(Photo by Señor McGuire, courtesy GuyClark.com)
Last night, at the L2 Culture and Arts Center in Denver, I had the great pleasure of seeing a performance by Guy Clark, someone I consider to be one of the greatest living songwriters. While not widely famous, Clark has likely written at least one song that you know, because while he hasn't really had any radio hits on his own, many of his songs have charted for other artists such as Jerry Jeff Walker, the Highwaymen, Bobby Bare, and Ricky Skaggs.
This show was my first trip to this venue, and the cavernous church building was the perfect venue to hear Clark perform. While playing somewhat of a short set, Clark didn't play a bad song the entire night, and more importantly, he spent a good amount of time telling stories in-between and during songs. He didn't necessarily play all of his most well known songs, but he played most of the ones that people really wanted to hear, including "L.A. Freeway" and "Dublin Blues," as well as some songs from his newest album, including "Somedays the Song Writes You," "The Guitar," and "Hemingway's Whiskey."
Most importantly (to me), Clark played "Desperadoes Waiting for a Train" about halfway through the set, a song written about a man ("his grandmother's boyfriend," as he says) that he spent a lot of time with during his childhood in Monahans, Texas, and who taught him a lot about life. Now I'm not here to try and make this song mean something to you if you've heard it and never thought much more of it. However, for me personally, growing up in rural West Texas, this song is maybe the most eloquently worded description of the type of character this man was, and everyone knows a few of them if you grew up in the area, that could ever be put to music. Any song after it that tells that story will just be a take on Clark's song. Guy Clark is a man of words, and seeing him last night, it was clear how he has made his living all of these years off of that exact thing.
I was also quite pleased that he played another one of my personal favorites -- "Out in the Parking Lot," remarking that it was "another song about Texas, but I guess it could really be about anywhere." He was accompanied on guitar and harmony vocals by Verlon Thompson, whom I presume is a long-time sideman of his, and who was the perfect accompaniment to Clark's singing and playing. Thompson played a few of his own songs as well, while Clark took a break, and he took the time to tell a few stories about what it's like to tour around with someone like Guy Clark.
The crowd was an odd mix of older folk fans and younger americana fans. If you haven't been to a Swallow Hill show, it's an interesting experience. They are an association with membership fees, and thus, the members get various benefits such as having the best seats reserved for them and getting to cut in line for the bathroom when the wait is too long. The most unfortunate moment of the night, that really made me wonder who the hell these people were, was when one person yelled out for Clark to play "Homegrown Tomatoes," which he played, and as soon as he finished, people began yelling from all corners of the theater for songs they wanted to hear. Now maybe this is just a soapbox of mine, but if he didn't specifically ask for requests, then don't start yelling at him to play something after his second song. If you want to hear a song, go listen to a CD; if you came to hear an artist perform, then shut up and let him do the job he's been doing all his life. Luckily he was able to put the kibosh on the requests with a polite yet firm statement that said not explicitly, but in so many words, that "I'm pretty sure I know what I'm doing up here."
Still a year away from his 70th birthday, Clark is still visibly slowed by the leg he broke back in 2008 (that he referred to as "an old songwriting injury"). This fact didn't hurt the performance, but his slow and deliberate steps onto and off of the stage left everyone holding their breath just a little bit. Clark's genuine demeanor makes you believe that every word he sings could be true -- maybe the truest mark of a great songwriter. If you've not seen Be Here to Love Me, it contains some great accounts from Clark about his time with Townes Van Zandt, as the two were quite close, having come up in the same folk scene in Houston in the 1960s.
I've heard it said that the people who write the best songs often haven't actually lived the hard times and can speak about them because they can see them from the outside, while the people who have lived the hardest times can't write about them well because they can't see outside of them. Somehow it seems that Clark has made it through the hardest times and still has the ability to describe them in a way that can literally bring tears to your eyes. If you haven't had the chance to hear him live, or if you haven't heard his latest album, I highly recommend them both. Clark is one of West Texas' greatest sons, even if half the people there wouldn't know him if they saw him face to face. It is Clark's words that people know, which is appropriate, because that's what he is best at.
I know it's tough out there,
Good news is hard to find,
Living one word to the next,
One line at a time.
Now there's more to life than whiskey,
There's more to words than rhyme,
Sometimes nothing works,
Sometimes nothing shines,
like Hemingway's Whiskey...
--Guy Clark, "Hemingway's Whiskey"