Eric Andersen

TrackAlbum
Violets Of DawnSo Much On My Mind
Thirsty BootsSo Much On My Mind
Blue RiverBlue River
SheilaBlue Rain: Eric Andersen Live
RunawayBlue Rain: Eric Andersen Live
Time Run Like A Freight TrainThe Cologne Concert
Listen To The RainGhosts Upon The Road
FoghornMemory Of The Future
Salt On Your SkinThe Cologne Concert
Dance Of Love And DeathThe Cologne Concert

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Contributor: Andrew Shields

Eric Andersen first came to prominence as one of a group of extraordinarily talented songwriters who were active in Greenwich Village from the early 1960s onwards. Indeed, he had close ties to many of the most prominent members of this group. For example, it was Tom Paxton who persuaded him to move to New York after seeing him perform at a folk club in San Francisco (Andersen later partially repaid this debt by recording fine versions of Paxton’s The Last Thing On My Mind both on the Danko/Fjeld/Andersen album and on his later live CD, The Cologne Concert) and it was Phil Ochs who acted as his most important early mentor (their hilarious duet version of The Beatles I Shoulda Known Better can be heard on Ochs’ The Broadside Tapes). Andersen has also maintained a long friendship with Bob Dylan, to whom his 2003 CD, Beat Avenue, is dedicated.

Given that Andersen was a relatively late arrival on the Greenwich Village scene, it was, perhaps, unsurprising that his early work was so heavily influenced by that of these three great songwriters. It could be argued, indeed, that much of Andersen’s career has been shaped by his attempts to escape those early influences (particularly that of Dylan) and to find an individual voice. Despite this, Andersen’s first LP, Today Is The Highway, while somewhat derivative in parts, did show his potential to be a fine songwriter in his own right. The title track was particularly strong, while Plains Of Nebrasky-O was one of the better Woody Guthrie-style ballads written in the 1960s.

However, it was with the classic Violets Of Dawn on his second album, ‘Bout Changes & Things, that Andersen signalled his emergence as a songwriter with an individual style and distinctive poetic sensibility. It is arguable that this song, along with Phil Ochs’ Changes, was a critical influence on the emergence of the gentle and introspective style of the singer-songwriters of the early 1970s. The same album also featured what is, perhaps, Andersen’s best known song, Thirsty Boots, which has been covered by both Judy Collins and Bob Dylan. In both cases, I have chosen the later live versions included on the Australian compilation album, So Much On My Mind: The Eric Andersen Anthology, 1969-80, over the original album versions. Personally, I find the vocals on some of Andersen’s early CDs overly smooth. In more recent years, his voice has taken on a grittier and more lived-in quality, which gives an added resonance to his songs.

In the period after ‘Bout Changes & Things, Andersen released a series of patchy but extremely interesting albums, which displayed a diverse and eclectic variety of influences. While this experimentation was not consistently successful, it did pave the way for what is, perhaps, Andersen’s greatest album, the superb Blue River – one of the best albums of the early 1970s.

From it I have chosen Blue River, perhaps Andersen’s greatest song. His version here also features a great harmony vocal by Joni Mitchell. There is also a fine cover version of the song by Rick Danko which appears on the Danko/Fjeld/Andersen CD (see Rick Danko toppermost #47). In the case of Sheila which is also on the same record, I have selected the later live version on Andersen’s excellent live album, Blue Rain. One of the great enjoyments of listening to that album is hearing how Andersen feeds off the freshness and effervescence of the virtually unknown young Norwegian blues band which backs him on it.

The curiously stop/start character of Andersen’s career was, perhaps, most clearly demonstrated when the master-tapes of Stages, his follow-up album to Blue River, were lost in 1973, and did not reappear until 1989. This meant that he lost much of the commercial momentum that had developed with Blue River and it is arguable that his career never really recovered from this blow. Although Stages was not quite the near masterpiece which some critics have claimed, it was a fine album on its own terms and included a number of his best songs. Again, I have chosen a live version of its best song, Time Run Like A Freight Train, as the weathered quality of Andersen’s voice on The Cologne Concert suits the themes of this song perfectly.

