Dan Penn thought he should let folks know what kind of evening was in store. “I sometimes tend to tell these long stories,” the legendary country-soul songwriter forewarned, after starting off with back-to-back classics “I’m Your Puppet” and “Sweet Inspiration.”
“All these songs got stories,” he added, his voice tinged with the same Southern sweetness ingrained in his music. That suited the Stateside at the Paramount audience just fine, because they knew the stories would be every bit as memorable as the songs.
Guiding a lifelong journey that spanned 27 songs across two sets, Penn took the crowd from “Is a Bluebird Blue,” which Conway Twitty cut when Penn was still in high school, through his 1960s glory years at FAME Studios in Muscle Shoals, Ala., with constant collaborator Spooner Oldham, to a handful of tunes from recent albums.
Every bit of it was a treasure. As Penn noted early on, “It’s been a long time since I’ve been to Austin.” That he chose the exact date of his 75th birthday to play here made it even more special.
Last week, the Paramount next door hosted an afternoon of Guy Clark songs with Joe Ely and Terry Allen on what would have been the 75th birthday of the late Texas songwriter, who died in May. On this night, the birthday boy’s songs came straight from the source.
Clark has a song that compares hearing Doc Watson sing “Columbus Stockade Blues” to the great wonders of the world. Had he been here on this night, he might have made a similar observation: “I have heard Dan Penn sing ‘The Dark End of the Street.'”
That song, co-written with Chips Moman and made famous by James Carr and others, fell perfectly in sync with the setting. Behind Penn, a panoramic street scene showed Congress Avenue in the early 1940s, likely right around the time Penn was born.
“Dark End of the Street” is probably his best-known song, though his introduction was revealing. “It seems to be everybody’s favorite but mine,” said the man who knows his catalog better than anyone.
Certainly there was no shortage of other favorites on this night, from “Cry Like a Baby” to “Do Right Woman” to “Tearjoint” to “Nobody’s Fool.” Lesser-known tunes were gems as well: “Way Back,” a Bobby Emmons co-write from Penn’s 2007 album “Junkyard Junky,” radiated with heartache as Penn reflected, “Way back, we go way back, back to the innocence when we were young.”
There were light moments as well. A few lines into “Out of Left Field,” a hit for Percy Sledge, he had a mishap as he sang the word “Suddenly.” He didn’t miss a beat: “Suddenly I dropped my pick, into the guitar!” he told the crowd, which laughed as he quickly grabbed another one and kept the song rolling. “Worse things can happen,” he smiled at the end. “And they have!”
And then there were the stories. Like the one about how a friend tossed him the title “You Left the Water Running” and he took it from there: “I’ve always been a real title guy, you give me a title and I can run with it.” Or how Otis Redding showed him a rhythm to use for that same tune: “He had it, and I’ve been copying him ever since.”
Sprinkled among the rambling recollections were little bits of Penn’s folksy but hard-won wisdom. On producing: “I just kinda get outta the way and hope I get it right.” On larks such as “Memphis Women and Chicken,” a co-write with Gary Nicholson and Donnie Fritts: “I found out quick that silly songs sell.” On writing partners: “If you’re gonna co-write with someone, you gotta hang out. You gotta love someone.”
It’s clear Penn has loved his co-writers dearly. Though Oldham, his closest cohort, is still with us, Penn lamented the recent loss of many others. Moman died earlier this year, and last year’s passings included both Emmons and Wayne Carson, co-writer of the second-set standout “Nine Pound Steel.”
Penn added an important postscript to that song, a hit for R&B great Joe Simon in 1967. “I gotta say this about Joe Simon and some of the black artists who did my songs,” Penn testified. “Many times, the black artists, they made the whole song.”
If those voices took Penn’s words and melodies to great heights, it’s worth noting that the songwriter still strikes beautiful tones himself. At 75, he seems to have lost none of his vocal strength, and indeed might have learned how to use his gift even better over the years. He joked about his age after stretching his range on “You Left the Water Running” — “that song is hard on a 55-year-old man!” — but he hit every high note.
“Hey, we’ve come to the end of the program, isn’t that sad!” Penn said lightheartedly after two and a half hours, before delivering one more Penn/Oldham number, “Zero Willpower,” to close out the evening. He left with a wish that the audience shared: “I hope it’s not so long till the next time I come back.”
1. I’m Your Puppet
2. Sweet Inspiration
3. Cry Like a Baby
4. Do Right Woman
5. I Met Her in Church
6. It Tears Me Up
7. Dark End of the Street
8. You Left the Water Running
9. Out of Left Field
10. Memphis Women and Chicken
11. A Woman Left Lonely
12. Junkyard Junky
13. Way Back
14. I’m Living Good
15. Ol’ Folks
16. Nobody’s Fool
17. Is a Bluebird Blue
18. Nine Pound Steel
19. Feed the Flame
20. Long Ago
21. I Hate You
22. I Do
23. Rest of My Life
24. Rainbow Road
26. Take a Good Look
27. Zero Willpower