There was no clanking of silverware on plates, no sounds of bartenders blending drinks, no one taking cellphone photos.
The audience was rapt with attention Thursday night like I’ve never seen before at the Dakota. As silent as Christmas eve, totally enthralled, fixated on the stage.
This wasn’t a jazz crooner, folk singer or pop thrush. This was Joe Henry delivering what can only be called art, songs from the recesses of his ever-curious mind, from the depth of his generous heart, from the creator above.
For nearly two hours, the veteran Los Angeles singer-songwriter captivated a standing-room-only crowd with his voice and the strum of his acoustic guitar.
There was an unspoken heaviness to the concert, Henry’s first on the road after bouncing back from a cancer death sentence. He’s in remission now, his spirit emboldened, his spigot of creativity stuck open. He’s ready to reclaim his life and his art.
While undergoing treatment, Henry recorded a remarkable new album, “The Gospel According to Water,” that was released one year after his initial diagnosis of Stage 4 prostate cancer. Material from the new album dominated the set, which also included “Trampoline,” “River Floor” and others from his catalog.
Henry, 59, came across as part southern Methodist minister and part college poetry professor. He was sermonizing, confessing, philosophizing.
Suffering amplifies beauty, he pointed out.
“Jesus was a prophet,” he proclaimed. “I believe Louis Armstrong was a prophet.”
There was a graceful quietude to Henry’s music, even when he was occasionally joined by acoustic guitarist Steve Dawson and harmony singers Allison Russell and JT Nero of the Birds of Chicago, the evening’s opening act.
Henry delivered every song like it was meaningful and important, with a cadence that was part Biblical and part nursery rhyme, with a voice that was rich and loud-for-acoustic music, enunciating meticulously and punching key words a la Dylan.
The singer was talkative, discussing his illness and the process of penning his latest album. The experience of writing, making and releasing the record — and now singing these songs live on the road — was clearly cathartic.
Henry shared another reaffirming recent moment in his life: co-producing a gospel album in Nashville for Jerry Lee Lewis, whom he described as “frail, quickly fading and only half-way in this world” but still able to give voice to powerful music.
Something of a music scholar, Henry shared a story about Cole Porter during his encore. For the final years of his life, the songwriting giant endured extraordinary pain after a horse crushed his leg in a riding accident, yet he was still able to create beautiful music.
He pointed to “I’ve Got You Under My Skin,” and drew a parallel between that song — and its landmark recording by Frank Sinatra — with Bob Dylan's “Like a Rolling Stone,” which Henry views as a touchstone (“it didn’t make me who I am, but it affirmed who I was”).
Arguing that the Porter piece was as revolutionary as Dylan’s, the singer crooned “I’ve Got You Under My Skin” but slyly and seamlessly managed to sneak in a few lines from “Like a Rolling Stone” near the end.
Henry closed by honoring his “patron saint,” John Prine, a two-time cancer survivor. Propped up by the Birds of Chicago and guitarist Dawson, Prine’s “Storm Windows” was the only up-tempo tune during Henry’s performance.
After a night of poignant, contemplative tunes, “Storm Windows” was the perfect uplift – and a chance to raise voices and glasses to this nourishing night, a night to reassure us about humanity.