Birchemere, The Monsters of Folk: A Show Review

By Mike Joyce (20 April 2020, Washington Post)

Although they were billed as 'Monsters of Folk,' Ramblin' Jack Elliott, Dave Alvin, Tom Russell and Chris Smither agreed on another title for their tour in the midst of their performance at the Birchmere Friday night: 'Grumpy Old Men With Guitars.' By any name, the concert by four veteran singer-songwriters proved thoroughly entertaining. Seated onstage together, they spent most of the night trading great songs, amusing quips and improbable tales, and occasionally forged some rough-hewn, heartfelt harmonies on a couple of Woody Guthrie tunes.

Elliott, a Guthrie protege, quickly lived up to his reputation for being an epic storyteller, 'the Marcel Proust of folk music,' as Russell aptly put it. Hunched over his guitar and speaking in a campfire whisper, Elliott gave the audience an unflinchingly earnest account of how his old dog, Caesar, used to drive him to gigs and then hang out backstage, 'bumming steaks.' He also recalled how the cowboy poet Buck Ramsey was injured early in his life in a 'horse and cow wreck' in West Texas. Elliott then saluted his late friend with a terrific version of Guthrie's 'Buffalo Skinners.'

Elliott's tour mates left a strong impression as well. Smither's finger-style blues guitar playing colorfully underscored a series of fine songs about love, loss, misery and freedom, including 'Winsome Smile' and 'Hold On.' Russell countered with several beautifully crafted narrative ballads, among them 'Blue Wing' and 'The Sky Above and the Mud Below.' And Alvin, sometimes inspired by themes of life and death in California, contributed songs of unusual poignancy and passion.