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You snooze, we lose: the other Dylan, at the Egg.

Photo: Joe Putrock

No Headlights

By Paul Rapp

Jakob Dylan and Three Legs

The Egg, April 17

I 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.

Zzzzzzzz.

 

Old Songs

Paul Geremia

Caffe 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 gig.

—Glenn Weiser

The Unit

Surprise Me Mr. Davis

Red 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 Americana.

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 crystal glasses.

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.

—Josh Potter


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