That Dan Penn has written more than a handful of the greatest songs ever is almost canonical. But there's a sense that a Dan Penn song, for all its innate power, doesn't truly transcend until James Carr or Percy Sledge or even Alex Chilton get hold of it.
Penn proved otherwise on Tuesday at Hendrix's Cabe Theater, reclaiming all his old hits with a country soul baritone that, though subdued, managed to wrench out new emotion from songs most of the audience had likely heard hundreds of times.
In overalls and with an acoustic guitar and storied session man Bobby Emmons sitting in on keys, he started with “I'm Your Puppet” and by the time he'd reached the end of his first set, he'd done “Sweet Inspiration,” “Cry Like a Baby,” “Do Right Man,” “It Tears Me Up,” “Dark End of the Street” and “You Left the Water Running.”
There's a sadness in all those old hits that, stripped down and with Penn's rich voice, registered more as resignation last Tuesday, nowhere more poignantly than in perhaps the greatest song of all time, “The Dark End of the Street.” Penn, alternating between almost mournful quiet and church vigor, made us feel “I know time is gonna take its toll/We have to pay for the love we stole/It's a sin and we know it's wrong/Oh, but our love keeps coming on strong.”
We got stories, too, though none that would stand up to transcription. Hearing Penn, in his thick Alabama drawl, imitate Jerry Wexler's thick Jewish accent and Aretha Franklin's young sass, is something that can only be heard from the man himself.
The second set leaned more heavily on Penn's new album, “Junkyard Junky.” Even if songs like “Tiny Hinys and Hogs,” don't stand up to the classics, there's an easy whimsy and humor in the new material that seems to fit Penn's semi-retired disposition.
It's hard to imagine another concert topping this one this year.