Live from This Theater

Penn, Dan and Spooner Oldham

album cover

A Soul Songwriter Steps Out of the Shadows

Music history is full of characters like Dan Penn, the Memphis-based singer, songwriter, and record producer whose profile is nowhere near commensurate with his talent. Responsible for cowriting James Carr's signature hit "Dark End of the Street," the Aretha Franklin classic "Do Right Woman," and other tormented classics of low-key soul, Penn is one of the most gifted (and least known) white soul singers ever, a master of the well-placed groan and slight but telling inflection. Those who have heard his original 1960s-era demos, private working tapes used to showcase new songs, consider them a type of sacred text.

You would have to be an obsessive fan to discover Penn's vocal gift, however. He's stepped from the shadows only a few times over the years—most persuasively in 1972, for a long out-of-print album called Nobody's Fool. Which is why this live set, recorded in 2004 in Europe, is so valuable: Working alongside his songwriting partner, the keyboard player and harmony singer Spooner Oldham, Penn rolls through his classics with captivating understatement, emphasizing the gentle slopes of the melodies over the ad-libbed swoops that often clutter up a great soul song. His readings are a songwriter's readings, designed to help listeners appreciate the architecture of a drop-dead genius song like "I'm Your Puppet," which is taken at a poignant slow crawl, or "It Tears Me Up," which acquires its power one perfectly proportioned line at a time.

There isn't a weak moment on Live, which celebrates those Southern staples of church and chicken, while exhibiting an irreverence (and easygoing humor) often missing from the comeback efforts of once-greats. That might be because Penn—who was once described by Elvis Costello as "what Elvis Presley could have been"—has never gone away. He just hung out in the background, scribbling songs filled with truth, and singing them only occasionally.

Genre: R&B
Released: 2005, Proper
Key Tracks: "It Tears Me Up," "I'm Your Puppet," "Ol' Folks."
Catalog Choice: Nobody's Fool
Next Stop: Otis Redding: Otis Blue
After That: James Carr: The Essential James Carr
Book Pages: 589–590

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