Graham Parker, who played Friday night at Duncan Hall in Lafayette, is one of those rock and roll guys who has written and recorded great music, yet hasn’t risen to the level of being known outside a tight circle of music fans. If you think about it (and I have), he’s kind of like the English John Hiatt – another longtime steady, literate, brilliant songwriter who’s capable of pairing lyrics with memorable melodies that get a bit dirty and soulful. And that’s what Parker did for nearly two hours Friday night.
Known for his pub and punk inflected rock music, he used the intimate setting (seated audience of 200 or so) to play the role of storyteller, introducing most songs and spinning some tales. Playing for the “Friends of Bob” music series, Parker took advantage of the rapt audience, playing no-speakers-needed quiet at times for the politely enthusiastic audience. Parker ran through 21 songs, reaching back to his 1976 debut album Howlin’ Wind and drawing from his most recent effort, Carp Fishing on Valium, a soundtrack to his book of the same name.
In an ode to the times, suggesting that even an old rocker can embrace change, Parker highlighted cuts throughout the night from the Carp release, an album available only on his website. Songs told of a character named Brian Porker, a somewhat fictional (or is Brian really Graham? — only Parker knows) rock semi-casualty of the ’80s. Graham is nothing if not intelligent and quirky. He always has been. Still, the songs stand alone, backstory or not. “Chloroform”, “Brain Surgery” and especially “Custom Fanny” echoed his older, more satirical material.
“They Got it Wrong (As Usual)” from 1996’s Bubblegum Acid was one of a number of forgotten songs that he pulled out and gave a renewed life with the help of an intro that helped endear him to the audience.
And really, it wasn’t a rabid Graham Parker let’s-tear-his-sunglasses-off crowd. There were some hardcore fans scattered throughout, very familiar with Parker’s career. And many more who seemingly understood his significance in rock history. Parker came out of the British pub rock scene with Nick Lowe and Dave Edmunds, among others, a full year before Elvis Costello would release his debut album. I would affix a label of “legendary rocker” if one were to ask me about his status in rock and roll.
Switching guitars midway through the set, Parker went from acoustic guitar to a Fender Telecaster electric, and hit on the highlight of the night, a heartfelt and in-the-moment performance of “Temporary Beauty” from 1982’s Another Grey Area. On record, it’s as close as he gets to that ’79 sound; live in Lafayette, Parker made it intimate and all his.
A late-set trio of songs from his most critically acclaimed record, 1979’s Squeezing Out Sparks juiced up the audience. It’s the album that most longtime fans would own. (Parker noted its 30th anniversary this year would be celebrated somewhere, possibly Tasmania). He played back-to-back versions of “Love Gets You Twisted”, “Discovering Japan” and a terrific take on “Passion is No Ordinary Word”, pulling the audience into his repeated chorus refrain. It was one of the magical moments of the night.
Parker’s four-song encore included a splendid Zevon-like performance of “Last Stop to Nowhere” from 2001’s Deepcut to Nowhere record. He enlisted the crowd into a hearty singalong for “Local Girls” from the Sparks album and, coming full circle, finished with “Not If It Pleases Me” from his debut record.
My only complaint was that Parker virtually ignored 2007’s Don’t Tell Columbus album, playing just one song from it. It’s as close to Americana/alt-country as Parker gets, with inspired performances of good songs, and a clean, powerful, rocking sound. Excellent songs on an excellent record.
In the end, Parker earned two standing ovations, started one fun singalong and told many stories, sharing some of what he knows from his 30+ years on the road.
The audience got a performer seemingly comfortable with his place in music, with only hints of the “angry young man” he once was labeled. He has matured and built himself a strong, deep catalog of songs. Parker’s voice and guitar sound just like they should. Excellent show, played with just enough attitude to remind us where he’s been and that he still matters.
From the Vaults: The very first MTV Unplugged in 1992, with Graham Parker and the Smithereens