Greg Brown – Freak Flag (2011)

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We love these songs. The words become a part of us. Does that mean we “know” the artist? When Bruce Springsteen appeared on VH1’s Storytellers, a fan asked him that very same question. Bruce’s response was a resounding (and laughter-infused) “Nope!” It makes sense really , because the sum total of an artist’s output might show us his interests and leanings, but that’s different than truly knowing the person.

And yet…every time I encounter a new Greg Brown record (this being his 27th), the rational side of me gets trumped by the emotional — my head might know better while my heart is busy thinking about all of the good times me & Greg have had together.

Freak Flag takes me back to The Poet Game and Further In, records whose sparse presentation (mainly acoustic guitar plus cohort Bo Ramsey’s magically dark electric) served to enhance the intimacy of the stories being told. “Tender Hearted Child” quietly limns a parent’s love for his child and the hope for that child’s better future. “Rain & Snow” professes love and personal allegiance, gently wrapped in a country waltz and lifted by some gorgeous and subtle strings. The shelter as metaphor for perseverance through life’s trials is one of Freak Flag‘s emotional high points:

There’s a root sticking out/From the dirt/It won’t hurt
To pull it clear/Right here
And make a fire

Make a shelter/Of sticks
Some thin/Some thick
High and low
Rain & Snow
Like a choir

Stepping away from the personal, there are the many concerns for the world at large. So we have “Let The Mystery Be,” a rumination on our focus on the afterlife and how it has allowed us to screw things up here, “I Don’t Know Anybody In This Town,” with the terrific political barb “Some people lie so long it passes for the truth,” and the bluesy lament of “Mercy Mercy Mercy,” about the screwed up state of, well … just about everything else!

Freak Flag has not one but two centerpieces. First is the Zen blues of “Flat Stuff,” on which Greg unleashes the full power of his baritone. The surprise appearance of Mark Knopfler on guitar locks in the feeling of wide open spaces (and wide open time). His chiming & resonant solo is a real beauty.

The title track serves as a companion to “Flat Stuff.” This is Brown making a statement (leveraged from a few of his father’s parting words) of his concern for all of us, and that he’ll do his best to stand up for what’s right: Use what you’ve got son/To raise a hopeful cry. The music itself is just a country shuffle, seeming to have little in common with the reverberant shimmer of “Flat Stuff,” and yet together they feel connected — one a piece of tongue-in-cheek Americana, the other a more serious look at our issues. The former says more with its music with the latter taking a more direct approach.

And of course, I don’t really know Greg Brown. But his deep concern for the world around him and the love for those close to him? Yeah, I know about that. Say, maybe you know him too?

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Mark Saleski

Mark Saleski

Mark Saleski is a writer and music obsessive based out of the woods of central New Hampshire. A past contributor to Jazz.com, Blogcritics.org and Salon, he originated several of our weekly features including the Friday Morning Listen, (Cross the) Heartland, WTF! Wednesday, and Sparks Fly on E Street. Follow him on Twitter: @msaleski. Contact Something Else! at reviews@somethingelsereviews.com.
Mark Saleski
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