an awareness that the ink may be dry on the page, but the question is as fresh as if it were rewritten every day. Brown was desperate when he asked it; Avett is resigned, exasperated by the time he finally finishes the verse.
“Good Morning Coffee” and “Just A Bum” are as buoyantly joyful as when Brown first presented them. Avett delights in trying out some of Brown’s well-hewn Midwestern scat singing for himself on the former. On the latter, he harmonizes with himself throughout the tune, begging the question of just how Greg Brown filled so much space with just one voice. That mystery remains on “Telling Stories” when Avett sings the line, “My dog was my buddy, the wind was green and yellow.” Avett gets the wonder right, but Mr. Brown alone has the ability to always sound like the fabled voice from on high, even when he sings sincerely about his dog and the colors of the wind.
Avett’s interpretation of “The Iowa Waltz” is particularly anthemic, in that grade school music program kind of way. Never mind that line about taking care of our own and our young, surely tongue in cheek even when Brown wrote it. Still, it’s an undeniable affirmation of a song, even for its saccharin. Or maybe because of it.
The tribute wraps up with “Tenderhearted Child”, the Greg Brown song which most rivals Dylan’s “Forever Young” as a “hopes for the ones who come after us” tune. There’s an authentic kind of romance to it: Avett alone in a hotel room singing this one to his own son, however miles and months away from this recording.
Avett’s is the third tribute album to be recorded of Greg Brown’s work: first Minnesota singer Prudence Johnson put out Songs of Greg Brown in 1991. A decade later Going Driftless: An Artist’s Tribute to Greg Brown was released, featuring 14 female performers, including Lucinda Williams, Ani DiFranco and Gillian Welch. Each of these albums are delightfully distinct and deserve a listen. With this tribute album, Avett provides the latest evidence that, throughout his pioneering career, Greg Brown has always written songs for other voices to sing. And after his two shows this month are through, soon that’s all that there will be, and it will have to be enough.
Don’t worry: Greg Brown has made sure that it will be.
This article was originally published in Little Village’s February 2023 issues.