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Ramblin’ Man
By Kirsten Ferguson

Jimmie Dale Gilmore
Caffe Lena, March 1
Photo by Martin Benjamin

‘I’m going to try to keep the talking to a minimum,” announced Jimmie Dale Gilmore at the start of the first of his two Caffe Lena shows on Friday night. Despite Gilmore’s attempt to keep his stage patter in check, the amiable Texan songsmith spent much of the first show chattering away in his congenial, down-home, golly-gee sort of way.

It’s hard to imagine how much between-song banter might have consumed Gilmore’s performance if not for the looming “deadline,” as he called it, of having to finish in time for the second set. Still, the singer’s running commentary—whether musically enlightening or charmingly flaky—helped make the intimate Caffe Lena show as enjoyable as it was.

In his best moments, the tall, hollow-cheeked Gilmore—who has kicked around for years in country-music hot spot Austin, Texas—shed light on his sources of musical inspiration. “Many years ago, down in Austin, there was a little gang of us,” Gilmore said at one point, describing his posse of extremely talented songwriting pals. “This is a song I learned from Lucinda Williams when we were basically street urchins,” he added, introducing Williams’ “Howlin’ at Midnight,” one of the most rollicking songs of the set. Later on, Gilmore became visibly moved when paying homage to Dave Van Ronk—a frequent Caffe Lena performer who died earlier this year. “He was one of my favorite musicians in my life. I love him, I’m going to miss him. I spent so many hours with his records,” Gilmore said.

Granted, there were plenty of times when Gilmore—who is perhaps the only honky-tonk luminary to have spent considerable time studying Eastern philosophy and meditation—revealed his scattered side. “Does that have anything to do with the song?” Gilmore’s accompanist, guitarist Robbie Gjersoe, interjected when Gilmore rambled on about the difference between having opinions and being judgmental. “It all does,” Gilmore laughingly retorted. It was a fitting comment from the Zen-
influenced artist, whose warm, scattershot persona helps inform the humanistic qualities of his most touching songs.

Although much of Gilmore’s set consisted of tunes written by country-music contemporaries such as Townes Van Zandt, John Hiatt and Joe Ely—“songs I wish I had written,” Gilmore said—many of the best musical moments came when Gilmore played songs that he wrote or cowrote. On “One Endless Night,” the title track from his most recent album, Gilmore’s inimitable twang sounded resolutely strong and assured; a silken “Blue Shadows” featured great dual vocals between Gilmore and Gjersoe; and, despite his cheerful interruption of “Another Colorado” after mistakenly repeating a verse, Gilmore’s prairie epic retained its great poignancy. A subdued “Treat Me Like a Saturday Night,” which Gilmore imbued with so much emotion he looked like he was about to cry, was nearly electrifying.

After a rousing version of Van Zandt’s “White Freightliner Blues,” which drew a standing ovation from the sold-out Caffe Lena crowd, Gilmore returned to squeeze one last song in before having to call it quits. Ever the jokester, Gilmore introduced his signature tune “Dallas” by paraphrasing a line that Townes Van Zandt once used. “This is the medley of my greatest hit,” he quipped.

Aged to Perfection

Jesse Winchester, Kieran Kane
The Egg, March 2

Love, loss and the Lord were the topics of conversation at the Egg on Saturday night, when quasi-legendary folksinger Jesse Winchester returned to the Capital Region for the first time in decades. A peculiar character who was born in Louisiana but has lived in Canada since he moved there to evade the Vietnam draft in the ’60s, Winchester made his name in the ’70s as one of that decade’s countless sensitive tunesmiths. Subsequently, however, he forged a career as an occasional recording artist who makes his living penning songs for other people. Because of his politicized past and his sporadic output, Winchester had a palpable air of life experience.

A slight, gray-haired 57-year-old who could pass for a college professor, Winchester took immediate command of the stage with “Talk Memphis,” a bluesy number loaded with offbeat rhythmic shifts and vivid imagery. Accompanying himself on an acoustic guitar, with which he forged a spectrum of delicate sounds, Winchester sang in a honeyed whisper that suited his writerly lyrics and clipped enunciation. He reserved long notes for key moments, telling his stories with the economy and precision of a masterful novelist. The theater was a good bit shy of full, but it seemed that everyone in the room was eager to accompany Winchester on his private, introspective wanderings.

The singer moved through moods with the grace of a bird shifting direction in flight. “Gentleman of Leisure” was a funny lark about the difficulty of finding work that doesn’t involve work, and “I Don’t Think You Love Me Anymore” was as direct and poignant as its title. Winchester played to all his strengths in tunes such as “Little Glass of Wine,” a spare and witty ode to the grape that featured butterfly flourishes during which Winchester made his guitar sound like a harp.

