@ The Shrine, Harlem, NY
The Bard of Obama Goes Electric
My personal favorite for best debut album of the year goes to Grey Reverend, a Brooklynite by-way-of Philly whose Of The Days haunted me all summer. The collection of deceptively simple songs, stripped down acoustic blues and folk, stick around in your head long after you hear them, like a mystery you just can’t solve.
So I was among the New York fans who felt lucky to catch him at the Shrine in Harlem on Dec. 8th. Grey Reverend tours with the Cinematic Orchestra, and has recently been playing more in Europe. Although the back room of the Shrine, a music venue behind a bar, isn’t large, thirty people in long coats and parkas braved the cold to squeeze into the rear space’s half-dozen café tables. One fan sitting behind me had cut a business trip in Chicago a day short just to make it to the show.
Grey Reverend took the stage just a few minutes past eight in a rumbled white button-down, fitted jeans, and his hair in short locks. With the intro, “My name’s Larry. This is the Grey Reverend show,” he jumped right into his first song, “Forsake,” and then, “Walk the Same,” which garnered cheers. The super-fan behind me shouted, “There’s my sh*t right there!”
Despite the show’s electricity, Grey Reverend’s acoustic guitar picking didn’t quite have the strength to drown out the raucous bar scene out front. So it might’ve been a blessing in disguise when he broke a guitar string in the middle of his fourth song and ended up having to borrow the prior act’s electric guitar to go on.
Although he did look panicked, and at one point said, “I can’t play electric guitar,” and looked like he meant it, Larry still gave off the vibe of someone who doesn’t get fazed by much. He even made stage banter while attempting to repair his string. Pointing out the stage area’s vibrating neon disco lights and tribal wall coverings, he said, “This place is pretty tripped out. It’s like walking into a migraine.”
Despite his initial expression of panic, and apologizing to the crowd by saying “The rest of the set is going to be kind of surf-y,” he started up again with “One by One,” occasionally pausing to tune the new instrument. The song, which usually sounds like Jose Gonzalez crossed with lyrics out of a James Baldwin novel, did actually sound kind of surfy.
So we were treated to a world premiere – Grey Reverend goes electric. As much as I love the aesthetic perfection of his quiet acoustic folk, his live electric version was special. Maybe it was the challenge of improvisation, or just the roar of amplification, but he rocked through a set that was both touching and assertive. He joked about playing Bad Brains covers for the rest of the night, and indeed, the ax inspired him to play songs he hadn’t planned on.
Still, the hits were the same. Before launching into his best song, “Altruistic Holiday,”he told us that he wrote it in 2008, when Barack Obama was running for president. You can’t really tell that from the song’s lyrics, which are opaque: “So don’t cry for me/About the freedom we will never see/So make no mistake/I see your troubles many miles away.”
But the song’s moody, almost bittersweet dignity comes close to approaching the complicated emotions provoked by the historical milestone. And anyway, he put it all pretty plainly in his intro: “I’m not saying I care either way about politics, but you have to respect Barack Obama for stepping into that arena, off the auction block that is America. And honestly, f*ck you if you don’t think he’s a great guy.”
By the end of the show, the intimate crowd was besides itself. Three guys standing stage right were so happy that they were making catcalls and woofing. So Larry Brown looked into the rest of the crowd and said, “Thank you, I’m Grey Reverend…and I’m obviously a gangster?”
Grey Reverend is not a gangster. His full name is Larry or L.D. Brown and he’s 37. A few years back, he was accidentally discovered by the Cinematic Orchestra’s Jason Swinscoe, who hung out at the coffee shop that Larry’s sister ran. Larry suffers from dystonia, and can’t use the last two fingers of his fret hand, so he had to invent his own guitar style. It’s part of why his strumming is so unique. These accidents of fate make him seem like a mystical character, someone to whom the rules of the music game don’t really apply.
That’s why I think of this album as that one mellow CD that a hip hop kid or dubstep freak will listen to sometimes, when she’s in that kind of mood. Grey Reverend can rock and roll, as he proved last Friday, but he’s more about seeping into the soul like a summer rain.