Ramblin' Jack Elliott in Concert
by John Nesbit (27 July 2020, Culture
Listening to Ramblin' Jack Elliott in concert is a lot like visiting your
storytelling grandfather on the back porch. Be prepared for an extemporaneous,
stream-of-consciousness, circular experience. No one knows where Rambling Jack
is going to take youˇmaybe not even the legendary folk singer himself.
His nickname, "Ramblin'," is well-earned; he consistently follows his first rule of ramblin always take a sidetrack!
Such was the case on July 21, 2020 at the neighborhood concert hall of the Noe Valley Ministry in San Francisco. Since the event wasn't widely publicized and since we're no longer living in the boom period of folk music, the crowd was rather small and intimateˇaround 125 people.
The audience members were mostly former hippies and hippie sympathizers. There was a good number of younger hip people, familiar with folk music or intrigued by the recent documentary The Ballad of Ramblin' Jack, or the 1996 Grammy Award Elliott received for South Coast. The crowd was definitely mellow and anticipated the directions that Elliott would take that night.
In fact, the crowd would be concerned if Ramblin' Jack stuck to a prescribed playlist and came out with a polished performanceˇthat could mean that Elliott was seriously ill and growing senile. Without his trademark meandering storytelling while continually re-tuning his guitar, the audience would feel ripped off. He didn't disappoint on this particular Saturday night.
First, Ramblin' Jack spontaneously asked an old acquaintance and local legend, burnt-out hippie Diamond Dave, to introduce him on stage. Diamond Dave is a trip, turning quite the circuitous route himself as he introduced Ramblin' Jack as a living link to Woody Guthrie and to history (or hipstery) itself.
True to form, Elliott came out re-tuning his guitar and telling stories about his recent airplane trip to Maine, which he claimed was north of 90 percent of where all Canadians lived. It turns out they were having a tribute to Leadbelly, Josh White, and Woody Guthrie; Elliott had been asked to do the Guthrie section to a written script (you can only imagine how that went over with this freewheeling spirit) while Odetta performed the Leadbelly tribute and Josh White, Jr. played tribute to his dad.
Eventually, the raspy-voiced Elliott got to his first real songˇa rendition of "San Francisco Bay Blues" that often sounded like he was making up the words as he wentˇor his voice kept trying to catch up to the guitar-picking, or vice-versa. Not the smoothest version you'll ever hear, but definitely in the folk idiom.
After a few songs, Elliott quipped that he likes to play the worst songs of his repertoire first to get them out of the way. Three times, Elliott began a song only to cut it short because he changed his mind, deciding that he was tired of playing that particular song.
It didn't matter. The crowd was there to enjoy whatever Ramblin' Jack had to offer, and listened to all the stories and snippets of stories he shared.
There was his mild rant about 2001 being the year of death (Mimi Fariña
had just passed away, and others mentioned included Chet Atkins and Fred Neil).
He told stories about his dog (who had also recently died), coffee-drinking, and
how he has sworn off drinking alcohol (which killed his wife a few months ago,
so he has recently been traveling and singing more).
And he talked a bit about the show he had done a few hours before with Garrison Keillor. Fortunately, Keillor transported Elliott to the Presbyterian Church where the night's concert was held; otherwise, he might have been rambling around the streets.
Mixed in with the storytellingˇoh, he started to tell us about Bob Dylan's Blonde on Blonde album. He tried to relate a story of going to a party in San Francisco and seeing Allen Ginsberg there, sitting in guru style. But somehow Ramblin' Jack got sidetracked again and never got back to the Dylan album. I think he started to tell about how he attempted to sit guru style, and then got off on describing his physical limitations and how difficult it was for him to bend over, and how he couldn't have bent over to pick up his coffee cup a year ago.
Anyway, Ramblin' Jack did get in a few songs in between stories. Some of
the better songs included "Worried Man Blues" done in Carter Family style, Woody
Guthrie's "Massacre of 1913," "Freight Train Blues," and "South Coast" (which
he did for his first encore). Elliott also mimicked Dylan, telling about a time
that he saw Bob in a Greenwich Village folk club and decided to play one of Dylan's
songs he had just learned ˇ "Don't Think Twice, It's All Right."
As Elliott began to sing, he started telling us about John Hartford (who had recently died), but he remembered to finish the song. That's all in keeping with the free-spirited and freewheeling legend. Seeing and hearing Elliott in concert confirms the accuracy of his daughter's documentary. Just be prepared to go with the flow, since that's where Ramblin' Jack will be headed.
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