Savannah Music Festival review: Citizen Cope

There was a lovely simplicity to Citizen Cope’s solo performance at the Savannah Music Festival on Tuesday night at Trustees Theater: the artist, his guitar, and occasional changes to the lighting on the big stage that seemed to fit the mood of the two-hour long show (including an intermission).

Lots of attendees were obviously Citizen Cope fans, although their singing near me never got much above a whisper. I’ve liked what I’ve heard over the years of Citizen Cope’s work over the years, but I couldn’t have named more than two songs and I missed his Savannah show with his band a couple of years ago.

The Memphis native, born Clarence Greenwood, moves little as he sings and plays, his jaw sometimes almost set. The slight rasp to his voice and the consistent tempo of the show could easily have seemed monotonous, but I found myself absorbed in the lyrics and the mood. I didn’t really come to the show as a Citizen Cope fan, but I definitely left as one.

And that feeling began early on, from when he seemed to lose himself in “Salvation,” the opening number, which had more resonance in the big space of Trustees than in this live video:

I wouldn’t think of Citizen Cope as a teen idol, but some of the very young women in the audience acted a bit like he was. I had trouble wrapping my head around the unassuming figure on stage and the devotion of some of the girls around me. But maybe Citizen Cope has tapped into widely shared emotions of longing and loss. The characters in his songs seem to be looking for deeper emotional and spiritual connections as life buffets them from one place and person to another.

Highlights included “D’Artagnan’s Theme” — which struck me as almost an elegy for the lost romantic — and “Pablo Picasso.” “Sideways” was as beautiful as expected, and the audience loved “Hurricane Waters” with its apocalyptic lyrics:

Until we meet again
Until it’s like it was
Until then
Until the answers start raining down
Until the skies open up until the trumpet starts
Until then
Until the city and the county ain’t divided
Until then
Until the spirit and the mind ain’t fighting
Until the scenes of tomorrow and today finally play

Early in the second set, Citizen Cope did a lovely cover of Neil Young’s “Out on the Weekend,” a song of wistful yearning that fit the evening’s mood:

The woman I’m thinking of,
She loved me all up
But I’m so down today

CC’s hip hop sound came through occasionally, like on “Brother Lee,” one of the final songs of the night. The second set closed with “Fame,” a gorgeous number.

The first encore was a strange and wonderful choice, Randy Newman’s “Wedding in Cherokee County,” which begins like this:

There she is sitting there
Out behind the smoke house in her rocking chair
She don’t do nothin’
She don’t say nothin’
She don’t feel nothin’
She don’t know nothin’
Maybe she’s crazy I don’t know
But maybe that’s why I love her so

Her papa was a midget
Her mama was a whore
Her grandad was a newsboy ’til he was eighty four
Man don’t you think I know she hates me
Man don’t you think I know that she’s no good
If she knew how she’d be unfaithful to me
I think she’d kill me if she could
Maybe she’s crazy I don’t know
But maybe that’s why I love her so

Then he closed with the “brand new song,” according to him — but his wry smile made me wonder, called “One Lovely Day.” Sure enough, a quick internet search shows that he’s been performing it since the middle of last year.

Citizen Cope never left the stage after the final song. The applause began to subside, the lights came up, music was piped in over the PA — and Citizen Cope walked toward the audience to sign autographs by the eager but surprisingly respectful who rushed to the front when the final song ended.

It was a nice scene, and a nice gesture at a moment when a lot of stars would have been satisfied to retreat backstage with the night’s work done.