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Henry comes out the other end a better man

Largo at the Coronet, Los Angeles, November 15, 2019

Reviewed by Dan MacIntosh

Joe Henry mentioned at the outset that this show was not only the record release celebration, but also the anniversary - to the day - of when he was diagnosed with prostate cancer. Although the songs from this fine new album do not address his illness directly, they many times touch upon the big issues of human existence (life, death and the meaning of it all). Henry appeared healthy and in fine form, like someone who has come out the other end as a better man after this difficult journey.

As you might expect from an artist that has recorded with everyone from Ornette Coleman to Elvis Costello, this was an eclectic performance. His son, Levon, added somber tones on clarinet, yet more jazzy ones whenever adding saxophone. Henry played acoustic guitar while obsessively tuning it throughout the night. At times, he was joined by piano master Patrick Warren, and bassist David Piltch and drummer Jay Bellerose were sometimes brought out to give songs that full band sound.

This intimate room felt like house concert, as Henry went to great lengths to help explain the album's 13 songs - played from start to finish - after opening with a few older songs. The album begins with "Famine Walk," written in Ireland and inspired by that nation's devastating famine. The evening's most moving songs, though, were "Book Of Common Prayer," which touched upon the immigration crisis at the U.S. southern border, and "Gates Of A Prayer Cemetery # 2," set in a New Orleans graveyard. We also learned that the intriguingly titled "Orson Welles" is not about that actor/director/auteur, at all.

Henry's songs can sometimes be frustratingly cryptic, which often leaves these new writings wide open to interpretation. In those moments when Henry's messages were crystal clear, though, as with the heartening hope for the journey song called "Bloom," the artist connected decisively. Henry mentioned during his early comments that he dealt with his illness the only way he knew how - by writing. This concert proved beyond a doubt that this therapy was successful.