I attended both of the Dan Penn-Bobby Emmons shows at the Dakota Jazz Club & Restaurant in downtown Minneapolis this week, Sunday’s night’s sold-out event as well as last night’s impromptu reprise. For anyone who loves American popular music, these shows almost defied belief. I doubt that we will see their like again for a long time.
The shows came about through the inspiration of record store owner Mark Treehuis of Treehouse Records. Mark invited Penn to perform in Minneapolis, I think with some persistence. The Dakota’s Lowell Pickett offered to provide the perfect venue. The circumstances seem to have inspired Penn to provide an extremely generous overview of his career, from his first hit song song, written when Penn was a teenager (“Is a Bluebird Blue,” recorded by Conway Twitty, in which Penn channeled Jimmy Reed) to his most recent compositions. It is an interval covering more than fifty years and an estimable slice of American popular music. Each of the two shows ran well over two hours.
Penn did not keep the audience waiting for the highlights. Consider the first four numbers Penn and Emmons performed last night: “I’m Your Puppet,” “Sweet Inspiration,” “I Met Her in Church,” and “Do Right Man.” These four songs, each of which Penn had a hand in writing, were huge hits for notable artists: James and Bobby Purify, the Sweet Inspirations, the Box Tops, and Aretha Franklin, respectively.
In both shows Penn followed up with other highlights from his long career: “You Left the Water Running” (demo by Otis Redding), “Out of Left Field” (Percy Sledge), “Cry Like a Baby” (the Box Tops), “It Tears Me Up” (Sledge again), “Dark End of the Street” (James Carr), “A Woman Left Lonely” (Janis Joplin), “I Hate You” (Ronnie Milsap), “Nine Pound Steel” (Joe Simon), and so on. Simply incredible.
Penn is a tremendous performer in his own right, with a soulful voice that enhances the quality of the songs. He also had stories for several of the songs. On Sunday night, he told the hilarious story of how he wrote the lyrics for the bridge in “Do Right Woman” in order to finish the song at Jerry Wexler’s request for Aretha Franklin, while the track was being recorded at the historic Muscle Shoals session. Both Wexler and Aretha pitched in as Penn worked up the bridge (“They say that it’s a man’s world…”). Is somebody taking these stories down?
One more question. What do you do for an encore after performing two sets of highlights from a long career? How do you follow “Do Right Woman,” “Dark End of the Street,” and all the rest? That’s easy, if you’re Dan Penn. You bring out the magnificent number you contributed to Solomon Burke’s late return to form — “Don’t Give Up On Me” — and you leave on a note of utter sublimity.
Gram Parsons called the music found at the intersection of blues, folk, and rock the Cosmic American Music. Somewhere in that cosmos Dan Penn has a galaxy all to himself.