Saturday, September 20, 2008

Ramblin' Jack Elliott

Some friends and I took in a performance by the legendary Ramblin' Jack Elliott this evening at a place in Winnsboro, TX, called the Crossroads. Elliott has always been a part of the cultural landscape for as long as I've been interested in American music. Almost a historical force.

His two short sets tonight were smart, funny and incredibly learned. He cracked jokes about Bob Dylan ("I could see the faint light in the room shining on his halo"), Thoreau, Richard Farina (called him "Dick"), Henry Miller, and Woody Guthrie. He sang songs by Jelly Roll Martin, Guthrie, Dylan, the Carter Family, and others. The man can play guitar amazingly well, like a bluesman's second voice. Mostly he used it as a performing partner -- doing a series of duets with an old, dramatic friend. And his stage presence was a delight beyond his instrumental abilities. Shifting from a blues number to the Carters' "Engine 143" involved a change in world view. You could see it. Sense it. He wasn't just doing a song Momma Maybelle once sang. He was connected to the song and the people whose lives made the song make sense -- at least as a performance. I was reminded of Greil Marcus' Old Weird America and an almost unspeakable connection to a deeply strange current in the American soul.

Jack Elliott is 77 years old, I believe. And his endurance isn't so great anymore. At the end of his second set the audience (including me) applauded long enough to get an encore. But his pipes were worn out for the cover of Dylan's "Don't Think Twice" that followed. The number started off beautifully. In fact he helped me understand something of its value after all the years since I first heard it as an adolscent. But he faded before it was over, and the wonder diminished to hoping he'd get through it. He did, of course. He's a pro. But I wanted to hear him do the song when he was fresh.

Regardless, our evening was extraordinary. I snapped the picture up top while Elliott autographed CD's and hats and things after his show. It's a camera phone picture, so the quality is pretty bad. The event was so much better.

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