“It’s probably too early for a talkin’ blues,” Ramblin’ Jack Elliott conceded. “You’ve probably already heard enough talkin’ to last a week and a half.”
He’d only played two songs so far – Jesse “The Lone Cat” Fuller’s “San Francisco Bay Blues” and the cowboy favorite “Diamond Joe” – but he might have been right. On the other hand, talkin’ is what Elliott is really all about. The songs are just an excuse for him to build a story around.
And as it turned out, it wasn’t too early for a talkin’ blues anyway, and he launched directly – or as directly as Ramblin’ Jack ever seems to get – into Woody Guthrie’s “Talkin’ Sailor.”
A supreme storyteller, the 80-year-old Elliott then played Lead Belly’s “How Long Blues,” the lone selection of the night from his latest CD, the 2009 Grammy Award-winning “A Stranger Here.” But even that came with a caveat.
“I’m not a blues man,” he explained to the capacity crowd at Caffe Lena on the final night of his east coast spring tour. “I’m kind of a cowboy and a trucker. I’m not even a music lover. I’m a dog lover and a cat lover. But when the cats get hungry, I’ve got to go out and play some music.”
And Elliott – who made his Lena debut way back in 1963 – played some pretty fine music over the course of his two 55-minute sets: the Carter Family’s train wreck classic “Engine 143,” Guthrie’s “Ludlow Massacre” and the Dust Bowl epic “Tom Joad,” as well as Red Foley’s dying-dog tearjerker “Old Shep.”
The songs weren’t all tragedies, however. His lone love song of the evening, “If I Were a Carpenter,” was preceded by a hoot of a tall tale about disguising himself as a housepainter in order to get into Tim Hardin’s rehearsal studio, so he could learn the tune.
And apropos of a weekend that not only honored Caffe Lena’s 51st anniversary, but also the 70th birthday of Elliott’s pal Bob Dylan, Ramblin’ Jack also displayed some pretty fine fingerpickin’ as he eased through “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright” – complete with a Dylan impersonation.
The celebration was as relaxed and as casual as could be, Elliott picking his guitar and spinning his yarns as though he was regaling friends in his living room. And by the end of the evening, it seemed as though we were indeed all friends.
“Thanks a lot, folks,” he said as he stepped off the stage at the end of his show. “It was sure nice meetin’ ya.”
Photographs by Andrzej Pilarczyk
RAMBLIN’ JACK ELLIOTT SET LIST
San Francisco Bay Blues
How Long Blues
If I Were a Carpenter
Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright