Tompkins Square brings a pair of forgotten 1970s gems long cherished by vinyl collectors into the digital age. Bob Brown’s delicate baroque-folk musings will be welcome to fans of the singer-songwriter genre.
There may be an alternate universe in which Bob Brown sits at a table in one of Washington D.C.’s best restaurants receiving 5-star service as he basks in the late stages of a long and successful performing and songwriting career.
Once upon a time, a young Bob Brown so impressed Richie Havens that the influential folksinger took Brown on tour through the US and the UK and signed him to his own record label, Stormy Harvest. Brown lived for a time at the Chelsea Hotel and became acquainted with fellow tenant Leonard Cohen. The two records Brown released with Havens, The Wall I Built Myself and Willoughby’s Lament, didn’t become commercial breakthroughs, but they did catch the ear of Clive Davis (then president of Columbia Records). A deal with the label was in the works but fell through when Davis was fired in 1973. As a result, Brown floated on the peripheries of the industry for a while, never again finding a foothold for his work.
Though those two records, released in 1970 and 1971, eventually became highly coveted among vinyl collectors, Brown left the music industry and found success on the server’s side of the table, helping others to experience 5-star service. He is the author of The Little Brown Book of Restaurant Success and is CEO of a consulting firm that counts Disney and Ritz Carlton among its clients. But behind the human interest story lies a brief but rewarding song catalog.
Tompkins Square has pulled Brown back onto the stage in recent months in preparation for the re-release of his two 1970s records in vinyl and digital formats. While Brown had recorded some additional songs (one, “Close of the Day”, was included on Numero Group’s Wayfaring Strangers: Lonesome Heroes compilation in 2009), the new releases do not feature additional tracks. That’s okay, though, because the records stand as confident, tuneful reflections of their time, reminding listeners of the era’s highs and lows (mostly highs, in this case).
Brown’s debut, The Wall I Built for Myself, offers poetic yet straightforward ruminations on living and loving, spoken in the voice of a sensitive soul. The lyrics are categorically of their time. The album’s opener, “It Takes a World to Make a Feather Fall”, offers a definitive enviro-spiritualism, while Brown helpfully notes that the subject of “Selena” was “born a Cancer”. Brown’s voice in many of the songs comes across like a considerate lover, careful to share the spiritual vibes of experience without becoming overburdened by possessiveness. “Girl I don’t wish to mold you / I just want to hold you”, he sings in “Quiet Waterfall” before the plea of the chorus: “Won’t you open your mind / ‘Cause I’ve got the time / and I’ve got the will / If you love me still”. Even telling of a failed love affair, as in “Winds of Change”, the good-natured ,vibe dominates as Brown sings, “Now that you’re leaving, still I wish that I / Could once have been the way you wanted me to be / Your man”. Later, in “Selena”, he calls out “Lady find me, oh please kindly, never bind our way” then, in “Icarus”, he warns, “I could never stay / I would just run away” in a line evocative of Tim Buckley, whose Goodbye & Hello era of jazz-inflected chamber folk heavily influences Brown’s sound. Album closers “Seek the Sun” and “Icarus” especially evoke Buckley’s late 60s sound.
Follow-up Willoughby’s Lament, while less immediately engaging, displays Brown’s growing confidence and willingness to expand his sonic palette. Ultimately, it is a stronger album than its predecessor and gives reason to regret that Brown’s recording career effectively ended here. Opener “If I’d Live Alone” offers a more aggressive vibe, its jazz arrangements invoking a darker mood. The delicate “Interlude” that follows, with its simple statement of “You broke my heart”, serves its titular purpose well, leading into another dark meditation on love, “Baby Child”. Where the songs on The Wall I Built Myself can be described as celebrating the innocent joys of newfound love, Willoughby’s Lament can be heard as reflections upon the experience of loving, losing, and forging on. There’s maturity and a haunting quality to these songs, captured in lines like “In the light where we once stood / a hollow wind now calls / a love falls away” from “Of Breath and Skin”. “For Pamela” provides a similar, bittersweet eulogy for a love thwarted; “Take the light you never saw but I felt for you”. This is a rainy Sunday morning album of warm baroque-folk, mournful but reassuring, and it is no wonder that this one, in particular, became a much-sought-after used record bin jewel.
With the re-release of these two lovely artifacts of the past that can still breathe life into the present, Brown has begun performing again (in a couple of instances accompanying Tompkins Square founder Josh Rosenthal as he promotes his memoir, The Record Store of the Mind). Though the records have been available for a few weeks, Brown is playing a record release show at Joe’s Pub in New York City on June 29. Whether or not one gets to enjoy the experience of seeing Brown perform, having these records once again available is a good thing. Fans of the singer-songwriters of the 1970s will enjoy both deeply.