This is not the full review of the new Simon Joyner and the Fallen Men CD that I promised. That’s still percolating but will be online in the very near future along with reviews of new CDs by Hyannis, Bright Eyes and Shelterbelt. Really. Instead, this column was written after Sunday night’s rocking Simon show. Though I don’t know him very well and haven’t interviewed him since way back in 1998 (here), Joyner is one of my all-time favorite singer/songwriters. I’d hoped that I could get the gig of interviewing him for The Reader in support of this show and this album release, but Jesse beat me to the punch (again). I guess it’ll have to wait until the next one. As I’ve said many times before in various live reviews and again in the following column, Simon Joyner’s musical style and his voice is downright polarizing — people love it or hate it. There’s no in between. I’ve never met anyone, however, who doesn’t respect Joyner’s song writing talent and what he’s achieved in his career. If you haven’t had the chance to see him perform live, you’ll never get a better chance than when he opens for Bright Eyes at Sokol Auditorium Dec. 15 for a show that benefits The Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts’ International Artist-in-Residency Program.
Column 98 — The Temple of Simon
What does genius sound like?It was 10:30 on Sunday night. The Tigers had just got their last out, balancing the series at one game apiece. And the last thing I wanted to do was drive all the way downtown and pay $5 to stand in a smoke-filled club for two hours to be jostled and bumped and told to get out of the way. I had to work the next day, ferchrissake. And I was bone tired. And dammit, it was cold outside.But this was a Simon Joyner show, and you always have to think twice before deciding to go or not to go to see Simon. The occasion was the “CD release party” for his new album at The Goofy Foot Lodge, and I couldn’t miss it. Simon really is a genius in our midst, but here’s the deal:In last week’s issue of The Reader, there’s a terrific feature written by Jesse Stanek about Simon and his new album. If you haven’t read it, it’s still online at The Reader website. Find it. Jesse did an impeccable job capturing what went into the new record. But there’s one point that Jesse kinda sorta failed to mention whilst calling the new record “poignant” and “nothing short of spectacular.” And it’s an important point. See, you can tell people how much of a genius Simon is, how brilliant and brave and true every word of his lyrics are, you can place every brick you can find and carefully build your temple to Simon Joyner, but at the end of the day, when you take one of his records and play it for your ma or pa or Joe Lunchbucket who lives out in West Omaha Wonderbreadland, the reaction will always be pretty much the same: “Who in the hell is this guy, and where’d he learn to sing?”To forget to mention that Simon’s voice is an acquired taste is like forgetting to mention that little detail about steak tartar. When the plate arrives, there’s going to be some explaining to do. If you’re honest, you can’t not explain that Simon’s voice can be — and often is — painfully off-kilter. You can either get by that little fact, or you never will.Case in point, whilst standing next to a local musician at one of Joyner’s last O’leaver’s shows — a musician who has always admired Joyner’s music — we listened as Simon climbed one of his quivering-Dylan-drunken-man-stumbling arpeggios, wondering if he’d make it to the top, and the musician turned to me and smiled and said, “I don’t get it. The guy cannot sing.” I told him — firmly but gently and half-joking — “You’re not listening. You can’t hear the genius with that smile on your face. Simon’s trying to tell you something, about his life, about your life, and you’re going to miss it if you keep concentrating on the fact that he’s completely out of tune.”Simon disciple Conor Oberst has a similar style. You can play his early works for just about anyone out-of-the-know and you’ll get the same “braying sheep” comments about his voice. I realize it’s sacrilege to say that in this day when Conor has been thrust on stage with Stipe and Springsteen and Emmylou, but folks, his early genius was heard in the voice of a bleating, fuzzy farm animal. Joe Sixpack who works down at the Kum and Go doesn’t get it. And never will.But here’s the rub: I provide the above confession whilst rubbing the red marks on my knees after kneeling at the temple of Simon Joyner most of my music-loving life. I’m one of those devotees, those followers, and have been since back in the day when Simon was a local teenage heart-throb that caused the little girls to rush the stage, their hearts a-swoon (I’ve seen it, at The Howard St. Tavern circa 1994).I have listened to almost everything Joyner has recorded, starting with his cassette-only release, Umbilical Chords, to his masterpiece The Cowardly Traveller Pays His Toll to the droll, tiring Heaven’s Gate to the twangy rapture of The Lousy Dance, and now, to his second high-water mark, the just-released ensemble record with his band, the Fallen Men called Skeleton Blues. And in all of it, I’ve always found something that was impossible to forget. But I had to get past his voice first. It wasn’t easy, but I did it. And you can, too. You’ve done it before, for Dylan and Petty and even Conor. You’ve seen beyond the awkward croon and found the genius that touched your lives. Joyner’s music can do that, too. But you can’t hear it if you don’t listen.
The Elected are playing tonight at Sokol Underground — that’s Blake Sennett of Rilo Kiley’s “other band.” Those wondering what’s going on with Rilo might want to take a glimpse at this item at Billboard.com where Jenny Lewis talks about their upcoming new album, expected sometime in the first half of ’07. Even more than The Elected, people are abuzz about tonight’s opening band, Margot And The Nuclear So And So’s, an 8-piece chamber-pop outfit from Indianapolis who doesn’t have a member named Margot (the moniker is an homage to brilliant film The Royal Tenenbaums). Also on tonight’s dance card, the kids from Whispertown 2000. This should be a scenester’s paradise. $10, 9 p.m.
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