Is Anton Barbeau a legend everywhere but here?
Years ago, I found myself at a bar in Oxford, Mississippi, discussing the literary history of William Faulkner. My near-worship of the great writer must have seemed obvious to the student I was speaking with, and it was met with near- total disinterest. The student had been born and raised in Oxford, after all, and there was Faulkner memorabilia everywhere. At one point the student piped up and said, “I didn’t even know Faulkner was as famous as he was until I got into college. I mean, I thought he was just some local writer.”
Calling William Faulkner a local writer is approximately the same as calling Anton Barbeau a local songwriter.
Not that Anton Barbeau has reached the same level of fame as William Faulkner. But nonetheless it is easy, in a town like Sacramento, to regard its local treasures as just that: local treasures.
How is it then that a local treasure is recognized on the streets of London, England, having just finished hobnobbing with pop-music icons Robyn Hitchcock and the Soft Boys? How is it that this same local treasure might record a CD sometime next year with star-level British pop act the Bevis Frond as his back-up band?
The answer to how these things are possible is simple: Anton Barbeau is far from simply a “local treasure.” Despite this admonition, it would be wrong to unjustly poise Anton Barbeau at the edge of some kind of glorified superstardom. This is not the case, nor will it ever be. The class of brilliance possessed by Barbeau is reserved only for songwriting masters and not, in the 21st century, for the superstars. Instead, it is best to wrap your head around the notion of Barbeau as a young Andy Partridge of XTC or Robyn Hitchcock—famous to those who matter, anonymous to the unwashed masses who don’t.
Since the release of Horse’s Tongue in 1993, Barbeau has put together a steady stream of CD releases, five of them in the past three years—a staggering amount of output. His relationship with Los Angeles-based Frigidisk netted two critical darlings: 1999’s A Splendid Tray and 2000’s 17th Century Fuzzbox Blues. The Frigidisk releases also helped lever Barbeau into regular U.S. radio rotation, particularly on college stations.
Barbeau is characteristically aplomb about his level of success. “People couldn’t figure me out back in the day,” he says. “Some of them still can’t. But I do have an increasing audience and I’m happy about that.”
That audience has much to look forward to. Over the next six months, Barbeau plans on recording a new CD and is considering touring both the East Coast and possibly returning to London. His The Golden Boot: Antology 2, released last month on 125 Records, offers a collection of alternate takes and unreleased odds and ends dating back to 1995—a welcome addition to the Barbeau collection.
Again, though, it is difficult to understand Anton Barbeau without taking into account the seemingly fixed locality of his presence in Sacramento. One cannot imagine a Sacramento without Anton Barbeau. He indeed carries such a presence in town that the True Love Coffeehouse recently hosted a 23-hour tribute to Barbeau involving a diverse group of local bands and songwriters, a sort of “thank you” for seven CDs of amazing songs.
It is easy, then, to think of Anton Barbeau as a Sacramento fixture, but the songwriter himself has other plans. “Everything in this town is steeped in the context of history,” he says. “I’d rather explode out as an artist worthy of listening to rather than as a local fixture.” He pauses a moment in our conversation and then adds bemusedly, “The wax isn’t dry.”
With more plans and projects on the way, one hopes the wax never will.