Live at the Kuumbwa Jazz Center, Santa Cruz, California

by John Simmons (17 April 2020, Snazzy Productions)

The first chunk of magic at this show happens at the very start, when no one is paying much attention. "I'll just start playin'," Jack Elliott says softly, "and we'll just pretend we never met. We're just sittin' on a street corner, I'm buskin', and it's 1960." And the room settles as the barrier between performer and audience melts away. That's not a world-famous folk musician and historical figure up on a stage, it's just a street singer. Or, better, it's your black-sheep uncle with the beat-up guitar, just passing through, singing songs full of hidden codes to us kids while the parental units look on uncomfortably. Relax, Martha, its only folk music. What harm can he do?

Considerable harm, it turns out. But that's another story.

Americana icon Ramblin' Jack Elliott A Ramblin' Jack Elliott show at this phase of his career is a seamless and unscripted blending of story and song, of history and melody. His propensity to tell stories used to irritate, because the stories seemed to suck energy from the songs, but that was years ago. He now has, through art or pure artlessness, found the balance. Describing the music scene that developed around Gerde's Folk City in the early 60s in New York City (a recurring reference point for Jack as well as for John Stewart, the evening's second performer), he recalled this tidbit:

"I was tellin' how Bob Dylan got disgusted with New York and decided to leave Greenwich Village and move up to Woodstock. He'd been living in this little apartment on 4th Street. It was just big enough for a bed and a little table with a typewriter… One day on 6th Avenue he says to me, 'I'm getting out of town. I'm gonna leave here. I'm going up to Woodstock and I'm gonna be a painter. I'm not gonna be in this music business anymore -- this music business is getting to me. It's too weird. Too many weirdos. I'm gonna be a painter.' And I said, "Good luck, Bob," and that was it. He left and I didn't see him again for about a year." How odd that Jack's Dylan impersonation is so good …

Take my word for it, this was material that the audience was hungry for. Nobody was waiting impatiently for the next song to start. But when the songs came along they were crisp as jewels in the settings made for them by the storytelling. "Freight Train Blues", "Pretty Boy Floyd", a cracked-up version of "Lay Lady Lay", and especially "Don't Think Twice", each one a classic, were delivered not slickly but honestly, among jokes and edgy stories, as befits the time-honored tradition of the black-sheep uncle.

(Speaking of which tradition, I later saw Genuine American Eccentric and noted musicologist Baby Gramps sneak backstage to hang with his old buddy Jack. I'd love to be a blue-tailed fly on that wall.)

In the middle of the final song of his encore, Blind Lemon Jefferson's creepy-beautiful "Black Snake Moan", this Grammy-winning Famous Artist stopped dead, peered into the audience, and said: "Chet? Is that you? Just recognized you." The audience loved it. Just another evening with Mad Uncle Jack.

[John Stewart] gave the audience his version of his first meeting with Jack Elliott at Gerde's (Jack had given his own version earlier in the show), as well as his first brush with Dylan, to introduce "Dreamers on the Rise". Very apt and very smoothly done.

For folk purists, this show highlighted two different but successful approaches to long-term survival. I grudgingly concede that there is some art to booking after all.


(Excerpted material recorded at the Kuumbwa Jazz Center on 4/17/99. Mix by Julie Rix. Recorded by Dave Nielsen of Technica Gratia Artes.)
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