What do you get when you cross a father who was a preacher, an uncle who was a pimp, a professional boxing career and an acoustic guitar?
Believe it or not, this isn't a hypothetical joke from some Catskills comedian's standup act -- it's the real-life biography Paul Thorn, the second-most famous singer to come out of Tupelo, Mississippi. And while Thorn's own albums are must-haves in any Americana collection, the real way to experience the guy is live and in person -- perfectly complementing his music are Thorn's well-honed anecdotes, sardonic wit and quick-thinking patter. (I once saw him make three jokes and one life lesson out of a seeing-eye dog in the audience, all in under 30 seconds flat.)
As for his songs, the preacher's influence shows up ("Mission Temple Fireworks Stand"), as does the shadow of the pimp uncle ("A Long Way From Tupelo"). Sometimes the two converge ("Joanie, the Jehovah's Witness Stripper"). Even his boxing days crop up now and again -- his professional bout with Roberto Duran inspired the wryly titled "I'd Rather Be a Hammer Than a Nail." But it's Thorn's songs about the rockiness of love and relationships that really shine: "I Don't Want to Know," "Everybody Looks Good at the Starting Line." And he knows more than anyone that he ain't no hero. About an early song called "Resurrection Day," I once heard him introduce it in his Mississippi drawl:
My first album was all songs I wrote to try and win back a girl who broke up with me because I cheated on her. The story is as simple as that. When the album came out, I thought she would hear the songs and be so overcome that she’d run back to me. But instead of winning her back, they only gave her more power to treat me like dirt. And that’s what she did, for a long time. So here’s a very beautiful song that accomplished nothing.
Thorn's latest album is Too Blessed to Be Stressed, and plays with his band on Saturday, Jan. 16 at Freight & Salvage in Berkeley and Wednesday, Jan. 20 at the Mystic Theatre in Petaluma.
Other recommended live music events around the Bay Area this week include:
Friday, Jan. 15: Blockhead at the New Parish. As an early producer for Aesop Rock, Blockhead wedged his foot in the instrumental hip-hop door at a time when independent hip-hop was at a peak. And while other pioneers of the form may have eventually enjoyed higher visibility (see: the Mad Men theme song, by producer RJD2), Blockhead's music has a timelessness rooted in the boom-bap tradition. He performs at the New Parish alongside art by Dan Hampe, Rachel Mandala, Sun Dough, Dustin Derego and Lucas Rodri; Mikos Da Gawd, Barisone and DJ Bluz open. Details here.
Saturday, Jan. 16: Jeffrey Kahane Trio at the Green Music Center. When he left the conductor's position at the Santa Rosa Symphony in 2006, Jeffrey Kahane had reinvented the orchestra and raised its reputation significantly in a span of just 10 years. Though he's returned intermittently to guest-conduct or, more often, perform as a piano soloist, Kahane's return this week in a trio setting is a rare treat. Along with Joseph Swensen on violin and Carter Brey on cello, Kahane performs trios by Mozart, Schumann and Schubert in the Green Music Center's acoustically exquisite main hall. Details here.
Tuesday, Jan. 19: Vanessa Carlton at the Independent. Here's a test. Ask yourself, "Do I know a Vanessa Carlton song?" If your answer is "no," click right here and feel the wave of recognition wash over you. "A Thousand Miles," from 2000, is the type of song that's still played on radio stations and dentist's office's P.A. systems nationwide. Carlton's come a long way from that albatross of a hit -- in fact, to obtain her current recording contract, she sent anonymous demos to the record company so as not to cloud the music with preconceived notions of a former teen pop star. The result is Liberman, an album that showcases Carlton's maturity -- she recently married Deer Tick frontman John McCauley III and became a mom -- and ever-emotive voice. Details here.
Wednesday, Jan. 20: Lupe Fiasco at the Mezzanine. It's been almost 10 years since Chicago rapper Lupe Fiasco's breakout debut, Food & Liquor, and hip-hop from the Windy City has undergone major transformations since -- most notably the rise of Chief Keef's drill-style hip-hop and Chance the Rapper's live-jazz collaborations. Fiasco's new album, Tetsuo & Youth, is based on his upbringing in Chicago, and it's as conscious-minded and political as ever. Details here.