Emerging with his eponymous debut in 1970, singer/songwriter Loudon Wainwright III found himself lumped along with fellow post-Dylan folk-revivalists Leonard Cohen, Cat Stevens and Randy Newman. But where those contemporaries relied on abstract imagery or parody in their lyrics, Wainwright aimed for an unadorned, almost uncomfortable level of confessionalism. His marriage (“On the Rocks”), his children (“Rufus Is a Tit Man”), his troubled relationship with his father (“Just a John”): Wainwright covers it all unflinchingly, his words undercut by a sardonic, often goofy sense of humor. When asked about his latest record, the eclectic Haven’t Got the Blues (Yet), the singer flippantly told the Current its theme is “based around death and decay and depression,” as though such subjects were as casual as the weather.
Wainwright has spent nearly a half-century recording music, and has now seen two of his children, Rufus and Martha, reach music stardom of their own. He’s certainly gained the perspective to write knowingly about death and depression. However, as its parenthetical title suggests, Haven’t Got the Blues (Yet) doesn’t flounder in darkness or self-pity. Take opener “Brand New Dance,” a jump-blues stomper set to lyrics lamenting the difficulty of putting your shoes on in the morning. Imagine Chuck Berry singing the line “wake up in the morning and stare into the abyss” and you’re about on target.
How does he strike this odd balance between sound and lyric?
“Well, I write the songs first,” explains Wainwright. “And then I get with [producer] David Mansfield and talk about what might sound cool. For ‘Brand New Dance’ we wanted to have a Big Bopper sound. Or with ‘Man & Dog’ [about walking his dog in New York City] we were just thinking the song might set well with banjos and harmonicas.”
Many of HGTB(Y)’s 14 tracks tackle mundane fare with Loudon’s trademark flair for detail and cleverness, including the city parking saga “Spaced” and the aforementioned “Man & Dog.” Still, it’s the most baldly confessional tracks that leave the strongest impression. “Depression Blues,” a delta blues lament rooted in one of his most familiar lyrical subjects, is especially striking for Wainwright’s choice to voice the song in the second person, addressing his piercing words to an undefined “you.”
“In a song like that, it can be about anyone. The theme is so universal,” says Wainwright. “That said, I don’t write advice songs, so I suppose it’s written to myself as much as anyone.”
Wainwright states that his trip to the Tobin Center’s brand new River Walk Plaza this weekend will adhere to his preferred “one-man show approach,” the simple guitar-voice setup he’s preferred since his earliest days on the NYC folk scene. While tracks from HGTB(Y) will no doubt loom large in the set, the singer hinted at a few left-field surprises.
“I’ve been working on a theatrical show for the past two years called Identical Twin, which combines some of my father Loudon Wainwright Jr.’s writings from his days as a columnist for Life magazine, with my own songs. It’s sort of a posthumous collaboration,” said Wainwright. “When I go down to Texas, you’ll get a taste of that. Sort of like having two Loudons for the price of one.”
8pm Sat, Sept 20
River Walk Plaza
Tobin Center for the Performing Arts
100 Auditorium Circle
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