Review by Greg Haymes
Photographs by Michael Hochanadel
It’s damned difficult to describe the art of David Greenberger, but I’m reminded of something that I was told some 30 or so years ago: “I don’t know what it is that he does, but he’s very good at it.”
Greenberger is a monologuist (for lack of a better description) who draws his material from a vast archive of his conversations with the elderly at assisted living or nursing homes, meal sites and community centers. It all began in 1979 with his marvelous (in the true sense of the word) handcrafted zine, The Duplex Planet, which featured transcriptions of his interviews, but over the years he’s also branched out into readings and recordings, often accompanied by live music.
A Strong Dog, his latest combo of musical cohorts, is a band of exceedingly versatile Local 518 veterans – guitarist-lap steel player Kevin Maul, drummer-guitarist Mitch Throop and drummer-banjo player-keyboardist Matthew Loiacono – and together with Greenberger they celebrated the release of their new CD, So Tough, with packed-to-the-max show at Caffe Lena in Saratoga Springs last week.
“I remember seeing a steam-driven steam-roller when I was four years old. That’s all I remember. Another thing I remember, too, is I ate some plaster or some plaster flour or sizing compound, and it made me awful sick. That’s all I remember when I was four years old. I can tell you more of what happened when I was five years old. My father, Louis Turner, made me a toy wooden robot figurine. And I had a girlfriend, Joyce Viola, and a wooden playhouse in the back yard. That’s all. I can tell you more from other ages, but that’s all I wanna tell you right now.”
– from “A Robot, a Girlfriend, and a Playhouse”
“Abrupt changes of mood are OK,” explained Greenberger early on in the 90-minute performance, and indeed, the mood shifted frequently from wry hilarity to heartbreaking poignancy. Topics ranged from how a TV works (“Tubes and Juice and Air”) to the joys of direct deposit (the clattering opener “Direct Deposit”) to the terror of locking yourself in a closet (“Laugh About It Now”) to loud, after-hours piano playing (“Halloween’s Over”). And there were plenty of surreal non-sequiturs along the way (the mind works in mysterious ways), but it was all real and honest. There were no overly dramatic affectations to Greenberger’s readings; his approach was straight-froward and matter of fact.
In between the set pieces, Greenwich’s Greenberger told a few stories – about the first funeral that he went to or about surreptitiously adding to a friend’s overwhelming stack of remote controls by dropping off another one that didn’t actually operate anything.
“I don’t remember bad things. I’ve got a good forgettery when it comes to disappointments and all that sort of thing. I feel that if something is for you, you will get it. So why worry yourself about it? If an issue arises, I do the best I can about it, and then I let it go because it’s going to work itself out. We make our own problems, and then we solve them, or we let them go. It’s as simple as that. Don’t remember the bad things. Let them go…”
– from “Let Them Go”
Not surprisingly, the bulk of the evening’s material was drawn from the new album, the recorded debut for David Greenberger and A Strong Dog. But Greenberger occasionally dug deeper into his repertoire. There was “I Ain’t Coe,” the noirish tale of mistaken identity that he originally recorded with Birdsongs of the Mesozoic for 2006’s 1001 Real Apes. And “Grateful,” a potent tale of a homeless woman who slept in the woods (recorded with Mark Greenberg and Paul Cebar for 2011’s Tell Me That Before).
Greenberger tackled another older selection “a cappella,” enlisting the audience in a “talk-along” rendition of “All About Snakes,” and we all joined in on the chorus-like recitation: “Snakes are one of the finest things in the world. But they’re one of the finest things to leave alone. Don’t bother them, and they won’t bother you.”
In addition to providing the diverse backing music – from the sleazy, slippery blues of “Strip Poker” to the deep buzzsaw twang of “My Goat” to the breezy lope of “Games, Okay” – the trio of musicians also served up some Greek chorus-like background chants on “I Don’t Wanna Do That” and “My Eats and My Sleeps.”
Greenberger handed out presents to a few members of the audience – a magazine about parachuting, an empty box of Hannaford’s Nutty Nuggets with an explanation of how the internet works printed on the back and a small plastic house fly. I didn’t get a present. But that’s OK. It was present enough just to have the opportunity to catch this utterly unique performance…
“I told you already, probably, I’ve got a good wife. She’s really wonderful, and that’s a blessing. And our sons are nice, too. My wife drives the car. I don’t drive anymore, which doesn’t bother me now. It makes me think about my parents and how they got older. I mean, I didn’t worship them, or they weren’t heroes, but I lived with them growing up. I could see in my Aunt Elsie. She lived with us, too, when I was growing up, and I saw her getting older. My wife accepts me the way I am. She’s a wonderful person. Everything about her is good. I’m not the kind of person that just set ideals that have to be perfect all the time. The fact is, people get older. I think I was afraid of it before, but not so much anymore. I think I was afraid to get older, but I’m not anymore. I mean, because, I’m as healthy as I am for the age I am that I’m not afraid as I was…”
– “The Age I Am”
DAVID GREENBERGER AND A STRONG DOG SET LIST
I Don’t Wanna Do That
I Ain’t Coe
Going Away, Going Away
A Robot, a Girlfriend, and a Playhouse
Landlords, Maids, and Men
Always a Dream
All About Snakes
My Eats and My Sleeps
The Age I Am
Laugh About It Now
The Gone Piano
The Last Words of Arthur Wallace
Once in a Whirlybird
Tubes and Juice and Air
Let Them Go