snooze, we lose: the other Dylan, at the Egg.
Photo: Joe Putrock
Dylan and Three Legs
Egg, April 17
really like Jakob Dylan. I love his new album Women and Country,
and one of the most memorable shows I’ve seen was the Wallflowers-Sheryl
Crow show at the Palace back in the ’90s. Burned in my brain
is the image of Crow, decked out in a Syracuse University
cheerleader outfit waving pom-poms in Dylan’s face while her
band dismantled his drummer’s kit mid-song. The whole show
breathed of life and passion.
And Saturday’s appearance at the Egg breathed of neither.
It was the opposite of exciting. And so unexpectedly so.
As he is the titular leader, maybe some blame can be laid
at Dylan’s feet, but he didn’t play a bad show. His voice
was full of character and presence, and he sang great, with
depth of feeling and intelligence. And the songs he sang,
leaning heavily from the new album, are interesting, diverse,
and straightforward. He showed up.
Nope, the blame is on the band, who spent the evening exploring
the meaning of perfunctory. The band had been borrowed from
the great alt-siren Neko Case, who was along singing backup
vocals along with fellow thrush Kelly Hogan. This all looks
really good on paper, don’t it? That’s what I thought.
Instead there was a stony chill that ran through the set.
The band vamped without emphasis, guitarist Paul Rigby had
his back to band most of the night over on stage right, everybody
else barely acknowledged one another and just played their
little parts. Were they trying to emulate the relative quietude
of the record? That’s not gonna happen effectively unless
producer T-Bone Burnett’s at the board, and he wasn’t. Were
they bummed because there was (surprisingly) only half a house?
Grow up. Were they just too hip for the room? Bite me. It
all felt simply so phoned-in.
To the extent there was something like a high point, it was
Case’s and Hogan’s backup vocals, which occasionally jumped
out to something like a confrontation. These are two very
good singers here. But their considerable talents were underused
and essentially wasted; too often their parts were just obvious
and unimaginative harmonies on choruses, or worse, unison
parts an octave up. And they seemed to be stricken with the
same spiritual malaise as everybody else.
Lena, April 16
At Caffe Lena, this land may be your land and my land, but
last Friday night there Paul Geremia owned the acoustic blues.
Nobody plays the complex prewar fingerstyle guitar music of
Robert Johnson, Leadbelly, Blind Lemon Jefferson, and their
contemporaries with more authenticity and authority than the
66-year-old Rhode Island native—most other performers either
don’t elect to re-create the challenging fingerboard arrangements,
or simply don’t have the chops. Few folkies have been picking
country blues for as long, either. Geremia, who in the 1960s
learned from some of the original Delta bluesmen, says that
he first appeared at Caffe Lena in 1965, making his tenure
there almost as old as the historic coffeehouse itself.
Dressed in a gray shirt, jeans, red suspenders, and a gray
fedora, Geremia, a tenor who sings blues convincingly, opened
the first of two long sets with Blind Willie McTell’s “Don’t
Forget It.” The swaggering boogie basslines and snappy good-time
rhythms rolling out of his guitar showed Geremia was up to
his usual impressive par.
Following the Willie McTell tune, he played Blind Lemon Jefferson’s
“Shucking Sugar.” Blind Lemon was one of the fanciest of the
country-blues players, and Geremia is the only picker I’ve
seen who has mastered the Texan’s guitar style. (He explained
that he doesn’t play the old songs note-for-note, but close
enough so that if the person who recorded the music walked
in the room he would recognize his work.)
Turning to Gus Cannon’s Jug Stompers, a 1920s Memphis jug
band, Geremia explained in one of his illuminating if rambling
preambles that Cannon’s most famous song, “Walk Right In,”
a No. 1 hit in 1963 for the folk group the Rooftop Singers,
was actually about an opium den, such establishments apparently
having been rife in Memphis during the Jazz Age. Who knew?
He then performed a Cannon tune about an “opium-addicted gigolo,”
“My Money Never Runs Out.” “I don’t care if I ever wake up,”
began the chorus.
Other standouts were Robert Johnson’s “Kind Hearted Woman”
(it was first time I could understand the lyrics), Willie
McTell’s famous “Statesboro Blues,” and Leadbelly’s “I’m on
My Last Go Round.”
The sole shortcoming of the evening was that too many of Geremia’s
selections tended towards the same tempo (quick) and accompaniment
style. But that’s like complaining that Eric Clapton played
too much slow blues in a concert or that Jimi Hendrix leaned
too heavily on feedback on his records.
Opening were guitarist Mark Tolstrup and drummer Dale Haskell.
Haskell in particular is a superb vocalist with a strong Southern
rock influence—blues fans will want to check out their next
Surprise Me Mr. Davis
Square, April 14
As dubious as their “jam band” designation has always been,
the Slip—now an “avant-rock” trio from Boston, who through
the early part of their career toured under the auspices of
the jam scene—caused a minor taxonomical stir in 2006 with
the release of their album Eisenhower. Burying their considerable
improvisational talent within conventional rock-song structures,
the band caused a few zealous critics to herald the dawn of
the “post-jam” paradigm. Needless to say, the term never really
caught on, but acts like the Slip, the Benevento/Russo Duo,
and a handful of other jazz-inclined rock groups have since
been operating in this peculiar splinter cell of the industry.
Surprise Me Mr. Davis may be the closest thing this niche
has to a supergroup.
Post-jam probably never caught on because what it indicated
was a return to genre by bands who were used to subverting
them. As Surprise Me Mr. Davis, who are essentially a folk-rock
band, strode onstage in (mostly) matching Salvation Army suits,
this commitment to form was immediately apparent. Born of
a snowed-in recording session in 2003, SMMD essentially are
the Slip wrapped around Virginia singer-songwriter Nathan
Moore. For this tour, they were joined by kindred piano madman
Marco Benevento, whose presence suggested the band might stretch
out more than Moore’s tunes usually allow. Instead, the quintet
delivered concise, rootsy tunes in the affable manner of street-corner
Moore’s demeanor is equal parts hoary Tom Waits crooner and
drunken monk Leonard Cohen, so it made sense for the band
to start the set a cappella. From there the band kicked into
“Roses in Bottles,” the opening rocker from their new EP That
Man Eats Morning for Breakfast. As Moore would later explain,
much of the material was inspired by a baritone ukulele he
was given this winter, which unstopped his writer’s block.
However, the timbre of the strange instrument was often lost
behind the accompanying instruments. Benevento played supportively
on a ragged- sounding miniature piano, offering simple organ,
clav, and marimba effects on a second keyboard. Brad Barr
pulled all sorts of sounds from his electric guitar, pressing
a hand-held tape deck to his pickups at one point and later
yanking a string he had tied to the bridge of his instrument
to create bowed sustain. His brother, Andrew Barr—cutting
a noirish resemblance to Leonardo DiCaprio in a fedora and
thin mustache—supplemented his drumming with a set of singing
As a whole, though, the band were careful not to clutter Moore’s
delicate and often direct lyrics with too much motion. Only
once, after Moore broke a string and had to step offstage,
did the band fully flex their chops, digging into the kind
of funk groove that has long been these musicians’ bread and
butter. Otherwise, a loose, jovial spirit prevailed, with
Moore leading the band through a song they’d never played
during a portion of the show called “play it on me,” and asking
the audience’s permission to rehearse a new tune called the
“Woohoo Blues”—later reprising a verse to humorous, calamitous
effect. Unlike most supergroups, who have to uncork all that
potential energy with gratuitous flights of egoism, Surprise
Me Mr. Davis kept it humble, which is its own type of virtuosity.