Steve Forbert will never forget the performance of Bob Marley and the Wailers with the I-Threes at New York’s Madison Square Garden in June 1978.
It was “the best rock show I ever saw,” says Forbert. “Those girls in their red, green, and yellow [clothing] moved and looked like apparitions around a campfire – and it was smoky. The venue air had a certain thick, pungent odor that night as Bob rather quickly turned that cavern into, oh, The Rainbow in London – a regular night club."
Forbert attended that concert with Linda Stein, who managed Forbert and the Ramones. Attending with Stein “made it even more fun,” Forbert recalls, because “this was right up her alley. All she ever listened to was Bob Marley and [The Rolling Stones album] Some Girls.
Marley and the Wailers breezed through their set that night, and it seemed like they played for only about 30 minutes, Forbert says. They actually played a 13-song set that lasted an hour and 25 minutes.
According to a Billboard magazine review, Marley “captivated his audience with his amusingly diffident stage presence and spacey cavorting.”
Highlights of the set, Billboard said, were an “improved arrangement” of “I Shot The Sheriff” and “a torrid encore medley” of “Kaya,” “Get Up Stand Up” and “Exodus.”
After the show, an “exhausted” Forbert returned to his home on Manhattan’s East Fifth Street and noticed “I'd lost my keys during all the dancing. [I] had to taxi back up to The Garden, find an unlocked load-in door, and ask a sweep-up guy to let me look around under the stands, where I did indeed find the keys.
“I took another taxi home and straightaway passed out. This concert was like going on vacation without leaving town.”
New York City and much of the country embraced Forbert back then – a fresh, new face whose 1978 debut album, Alive on Arrival, got a lot of FM airplay. The embrace was surprising, because singer-songwriter records from artists like Forbert were on the outs as a burgeoning punk and new wave scene swept through the music industry.
Forbert’s poignant folk-rock songs – including brilliant compositions like “Goin’ Down to Laurel” and “It Isn’t Gonna Be That Way” – hit home with so many listeners, and he was given the dreaded new-Dylan title.
Like every songwriter dubbed the new Dylan, Forbert never lived up to the hype. But that’s not a knock. His second album, Jackrabbit Slim, included a hit single, “Romeo’s Tune,” and he has released a slew of solid – though relatively unknown – albums since.
Forbert’s music has slipped under the radar, but he has been prolific. He regularly releases albums of new songs, past live shows and unreleased studio material and tours incessantly, usually performing solo shows in small venues. His on-stage charisma is infectious, and it teams with his creative, earnest songs for an exciting live show – solo or with a band.
Quietly, Forbert has become one of the nation’s best – and most unappreciated – songwriters. Such albums as Streets of This Town, Mission of the Crossroad Palms and Evergreen Boy have standout songs and have never gotten their due. His triple album, Down in Flames, is an excellent piece of work, with 39 studio and live songs.
Maybe some day, America will find the place and the time to appreciate Forbert’s vast and wonderful catalog of music.