Live Review

Joe Henry - Sunset Tavern (Seattle, WA)

Joe Henry on September 29, 2003

It's been said that a song's power can be tested when it's sung in a different language. While Joe Henry kept his vocals in English for this performance, it was the music that seemed foreign. Stripped of their usual lush production and instrumentation, his songs certainly stood the test.

Backed by Jennifer Condos on bass and Jay Bellerose on drums, Henry eased the shoulder-to-shoulder crowd into the set, delivering his more listener-friendly numbers ("Trampoline", "Monkey", "Stop") before launching into songs from his adventurous new disc Tiny Voices. Missing the lavish horn work of Don Byron and Ron Miles (who provided much of the atmospherics on Tiny Voices), the trio played steady and soulful, placing Henry's brainy lyrics front and center.

Stacked up against Henry's older work, Tiny Voices is of a more contemplative mood. With few catchy melodies to hang onto, unvarying rhythms, and intensely enigmatic lyrics, the material may have presented a challenge to some audience members. But Henry's passion for the songs kept the show from turning somber.

"When you held me tight against you/I mistook your heart for thunder," he crooned during "Flag", in a voice so accentuated and bruised that it hurt. "Lighthouse", "Dirty Magazine", "Leaning", and "Sold" were all doused in Tom Waits-ish imagery. The details -- "a cut-out picture of a sugar tart" from "Dirty Magazine", "Like a nickel cartoon shown on the wall," from "Lighthouse" -- were so vivid it felt like the objects were falling from his mouth as he sang the lines.

While the set was heavy on new material, Henry dotted it with older numbers such as "Bob & Ray" from 1996's Trampoline and the set-closing "Want Too Much" from 1999's Fuse.

Though the show was brief and to-the-point (with no opener), the audience should not have felt short-changed; those who crowded into the small Sunset this Monday were lucky to catch him in such a unique and intimate venue. But through showing all his gratitude for the listeners' patience, it may have been Henry who felt most fortunate.