STEVE FORBERT "Streets of This Town" (Geffen Records).* * * *
Take Bob Dylan's vocals, add in John Cougar Mellencamp's knack for rock melodies and then toss in a healthy dose of Steven Van Zandt's social consciousness. Oh, for good measure, throw in Bruce Springsteen's passionate delivery and appeal to the common man.What you get is Steve Forbert.
The first time you listen to "Streets" you get the same feeling of awe as when you put "John Prine" on the turntable for the first time. Or "Harvest" or "Blonde on Blonde" or "Scarecrow."
And you get the undeniable impression that folk-rock has been reborn on the "Streets of This Town," and that an unpretentious Nashville rocker named Steve Forbert has instantaneously become the heir apparent to a legacy born in the '60s and nurtured in the '80s by Springsteen and Mellencamp.
This is not simply a good album by a baby-faced singer who once had some good albums in the late 1970s. It's a treasure of meaningful, mature songs that grab you by the heart strings and tug at your mind. Whether it is the mesmerizing rocker "Running on Love" or the folk retrospective "I Blinked Once," the satisfaction is deep and lasting.
What makes "Streets" so good is that the songs have relevance to whomever may be listening. As when Forbert sings, "Childhood often seemed a pain to me, so hard waiting to be grown, childhood climbed up in a white oak tree, I blinked once and it was gone."
They are powerful, emotional lyrics set to some of the best rock melodies Forbert has ever assembled (the LP is produced by Garry Tallent of the E Street Band, which gives it a Springsteen flavor). Bitterness is countered by romance, despair by hope.
As on "Search Your Heart," a song Forbert says "attempts to say that if you search your heart you can find something to sustain you. It may not make everything OK but you'll find enough."
Some 10 years ago, critics hailed Forbert as the "new Bob Dylan." And on a pop music scene dominated by angry British punk rockers and disco ducks, the Mississippi-born singer was a breath of fresh air.
Barely out of his teens, Forbert had packed his acoustic guitar, a harmonica and an uncanny knack for scratching the poignant underbelly of an ambivalent society with his folk tunes.
Leaving the Deep South behind, Forbert soon graduated from playing New York street corners to Greenwich Village folk clubs, where he became a critical favorite. "Alive on Arrival," his 1978 album, was acclaimed as one of the year's strongest debuts, and "Jackrabbit Slim" in 1979 was an even greater popular success.
The world had discovered Steve Forbert.
But Steve Forbert had yet to discover the law's tangles. After an unsuccessful LP in 1982, Columbia Records and Forbert disagreed over his future with the label. It took him from 1984 to 1987 to sever himself from the record label, his management and the legal mess he was in.
In 1988, Steve Forbert is starting all over, playing small towns, touring in a Ford van and discovering people have good memories. And he has one of the year's 10 best albums to show for it.