Story time with Uncle Rodney Crowell is a heartwarming way to spend the evening. Once upon a time, in a land called Southeast Texas, there were demonic possessions, grand mal seizures, bottles busted over heads, lies, more lies, alibis, memories of love and lust at Roy Acuff concerts and tornados hunting down RV parks. The latter, to be sure, took place in St. Charles, Missouri. Crowell's twisted magical realism always hits home.
On the evening after the great tornado scare of 2011, which Crowell spent in the bathroom of a recreational vehicle community on the Missouri River, the Nashville maestro settled into a 20-song, solo-acoustic set at the Duck Room, cutting the snowballing drama of his peerless songwriter's-songwriter songs with harrowing and hilarious tales from his new memoir, Chinaberry Sidewalks, and playing the role of hipster uncle, donning tinted reading glasses by lamplight - "When you're cool, the sun shines all the time," he quipped - dressed in slick violet jacket, creased slacks and a Mad Men tie. His shock of gray hair echoed Dylan's; his sunken jowls echoed every second of his 60 years.
Without a word he began with "Bull Rider" (a song memorably covered by his ex-father-in-law Johnny Cash) and followed with two more lesser-known compositions, "Ridin' Out the Storm" and "When Losers Rule the World," before his first hit, the deathless "'Til I Gain Control Again." If any other performer had written such a song, one of the most beautifully sculpted in the English language, he or she would be done, out the door and on the bus, retired for the night if not eternity. Crowell was just getting warm.
And he was getting cool, laying into the yackers at the bar, teasing the front row - the Duck Room wisely set up chairs and tables across the room, having mercy on the semi-geriatric crowd - when some dude checked his cell phone, making sure his fans knew it was OK to clap at the start of a quiet number - "I'll wait for you," he smiled - covering Lightnin' Hopkins and explaining how he'd like to be reincarnated as a bluesman. With three new songs, all as precisely and surprisingly rhymed as his best work, and classics like "I Wish It Would Rain," "Still Learning How to Fly" (which he delivered with an Elvis hip shake) and the great self-reflexive lyric "Stuff That Works," co-written with his mentor Guy Clark (who is ailing and needs our prayers, said Crowell), and a grand final sing-along to "Pancho and Lefty" (by his other mentor, Townes Van Zandt), he needn't wish for a second, blues-soaked life.
In song after song, he's already made the most of the only one he's like to get. His thematic obsession - the human capacity for dignity and humor in the face of catastrophe - needs nothing more than an old black Gibson acoustic guitar, a voice that cuts and soothes at once and the always mysterious gifts of great words and greater melodies.
Ridin' Out the Storm
When Losers Rule the World
'Til I Gain Control Again
Closer to Heaven
Come Back Baby (Lightin' Hopkins cover)
I Wish It Would Rain
New song: Frankie Please (?)
New song: Sisters (?)
New song: Anything But Tame (?)
Ain't Living Long Like This
Leaving Louisiana in the Broad Daylight
She's Crazy For Leaving
It's Hard to Kiss the Lips at Night
Still Learning How to Fly
I Know Love Is All I Need
Stuff That Works
Pancho and Lefty (Townes Van Zandt cover)