Monsters of Folk

by Kevin McKeough (17 April 2020, Chicago Tribune)

Technically, the Monsters of Folk consist only of the four veteran troubadour — Dave Alvin, Chris Smither, Ramblin' Jack Elliott and Tom Russell — who sat from left to right on the stage of Fitzgerald's Thursday evening.

But as they took turns swapping songs, stories, jokes and good-natured ribbing, the quartet conjured up a number of other behemoths as well.

Bonnie Riatt and Lowell George, Chuck Berry and Johnny Cash, the Carter Family and Jimmie Rodgers, Bob Dylan and Woody Guthrie: All were represented during the marathon performance, which spanned three and a half hours, two sets, and the breadth of American folk music from ancient ballads to rock 'n roll.

There was Russell hilariously impersonating Cash confronting a horde of Swedish paparazzi, Smither delivering a torrid version of George's "Rock 'n Roll Doctor,'' Alvin immersing himself in the ageless "Black Jack Davy,'' and Elliott mesmerizing the packed house with an exquisite rendition of Dylan's "Don't Think Twice, It's All Right.''

Folk music can mean the inward-looking meditations of songwriters from James Taylor to Sarah McLaughlin, or outward-looking tales of emotional and physical hardship. The Monsters of Folk's music belonged definitively in the latter category, as their songs detailed outlaws and prisons, highways and railroads, heartbreak and longing, the devil and deliverance.

Russell was the master of narrative, particularly when recounting the fate of two horse thieves who stop to drink in the wrong bar on "The Sky Above, The Mud Below.'' Alvin was the most dramatic presence, his intense physicality, booming voice and biting guitar solos bursting forth during "Wanda and Duane.'' A wizard on blues guitar, Smither twined wry, stem-winding lyrics through his breathtaking finger-picking on songs such as "Winsome Smile.''

Recovering from a cold that had him drawing on inhalants and occasionally leaving the stage, his voice frayed, worn and rasping, ("it's coming back . . . worse than ever''), Elliott still made each song sound as if it was dug out of the earth itself.

He sang with a plain, understated authority that owed much to Woody Guthrie, with whom Elliott traveled and performed, and the music was never better than when he performed the legendary folk singer's own songs.

From the group's theme song, "Hard Travelin','' to the Robin Hood biography, "Pretty Boy Floyd,'' to the sing-along finale, "Do Re Mi,'' the renditions were jubilant and glorious, a testament not only to a genre of music, but a way of life.

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