Live Review

Joe Henry - 400 Bar (Minneapolis, MN)

Joe Henry on January 18, 1997

Sitting alone onstage after he and a couple friends took a rich-and-ragged run through his own impressive body of work, Joe Henry decided to reach for some stardust when called out for an encore by a capacity crowd at the West Bank's 400 Bar.

"I never meant to cause you any sorrow," he sang in a weary tone, "I never meant to cause you any pain..."

As the crowd began flashing through the record collection in its mind -- "Okay, where have we heard that one before?" -- a woman let out a scream as if it were showtime again at First Avenue, a return to velvet coats and the glories of the Revolution.

As in Prince -- and "Purple Rain." Out came the Bic lighters.

Henry visited Minneapolis, the site of his fruitful alliances with the Jayhawks, for a one-off gig that was part of a series of shows celebrating the opening of a revamped 400 Bar. The pre-show advertising suggested a potentially sloppy affair, but Henry's hand-picked backup duo -- Mike Russell on bass (sadly, no violin) and Tim O'Reagan (of the Jayhawks) on drums -- kept things marvelously loose yet on track. Who would've guessed a bass solo would work in "Fireman's Wedding"?

That spontaneity, coupled with Henry's willingness to dip into his catalogue, gave the show a rustic-to-modern dynamic that proved more satisfying than the carefully calibrated Trampoline tour, in which the songwriter's commitment to his new soundscapes found him virtually ditching his old treasures.

Anyone with a fondness for words couldn't help but thrill to the small details of Henry's writing during this one-hour-plus show. There were the plates of food rolling through the yard in "Fireman's Wedding", the man taking "crooked steps two at a time" in "Good Fortune", and the deathbed imagery of "One Shoe On".

Despite his welcome return to old material, Henry still showed signs of the ambition that marked Trampoline. Climbing the stage with small lamps in hand, he asked club personnel to turn out the lights and then performed in the glow of a single bulb. It was evocative theatrics on a thrift shop budget. Perhaps not as showy or cinematic as Purple Rain, but have you seen Under the Cherry Moon lately?

Henry ran through the highlights of Trampoline, employing that album's atmospheric guitar sound (as if strumming with a bamboo rake), throughout the night. And he was in good humor, too. He related how Paul Westerberg had wondered why he never wrote songs about girls; after his guitar came unplugged when he tried to get up and strut, he quipped it was God's way of saying it was time for another bass solo.

Henry also debuted a new tune, "Great Lake", that sounded as if it could've been plucked from an album prior to Trampoline. However, that probably was a function of the spare instrumentation, for Henry seems in no mood to cover old ground -- not on record, at least. Before he pulled out one chestnut, he joked that he didn't do waltzes anymore and he would deny ever playing the tune if asked about it later.

Meaning that the experimentation will continue. Which is all right by me, given sounds as fresh as Trampoline. But Henry should remember to let us savor the old words from time to time, too. Then maybe Mike Russell can bring along his violin.