Ramblin' Jack Elliott Leads Group in a Night of Nuance and Humanity
Weekend Reviews

by Steve Hochman (13 April 2020, The Los Angeles Times)

Ramblin' Jack Elliott has pretty good taste in musical pals. In the '50s, the Brooklyn-born troubadour traveled with Woody Guthrie. In the '60s and '70s, he hung around with Bob Dylan. So when you see the 67-year-old billed with three generation-younger musicians on a tour billed as Monsters of Folk, you know that the others are probably no slouches.

Not that the crowds packing McCabe's on Friday for two sets by the foursome had to be sold on any of them. Dave Alvin has been a local favorite since his Blasters days for keenly honed blues, folk and rock story songs, while New Orleans-born Chris Smither and Inglewood native Tom Russell are well-established folk scene figures, noted especially for extraordinary finger-picking and literate songwriting, respectively.

But Elliott bound the formidable foursome into something truly distinctive. Alvin, a kid-like grin on his face, was no less amused than the audience as Elliott turned a simple introduction or anecdote into a wild ride. One involving a mid-'60s encounter with Andy Warhol, Nico and "some band" he didn't care for called the Velvet Underground had everyone howling.

At the same time, Elliott's nuanced, humanity-filled performances of material--ranging from a heart-rending ballad of a Mexican rancher and the wife he won in a card game to Louis Jordan's jump-jive novelty "Salt Pork, West Virginia"--provided the axis on which the others spun their songs. Such finely detailed, character-rich epics as Russell's saga of a driven cock fighter, "Gallo del Cielo," and a new Alvin-Russell immigrant ballad, "California Snow," fit quite comfortably alongside Smither's interpretation of the R&B; nugget "Hi-Heel Sneakers."

The ultimate unifying element Friday, though, was pride--exhibited as the crucial element in most of their songs' characters, but also in each performer's obvious thrill to be in such fine company.

Copyright 1998 / The Los Angeles Times