Performance review The Colony Café Woodstock, NY 8/21/09
It’s a muggy late August evening in Woodstock. The scent of hours-old summer rain breathes new life into the earth around the Colony Café. As I walk up to the Spanish-style façade of the club I see a group gathered in the alley. They’re standing around a smallish man recognizable by his large, white cowboy hat. It’s Ramblin’ Jack Elliot.
As I approach he stops his conversation and looks at me warmly. “Hi, I’m Jack.” We speak ever so briefly and throughout he offers one-liners of a dry, biting type but they are wrapped in a glowing smile. However at this point Jack cannot be pulled away for an interview. He’s catching up on old times with old friends including John Sebastian and Happy Traum.
Apropos to tonight’s headliner, the Colony Café is a welcoming place – an old fashioned ballroom with a classic wrap-around balcony, wonderful acoustics and so many good vibes that they spill out of the tall juiliette windows. The room is filled as the first act, Nathan Moore, takes the stage. Moore offers a tight, clean, well-performed set of Dylanesque songs that surely would have been welcomed at the old Café Espresso or Café Wha. He was very well-received, but the crowd’s polite anticipation made it clear that it’s just not easy opening for a legend.
Ramblin’ Jack, introduced by Happy Traum, took the stage to the accompaniment of thunderous applause, but the crowd became hushed with the first utterance of a blues progression played on the sparkling strings of his guitar. Jack’s reedy voice wailed out, wafting up to the balcony and beyond. In it one can here the powerful influence of Woody Guthrie, whom Jack traveled with and who left an indelible imprint upon Elliot. Lo, so many years later, Jack Elliot carries with him the wisdom of the years. And damn if he still doesn’t sound like Woody. He sings the blues like he was there when they were created: equal parts shout, holler, jubilation and lament. Filling each space with runs up and down his fret board, Jack demonstrated the unique guitar styling that’s part of the myth about him. A bit stiffer now, but the chops are still there, and not all that different from back when Phil Ochs held up a major label record date to wait for Jack to get to the studio. Yes, he played with most of the legends.
Elliot’s performance at the Colony offered an intimate look into the man who carries with him the residue of his endless musical encounters. When he called John Sebastian up to the stage to sit in on several numbers he clarified that the two had known each other since at least the days of the Gaslight Club in Greenwich Village. Sebastian, still looking boyishly spry, carried several harmonicas up with him, adding something so authentic that it bypassed the folk revival and sounded vaguely reminiscent of a distant past. The two played “I Ride an Old Paint,” a cowboy song and part of Guthrie’s repertoire from the ‘40s. Here, Elliot and Sebastian seemed to have climbed out of the soundtrack of an old western movie, what with Jack hunched over his guitar, donned in cowboy hat and bandana.
To add to the authenticity, they played “Koo Koo Bird,” with its lonesome, ringing harmonies and sobbing harmonica, and “Freight Train Blues” which featured Jack’s yodel and John bending the notes of his blues harp, growling behind him. With eyes closed one could easily imagine Woody and Sonny Terry sitting onstage as they would have some sixty years before. But watching these two improvise through several unrehearsed folk songs together, it was easy to see that this music – like Ramblin Jack Elliot – is truly timeless. Elliot has become part of the fabric of folk song, not just an elder of the genre but a section of its foundation. Stories abound of how Ramblin’ Jack used to follow Woody around, in awe of the folk giant, copying his every mannerism. Woody would tell people, “The only guy that sounds more like me than me is Jack.” But by this late date, Elliot doesn’t have to put on an affected southwestern accent – this is part of who he is. Jack, with head thrown back, eyes closed and hands caressing the blue seventh chords out of his old guitar, feels every nuance. Folk music—the songs of the commoner, the worker, the prisoner, the traveler – runs through the blood of Ramblin Jack. He’s the real deal.
Ramblin Jack Elliot’s latest compact disc, A Stranger Here, is now available at record stores near you.