Winchester’s melodies often took unexpected turns, which complemented his distinct verbiage; every song felt fresh and personal and surprising. “Yankee Lady” was a wistful tribute to a past lover, “You Tickle Me” somehow made the silly imagery of the title feel organic and loving, and “Bless Your Foolish Heart” was a moving remembrance of the time Winchester was married to a beautiful woman whose affections caught him by surprise. The singer was as devout when singing religious tunes as he was when recalling the loves of his life: “Let’s Make a Baby King” was a funky number during which the audience provided call-and-response vocals, and “You Can’t Stand Up Alone” was singularly entertaining because Winchester sang the rousing number a cappella, then decorated it with bizarre, Ed Grimley-style dance moves.

Opener Kieran Kane’s material was less intimate than Winchester’s, but his stage presence was just as folksy and appealing. The country-folk artist, formerly of a duo called the O’Kanes, told warm stories about, among other things, singing his tune “Honeymoon Wine” on Hee-Haw: “I had a fledgling career which has been going on for 20-something years,” he remarked. Kane’s gentle tenor had a romantic lilt, especially on the catchy “Four Questions” and the sultry “I’ll Go On Loving You,” which was a massive hit when recorded by country superstar Alan Jackson.

—Peter Hanson

All for One, One for All

Mitch Elrod, Michael Eck, MotherJudge, Albie
Hilton Center for the Performing Arts, March 2

Mitch Elrod, Mike Eck, MotherJudge and Albie have between them about 17 billion years of experience on the local scene, so it’s nice to see them take the type of chance that could land them flat on their faces. Sharing the spotlight, and responsibilities on one another’s songs, involves a kind of ego check that you might not expect of comparatively established names—at least, not voluntarily. But the ad hoc quartet’s camaraderie at the Hilton Center on Saturday was easy and unforced, and, for the most part, their musical interactions were fluid and cohesive.

The set began with round-robin solo performances—a chance to taste the ingredients, as it were. Albie’s solo stuff likely will surprise those of you who remember him from his days with Can’t Say, Albany’s premier practitioners of “crunch ska.” It certainly did me. Over droney, Zeppelinesque open-tuned chords, Albie sang folksy, swampy, mystical songs of woods, water and deep weirdness. It was like Thoreau hopped up on Chris Whitley and reruns of Kung Fu.

MotherJudge sounded like she might have been singing from the hearth of the house outside which Albie was running barefoot. Her songs have a rustic element, but they’re tighter and less oblique, tart and compact as crabapples. They’re plainspoken and unsentimental, but still affecting—think k.d. lang with a hangover and a proudly displayed black eye, and you’re close.

By comparison, Eck plays it closer to the vest. He yawps less than Albie and yodels less than MotherJudge, but the reserve is well-suited to his narrative and literary compositional style. Even when sung in the first person, Eck’s songs feel less confessional than novelistic. It’s the musical equivalent of an Edward Hopper painting, with Eck the unseen eye peering in the windows of farmhouses, driver’s-side windows, and greasy spoons.

And Elrod operates in the ether, dipping for imagery into the dreams hovering above the folks cavorting in all those songs. His thing is free blues, or scat spirit, or divination by hoedown. He’s actually operating in shared territory with Albie, but he’s on the other side of the river, using strange tools.

So, all together now: Well, strong as the individual performances were, the ensemble numbers were, at first, a little too dense, a little too cluttered. There was ample talent, but the arrangements—such as they were—weren’t clean enough to let the talent through. When you’ve got three, sometimes four, acoustic guitars at once, and four vocals, things can get a little thick. But the good news is that midway through the second portion of the set, they settled into things.

They performed what they called a “gospel medley,” original songs of an errant evangelical bent, and from there on, the going was smooth. The players backed away from the songs somewhat, giving component parts the space they needed. Albie’s “Lord, My Lord” had a great chunky, off-
kilter Tom Waits vibe; MotherJudge’s “Long Train Home” resonated with smooth Bakersfield twang; Eck’s “John Coltrane’s Been Here and Gone” was the type of noir-
country song Black Lizard Press would publish (if they did such things); and Elrod’s “Blood From a Dark Moon” had a gorgeous, spectral air, thanks in great part to Eck’s offstage “ghost accordion.”

A quick gospel medley, a brief shout-out to the Lord, and all becomes harmonious. Coincidence? Performers finding the groove? Christmas miracle? You decide.

—John Rodat

 

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