Dan Penn at the Dakota Jazz Club, 8/15/11
Rock and soul singer/songwriter Dan Penn may not exactly be a household name, but his songs and talents from the past 50 years now are most certainly worth recognition, making his two-night appearance at the Dakota this week an unforgettable treat. After Sunday night's sold-out show Penn gave music fans who slept on his appearance like myself and others who couldn't resist another helping a chance to see him again in a last-minute booking of a second appearance.
As part of a new series, "Treehouse Records Unsung Legends," store owner Mark Trehus is curating at the Dakota. As excited as any big fan would be, Trehus gave a brief introduction by reading the exhaustingly long list of recording artists who have recorded Penn's songs, including Otis Redding, James Carr, Aretha Franklin, Elton John, Jerry Lee Lewis, Alex Chilton, the Flying Burrito Brothers, Percy Sledge, Hank Williams Jr., Janis Joplin, Dionne Warwick, Marvin Gaye, and even Cher, among many others.
Dressed in overalls and a work shirt, Penn along with keyboardist, longtime friend and collaborator Bobby Emmons, both 70, eased into the evening with one of Dan's most well known and recorded songs, the 1966 soul classic "I'm Your Puppet." The richness in not only Penn's voice but the intricate simplicity of his writing immediately came through and set the tone for the rest of the night, which stretched over a couple hours with a break between sets.
While the performance may have benefited from a rhythm section, the sparse arrangements allowed for Penn to tell stories and capitalize on the intimate feeling in the room and heavy emotional undertow of his words for the more than attentive audience.
Photos by Steve Cohen
With stories of an era that's long gone, Dan remarked in a charming southern drawl about his role as a producer and songwriter working in "writing rooms" at studios and assisting some of the greats like Otis Redding and James Carr during recording sessions.
"They were the best, but even they couldn't make a bad song good," Penn recalled, referring to a session that wasn't going well with the soul girl group Sweet Inspirations; he and co-writer Spooner Oldham decided to basically take over. Generated out of thin air, the two quickly wrote "Sweet Inspiration," which ultimately became the singer's biggest hit and later became an Elvis Presley live staple.
"Sweet Inspiration" from a 2009 performance
Adding to the emotional weight of the words, the stripped-down performance and heaviness in Penn's voice lent themselves to the endless stories of love, loss, cheating, and heartbreak in the thick songbook he and Emmons would get lost in, with great stories for each song they'd stop on.
"There's so many words I can't remember them all," he said. "You write 100 songs, and every now then you write a really good one," he added, modestly introducing James Carr's 1967 smash "Dark End of the Street" in the second set.
"Dark End of the Street" from Sunday night's show at the Dakota
Having Bobby Emmons sing a couple songs he himself wrote, including "Luckenbach, Texas," the two showed a deep camaraderie borne from a faithful dedication and friendship that's lasted them several decades. It was a true delight to see the two together and hear all the great music they've been a part of and the songs that have been a part of our lives for so long.
Since Penn spends most his time these days at home in Alabama writing and working on old cars, and considering these were the only two performances Penn has done all year, it was a rare chance to hear and learn more about the classic American music we've all grown up with and loved all these years. Penn and Emmons are true living legends and we were lucky to have them for a couple nights here in Minneapolis.
Photos by Steve Cohen
Critic's Bias: Was just excited I had a second chance to see Dan and Bobby after missing the first show Sunday night.
The Crowd:Extremely quiet and attentive, often holding back tears from the raw emotion in Dan's songs.
Overheard in the Crowd:"Absolutely the best show I've ever seen!"
Random Notebook Dump: I could listen to this guy for hours.
I'm Your Puppet
I Met her in Church
Do Right Woman
You Left the Water Running
Out of Left Field
Love Me like you Used To
Cry Like a Baby
It Tears Me Up
Memphis Women and Chicken
Dark End of the Street
Woman Left Lonely
Is a Bluebird Blue?
I Hate You
This Ain't No Beer Joint, It's a Tear Joint
Wurlitzer Prize(I Don't Want to Get Over You)
Nine Pounds of Steel
I'm Living Good
Don't Give Up on Me
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