“Coming back here is no small thing for me,” Joe Henry noted a few songs into his nearly two-hour performance Tuesday at the Dakota Jazz Club. On a very rare, four-city solo-acoustic tour, the veteran songwriter and Grammy-winning producer frequently waxed nostalgic about his early-‘90s stay overs in Minneapolis, where his manager Dave Ayers lived, as did his frequent studio and road backers, the Jayhawks.
“They weren’t making any money then, and neither was I, so the thought was we could make money together,” Henry quipped.
Jayhawks co-leader Gary Louris joined Henry for two songs in the encore. The pair sang and played into the same vocal and guitar microphones (think: Everly Brothers when Phil and Don could stand each other), an intimate approach that matched the story Henry told about them sleeping in the same bed together on tour. And with that, the old cohorts launched into the perfect old-flame cover, the Righteous Brothers’ “That Loving Feeling,” before tenderly rendering Bob Dylan’s “Tonight I’ll Be Staying Here With You.”
Brandishing just an acoustic guitar for most of the show, Henry paid homage to a few other local acquaintances in attendance. He shared a humorous memory about staying at music scribe Jim Walsh’s house and even cutting his grass the day Walsh’s story on Henry appeared on the cover of City Pages. “Pretty soon you’re going to have Soul Asylum coming over to clean out the gutters to get on the cover,” Henry quipped, dedicating the golden oldie “Short Man’s Room” to Walsh.
Henry also played “One Shoe On” from the “Short Man’s Room” album in tribute to his sister, who drove in from Wisconsin for the show. He figured he hadn’t played either song in over a decade. The most touching dedication, though, was to Chrissie Dunlap, wife of stroke-sidelined local music great Bob “Slim” Dunlap. Slim’s “Taken on the Chin” was saved for the finale, a song Henry covered for the “Songs for Slim” benefit series now compiled on an endearing new two-disc set.
The show was hardly just a Memory Lane excursion. Henry mostly ignored his other ‘90s albums and played a lot of new tunes and recent collaborations, the latter songs accentuated with stories. He talked about collaborating with Loudon Wainwright III on “You Can’t Fail Me Now” for the movie “Knocked Up” (a movie his wife disliked, he noted), and on “Your Name on My Tongue” with Billy Bragg (whom his wife and whole family loved). He took to the grand piano to play the Willie Mays-fantasized 2007 gem “Our Song” and 1999’s “Monkey,” noting his son’s disappointment at that time that he only sings “monkey” once in the song.
Henry also played a handful of new songs from a just-finished album that proved to be among the night’s most stirring and evocative, including a darkly melodic beauty called “Sway” and a moving ode to marriage, “Grave Angels.” The new tunes hewed closer to the rootsy Americana sounds of Henry’s early-‘90s albums. Too bad he has his own fancy studio in Los Angeles nowadays, or else maybe he’d have come back and recorded them here in Minneapolis. Here's hoping he finds another excuse to return soon.