Sweet, sweet growling

Greg Brown’s new compact disc shows the folk singer is at his best when he’s live

by Katrina Wilber

He’s put out two dozen albums, contributed to approximately 30 compilations and has made 10 appearances on other artists’ recordings. This is one persistent musician.

Greg Brown’s latest album, “In the Hills of California: Live from the Kate Wolf Music Festival 1997-2003,” takes six years of his work and somehow makes it fit on two compact discs.

Brown is a poet, a singer and a songwriter. His deep, resonant voice is alternately soothing, perfectly suited for a lullaby, or a low growl that would seem more at home with a pack of coyotes than with an acoustic guitar.

His intricate guitar-playing balances out his simplistic singing style, but sometimes it turns into a battle for the listener’s attention. The guitar holds on to the listener’s ear until that deep, deep bass voice pulls it back to the lyrics.

In “The Way My Baby Calls My Name,” Brown lovingly croons, in this jazzy-folk tune, “When she tells me not to look at her like that/ And then smiles I ’bout go insane/ And I love the way she does it/ I love the way my baby calls my name.” His voice slips and slides around the fast-paced strumming of the guitar; at one point, it sounds as if Brown summoned Elvis back to help out on vocals.

Released in September, the two-disc set of “In the Hills of California” contains 32 songs from Brown’s performances at six Kate Wolf Music Festivals.

Kate Wolf was a California-based singer-songwriter who gained fame in the ’70s and ’80s. She received numerous accolades and awards, but her career was cut short when she was diagnosed with leukemia in the mid-’80s.

The Kate Wolf Retrospective Concert in June 1996 was sold out, and the huge response caused organizers to make it a yearly event. It was renamed the Kate Wolf Music Festival, and artists from across the nation come every year to celebrate her life and music. Brown has performed at all but one festival held since 1997.

All the songs on “In the Hills of California” were recorded from live performances, and the cheers and applause from the crowd remind the listener that this is no ordinary studio-produced record. It’s done in front of a real, live audience, an audience that hoots and hollers in appreciation of what it knows is darn good music.

The album isn’t only songs; Brown sometimes gives a little vocal background to the number instead of leaving that job to the liner notes. In “Introduction to ‘Kate’s Guitar’ ” he admits, “Here’s a little song I don’t really know all that good yet; I just wrote it last night after the show, down at Skip’s Hamburgers.” Nobody but Greg Brown could say that and still have the song sound as if he’s known it for years instead of hours.

He’s been recording since 1974, and after all these years, Greg Brown’s still got it. Some things just get better with time.