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A few songs in at Chicago’s Old Town School of Folk, Bobby Bare Jr. announced that bringing his dad on the road was like a glorious game of show and tell, positing, “I know a lot of people don’t know my dad.”
I beg to differ. The main reason I got excited about this father-son double bill was the chance to see Poppa Bare. And, based on the number of older folks in the concert hall, it seemed the crowd too was well aware of Bobby’s dad’s contribution to the outlaw-country canon.
I hadn’t bothered to find out the order of the night’s acts, so as I looked at the stage set—baritone saxophone, mandolin, guild electric guitar, upright bass, electric keyboard, and electric bass—I wondered what kind of show lay in wait. Bobby Bare Jr. came to the stage first, alone, strumming, tuning, and plucking the strings of a beaten-up Gibson acoustic while singing a bluesy drone called “I Got California on My Mind”. Bare was soon joined by the keyboardist and Deanna Varagona on bari sax for a jazzy, countrified song that was more of a sketch than a full-on tune.
Jr’s band, sometimes dubbed the Young Criminals’ Starvation League, filled out the stage and fleshed out the sound with a folksy, rocking beat. Then Bobby Jr. declared “There’s some other guy out there with my name trying to steal my thunder. Please welcome Bobby Bare.” Walking to center stage, Bare the Elder burned into the room like a thousand bottle rockets. The crowd roared with delight as he launched into one of his biggest hits, “Detroit City.” Bobby Bare’s voice was deep and mellow, aged like fine bourbon. It may not be quite the same soulful croon as in the golden years, but it is still the outlaw singer’s badge.
Bare’s performance was a mix of classic hits like “Drop Kick Me Jesus Through the Goalposts of Life” and tracks from his recent release. His first record in 22 years, The Moon Was Blue was produced by his son and Lambchop’s Mark Nevers. As Bare proudly boasted, “As Bobby told me, even though it’s my first record in 22 years, it’s my first CD.”
The night was filled with anecdotes and jokes, and Bare had plenty of stories to tell about old pals Waylon Jennings and Shel Silverstein. I guess Bobby Jr. was right—it was a little like Show and Tell.
It was clear that Bare hasn’t lost a step in 22 years. His take on “Shame On Me for Hurting You”, a slow waltzing country crooner, could have come straight off a late-night country station or a beer-soaked hardwood floor. Equally timeless was his major hit “Streets of Baltimore”, a long, lonesome howl about the slow dissolution of true love in the small hours of a big-city night.
Bare also sang of good times passed—his voice holding a soulful jazzy lilt. If Mel Torme was the Velvet Fog, maybe Bare ought to be known as the Whiskey Fog. His musical story was made more somber by a brooding electric guitar and the spooky whistling of special guest Andrew Bird.
With so many songs to choose from, how could Bare, Sr. create a manageable set list? By literally playing to the crowd. If you shouted out the name of your favorite Bare tune, he’d immediately launch into a verse or two. This little treat of Bare’s felt sweet and sincere, like hanging out with him around a campfire.
With a dad like this, it’s no wonder Bobby Jr. became a songwriter. Jr. must have spent years picking up tricks from musicians like Silverstein, Jennings, and Willie Nelson. Of course, like Shooter Jennings and Hank the Third, other sons of famous country legends, Bobby Jr. has expanded upon the music of his father. Having never seen Bare Jr., but knowing he’s on Bloodshot Records, I expected him to be pretty country. But, from his first song, he spurned my assumption. A moody church organ hummed while Bare, Jr. jammed on sunny guitar pop. Varagonna’s saxophone bleated a countrified soul atop an insistent snare and high-hat beat. Jr’s voice, a hushed growl, nearly broke with the declaration, “I’ll be around caressing your memory.”
Bare Jr.‘s set unfolded like something new and surprising. The music and songs were simultaneously classic and fresh. He seems to have taken his record collection (or what I imagine his record collection to be: the Beatles, the Who, Stax soul, the MC5, and plenty of outlaw country) and crafted an amazing patchwork sound. Whether playing the pulsing electric rocker “All You Were Is All I Was” or the quiet confessional story song “The Only Thing I’d Change Is the Ending”, Bare stamped his tunes with the honesty and passion of a true artist.
So Bobby Jr., let me say this: I am glad your dad coaxed me out. It was a fine round of show and tell, even if it became less and less clear who was showing who.