The ALBUM -- Steve Forbert, "Little Stevie Orbit," Nemperor (JZ 36595).; THE SHOW -- Saturday and Sunday at the Bayou.
The eastern music magi, with their propensity for seeing rock's future and proclaiming new messiahs, have elevated pop politics to the level of religious divinaiton. But anyone could have predicted trouble when Steve Forbet debuted with "Alive on Arrival" to shouts of "The New Bob Dylan!"
With 1979's "Jackrabbit Slim," Forbert's switch from acoustic troubadour technique to a broader use to horn and vocal arrangements made clear that he was not interested in playing ex-urban prophet, and the critical community responded to this news as if it had been collectively slapped. The ensuing hand-wringing resembled that of people who invest in some species of chic animal exotica, only to decry its stalwart rejection of litter-training.
In any case, critical snares were set; and with "Little Stevie Orbit," Forbert has become entangled
"Get well Soon" opens the album innocuously enough, with its zippy meter and well intentioned lyrics. "Celleophane City" drops a few tiny hints, but they're offset by the introspective beauty of "Song for Carmelita," in which we are led to believe that our romantic Mississippi poet has regained his sense of subject, if not place.
The boom is not officially lowered until "Laughter Lou (Who Needs You)," whose heartfelt bitterness makes Billy Joel's "Glass Houses" LP and tour seem like noogies applied lovingly to the rock-press pate. Forget the frenzied rhythmic backdrop, forget the bile that oozes from Forbert's nail's-on-slate vocals, and consider the lyrics:
Don't matter whyo or what it is You give us your critique . . . You've spent your whole life sitting down Just watching someone else . . . $5You criticize most everyone Yeah, but what've you got to show? At least the ones you're putting down Got up to have a go.
There's a sweet, ringing piano bridge holding these vitriolic verses together, but it's too little and too late to ameliorate the damage. Still, it's one of the rockingest, most convincing tunes Forbert has written.
Several sons on the album work more gently on the psyche, and there are some wry allusions as well. "Schoolgirl" sports the ambling beat and say-hey lechery to Taj Mahal's "Good Morning, Little Schoolgirl," while underneath the lyric sentimentality of "Lonely Girl" lies the chord progression of Paul Anka's 1959 hit, "Lonely Boy."
Most endearing is "song for Katrina," wherein are found the understated images of rural romance: You sure looked good back in old Canton With your new blue dress and your lipstick on The peppy 2-4 beat and tasteful piano give the feel of a car rolling down a country road, and Forbert's flutter-tongued harmonica flashes through the window of words like intermittent sunshine.
These songs, in the end, don't do a lot to dispel the acrid flavor of "Laughter Lou." Nor does the cover, a brazen reference to Stevie Wonder's finger-popping image back when he, too, was an exotic pet of the critics. The only ploy more pointed might have been for Forber to dress in Jimi Hendrix paisley-print-and-headband and title the album "Are You Expropriated?" And as if to make sure the joke hits home, the back cover is adorned with liner notes by Paul Gambaccini which manage to gush the sort of Great Expectations ("the Mississippi boy who came to New York," the best explanation of the power of music since 'Do You Believe in Magic?'") which have so far stunted Forbert's natural creative growth.
The most depressing thing about this album is that Forbert is allowing the shouts of disapproval to shape his music. In defending himself against critics, he is writing for them.
A rare rock discovery is all too often treated with slack-jawed condescension, like some kind of musical Tarzan. Forbert, with his rough poeticism, his untimely emphasis on sentiment and his Yazoo, Mississippi, roots, certainly fit the bill, at least in the late '70s. The choices in such a situation (ask Springsteen; ask Costello) are rarely pleasant: Either be that Next Bit Thing or confound the image-makers and take your lumps. That some critics are now taking the "new Dylan" to taks because, of all things, he appeals to college students, is a commentary on the road not chosen.
It's probably a good thing that Forbert has vented his spleen, although "Little Stevie Orbit" suffers musically because of it. Maybe now he can get on with what he has to way, and leave the listening to others.