Folk foursome throws Scullers pickin' party

by Scott Alarik (24 April 2020, Boston Globe)

Rock 'n' roll can fill arenas, and jazz can lead parades, but no modern genre can invite a crowd into its parlor quite like folk music. Wednesday, four well-traveled and widely respected folk singer-songwriters - Ramblin' Jack Elliott, Dave Alvin, Tom Russell, and Chris Smither - turned elegant Scullers Jazz Club into a down-home pickin' party. Belying their silly, hype-drunk tour label, Monsters of Folk, the quartet nestled easily into chairs, swapping songs and road wisdom like contented old gunslingers. As one riveting ballad followed another, the camaraderie fell thickly over the crowd, like campfire smoke.

The graybeard of the bunch, Ramblin' Jack Elliott, who cut his teeth roaming America with Woody Guthrie, opened with a high strut of Guthrie's hobo classic, ''Hard Travelin'.'' No one is better at making timeworn folk classics shine like new. His style is so shrewdly offhand, so brilliantly spare, that he often seemed to be just making these songs up as he went along.

He sang the old cowboy complaint ''Diamond Joe'' as though it had all happened to him in the last week, and delivered ''East Virginia Blues'' with raw tension. The citified crowd chuckled nervously, as though not sure he was serious, when he began a dark ballad about a man who won his wife in a card game; but they soon surrendered to the vividly drawn tragedy.

Dave Alvin, of the roots-rock band the Blasters, offered a stomp-down 12-bar blues, his guitar lean and pulsing, then exploding into soulful whines, as though seconding the song's litany of troubles. He also tore off a joyful whoop of ''Railroad Bill,'' and a gripping, fear-drenched, neo-traditional original called ''King of California.''

Tom Russell may be the Texas songwriter's Texas songwriter. His finely formed ballads are the envy of everyone from Nanci Griffith to Guy Clark. In a robust baritone that was deeply melodic while sounding as though he was just spinning tales, he sang his achingly lonely ''Navajo Rug,'' and a gorgeously sad ballad in which he used a simple blue wing tattoo as a symbol for lives spent too carelessly in pursuit of freedom to ever really find it.

As local star Smither sang, Alvin listened, eyes closed, head swaying, tapping the side of his guitar. The crowd was equally entranced as his floating, circular guitar patterns supported complex yet sparely told songs of hard luck and redemption. In ''The Devil's Real,'' he laid out a gripping parable that evil breeds less in our hateful spaces than our hollow ones; and that defeating it is less about exerting virtue than turning toward life's simple graces and the firm shelter of shared love.

If there was a downside to the show, it was that with four such seasoned gunslingers on the same stage, none was about to waste a shot, and one heady ballad followed another. Occasional ensemble songs lifted the pace somewhat; although, with these four road-tested baritones, it was hard not to shout, ''My kingdom for a soprano - an alto will do!'' Still, as the show ended in a highballing medley of old road songs, the distance between singer and fan blurred in the friendly haze of songs so traveled they carry everyone's memories within them.

Copyright 1998 Globe Newspaper Company


We saw the Monsters of Folk show at Scullers Jazz Club in The Doubletree Hotel in Boston, and it was enjoyable, despite having problems seeing the performers. There is no raised stage there, as they usually have a jazz band or singers standing up. This show had all four seated the whole time & people's heads & a large support column were obstacles tough to overcome. Also, there were two shows scheduled, & we saw the first show, which was less than 90 minutes long. The tickets were $20. each plus $5. parking fee plus very expensive drinks, and maybe I'm spoiled by just having been to Austin, where the shows were either free or had cover charges of $5-7 & lasted many hours. Even around here that seems steep. Last month we went to see Willie Nelson, with Billy Joe Shaver at Lupo's in Providence. The tickets were $18. advance & $20. at the door, but we got our money's worth timewise — Billy Joe was on for 45 min. & Willie played for two and a half hours non-stop. Anyhow, it was nice to see Tom Russell back in this area — it's been years since he was here. I was able to talk with him between shows, & he said he's very happy living in Texas — a lot different from his previous home in Brooklyn. He'll be touring Europe next with Andy Hardin, who has a new CD out, according to Tom. I also chatted with Dave Alvin, who told me he'll be touring the Northeast with a full band soon & plans to be at the House of Blues in Cambridge. Chris Smither said he'll be playing in this area as usual & I got on his mailing list. When I asked Jack Elliott to sign the two LP's I brought with me, he wanted to buy one of them from me - it's "Ramblin' Jack Elliott in London" on the U.K. Columbia label from 1959. It was part of the Lansdowne Jazz Series & recorded on Nov. 5 & 7, 1958. The cover has a beautiful picture of Jack, sitting cross-legged on the grass with his guitar, next to a "Please Keep Off Grass" sign & in front of a London statue. I felt bad about not giving up one of my prized collector's items, but I promised to look for another one for him, & he asked if I would send him a color copy of the cover, which I will do. If anyone out there sees a copy of this LP, let me know. I wished I had known this before I went to the Austin Record Show, as there may have been one there. Some dealer in the UK may have it. Jack said he never had this record, & that the guitar he was holding on the cover was stolen from him, but he got it back 20 years later. I think I enjoyed talking with the four performers as much as I did listening to them play.

Barry Brooks. "Monsters of Folk" Idiots Delight Digest #78, 25 April 2020. v4.