From the first note of Young, Guitar Days, you’re re-immersed in that Alive On Arrival sound — a loose, earthy mix of acoustic guitar, piano, pedal steel, and Steve Forbert’s wispy, whispery, distinctly Southern voice, an awkward instrument that, through absolute precision, intimacy, and unorthodox phrasing, manages to convey untold emotion.
The devastating “House Of Cards”, a heart-rending meditation on Elvis, written the summer of the King’s demise, holds its immediacy, anger, wisdom, and pathos nearly a quarter-century later. “Song For The South”, all internal rhyme and bouncy folk-rock rhythm, stands with Forbert’s best, most piquant songs. And so it goes, for a 20-track trawl through outtakes from his first four albums.
Young, Guitar Days proves that, like Dylan, Springsteen, and Young, Forbert often left the best songs — fully realized and arranged — off his albums proper. It also proves the (early) pundits wrong: For all Forbert’s gifts with words and internal rhyme, he was not the new Dylan — he wore his heart too transparently on his sleeve for that. And his songs held an underlying playfulness and directness, not to mention a strong R&B sense often absent from Dylan’s work as well (see: “I Will Be There”, a beautiful ballad that could easily have come from the pen of Arthur Alexander or Dan Penn).
“Oh, Camille” is the centerpiece, an amphetamine rush of words wrapped in a trilling harmonica and ringing pop hook, and it captures the electricity of Forbert’s early days in Greenwich Village. “Witch Blues”, with its la-la-la chorus and roller-rink melody, is a shoulda-coulda-been hit. “Smoky Windows” is the most ambitious track here, with its Ravi Shankar-like guitar hook and stop/start arrangement.
Of course, Forbert’s brief dance with mass popularity began and ended with “Romeo’s Tune” in 1980, and the early-to-mid ’80s were a morass of chart flops, management missteps and record-label evil. But, in releasing Young, Guitar Days, Forbert has made his peace with his mercurial early years, with the prescient and poetic youngster who, on “It’s Been A Long Time”, announces, “I look around, I’m getting older, I’m 23 now…”