My last selections are from the series of excellent albums that Andersen has made since Ghosts Upon The Road appeared in 1989. His career had appeared to be in something of a slump at that point after a series of uneven and commercially unsuccessful albums. Although these albums had contained a number of fine songs, none of them had come close to matching the quality of his best work. The high quality of Ghosts, then, proved something of a surprise and it set the template for the albums which he has made since then. The songs on these recordings have had a number of themes in common – themes which he has explored with a grace and dignity that few of his contemporaries can match. These include reflections on ageing and on his own past, studies of the complexities of adult relationships (I have included four of the best of these: Foghorn, Salt On Your Skin, Dance Of Love And Death and the stunning ballad, Listen To The Rain, with its excellent back-up singing from Shawn Colvin), and occasional returns to political commentary (the best of which Rain Falls Down On Amsterdam on Memory Of The Future I would like to have included here). These albums also include contributions from some very fine musicians indeed, including Richard Thompson, Garth Hudson, Rick Danko, Shawn Colvin, Lucy Kaplansky and Artie Traum.

With a new album due this year and a documentary apparently in the works, Andersen is continuing to make excellent music almost fifty years after his arrival in Greenwich Village. Although his work has been undeniably uneven, the high quality of the best of it means that he is well deserving of a place among the best songwriters of his generation.

Eric Andersen official website

Eric Andersen biography (iTunes)

TopperPost #173

10 Comments

  1. David Lewis
    Jan 21, 2014

    Excellent list. I can’t think of any track I’d replace any of these with. I also like his work with Danko-Fjeld-Andersen.

  2. Peter Viney
    Jan 21, 2014

    I mentioned three Danko/Fjeld/Andersen (D/F/A) tracks in the Rick Danko Toppermost. I also mentioned excluding Come Running Like A Friend (by Eric Andersen) because Eric takes most of the lead vocal … handing over to Rick Danko for the custom verse about being gypsies in the band (or The Band). That’s a song I’d add. I thought I’d have a day with D/F/A before commenting on Eric, and today I found the drums and lead guitar overwrought most of the time. I’d have liked a folkier treatment. I suppose with two albums and a live one there is a potential D/F/A Toppermost. There are some good Eric Andersen songs on them.

    Eric Andersen was unlucky that Thirsty Boots had to wait for “Another Self Portrait” before Dylan’s version was released. It would have boosted him if it had been on the 1970 original Self Portrait.

    • Andrew Shields
      Jan 21, 2014

      Deliberately did not include any Danko/Fjeld/Andersen material here, as I thought they might make a good subject for a future Toppermost…

      Like Dylan’s version of ‘Thirsty Boots but think Andersen’s live version included here is superior to it..

  3. Peter Viney
    Jan 21, 2014

    Ah! Just remembered. Close The Door Lightly When You Go … as covered by Fairport Convention, but I prefer Eric Andersen’s version from ‘Bout Changes and Things.

    • Andrew Shields
      Jan 21, 2014

      Peter, agree that ‘Close the Door’ is a very fine song, as is ‘I will go Unbounded’ also from ‘Bout Changes & Things’…

      Could also have mentioned the fine version of ‘Violets of Dawn’ by Mary Chapin Carpenter here.

  4. Peter Viney
    Jan 21, 2014

    Violets of Dawn is mentioned in the Rick Nelson Toppermost … it’s on “Live At The Troubadour.” It nearly made the Rick Nelson ten too! I didn’t think Dylan’s “Thirsty Boots” superior so much as it would have given Eric Andersen a lot of publicity if it had been on the 1970 original. A D/F/A one is a good idea. They do swap vocals a lot.

    There is also a concert tape of The Band doing Blue River (and Driftin’ Away) at the Quattro Club, Tokyo in May 1994. I’ve never understood why they didn’t keep both songs in their stage show.

  5. Kasper Nijsen
    Jan 22, 2014

    I don’t know his records well enough to improve on your list but I did see Eric live in Amsterdam a couple of months ago, where in front of about fifteen audience members (family and friends of the band included) he played a rousing, chilling version of a song about the holocaust called Rain Falls Down in Amsterdam that I won’t forget lightly.

  6. Andrew Shields
    Jan 22, 2014

    Peter, thanks for this. Dylan’s version of ‘Thirsty Boots’ is also much better than a lot of the material which did appear on the original ‘Self Portrait’.

    What is the name of the concert tape on which The Band did ‘Blue River’? Would be interested in checking it out…

  7. Peter Viney
    Jan 22, 2014

    There’s a copy circulating on some sort of tape tree: Club Quattro 4 May 1996, and it’s listed on the Band website, Driftin’ Away is even better quality, as it’s not from Tokyo (poor memory) here but from a 1993 radio show called Manta Eastern Sound Toronto.

  8. Andrew Shields
    Apr 27, 2014

    For anyone who is interested, the Eric Andersen concert at Club Passim in Cambridge, MA on May 30 will be streamed live here on a pay what you want basis.

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