LIVE: John Sebastian @ Universal Preservation Hall, 7/29/11

John Sebastian
John Sebastian

“You didn’t have to be so nice, I would have liked you anyway…”

John Sebastian is so damned ingratiating in concert that he can make you forget that his once golden voice now possesses merely a shadow of its former glory. Confidant and so relaxed that you’d think he was simply doing some casual picking in your living room, the former frontman for the Lovin’ Spoonful ambled across the stage at the beautiful and funky Universal Preservation Hall in Saratoga Springs on Friday night, plugged in his electric guitar and launched into one of those jaunty blues gems from Mississippi John Hurt, “I’m Satisfied.”

By the end of his hour-and-a-half performance the sizable crowd was satisfied, too.

At this point in his career, the 67-year-old Sebastian doesn’t have anything to prove. Heck, the last week he performed around Nippertown, he showed up at The Egg last November as a completely unannounced surprise guest, playing the whole night with jug band revivalists Jim Kweskin and Geoff Muldaur.

With the Spoonful, he racked up a batch of ’60s-defining Top 40 hits. He went solo, played Woodstock (where he now lives) and landed another huge hit. And when the hits dried up, he didn’t go into the usual desperate, embarrassing bandwagon-jumping mode. Instead, he went back to his original musical inspiration – acoustic blues and jug band music.

On Friday, he mixed it all up nicely, and provided a little musical history lesson along the way. With uncommon candor, he revealed – and illustrated – the musical inspirations behind many of those hits. “Do You Believe in Magic?,” for example, was nicked from Martha Reeves & the Vandellas’ “Heatwave.” Jug band pioneer Gus Cannon’s “Prison Wall Blues” was the basis for “Younger Girl,” and Sebastian performed a seamless medley of those tunes, as well as Cannon’s “Jug Band Music” (rather than the Spoonful song of the same title). “Did You Ever Have to Make Up Your Mind?” was an attempt at channeling Huey “Piano” Smith, while “Daydream” was an attempt to replicate the big Motown beat of the Supremes’ early hits. And it was a young Danny Gatton playing in a Holiday Inn lounge – and blowing the minds of Sebastian and Spoonful guitarist Zal Yanovsky – that inspired “Nashville Cats.”

The biggest influence on the Sebastian (and the Spoonful), however, was Mississippi John Hurt. “It seems to be a night when I keep circling back around to John Hurt,” he said, easing his way into Hurt’s “Coffee Blues” – the song whose lyrics provided the Lovin’ Spoonful with their band name.

Throughout his chatty, off-the-cuff performance, Sebastian also dropped in mini renditions of a quite a diverse batch of tunes from the songbags of the Righteous Brothers, Lightnin’ Hopkins, Duane Eddy and Etta Baker. With a bit of a Dr. John-like drawl, he sang of his crush on Maria Muldaur with “My Passing Fantasy.” He glided through an absolutely lovely guitar instrumental version of the Everly Brothers’ “Walk Right Back.” And he capped off the night with a howlin’ solo harmonica offering that started out with a Sonny Terry-like blues and slid into a playful little ditty written by his classical harmonica virtuoso dad.

Photograph by Andrzej Pilarczyk

NOTE: John Sebastian and Jimmy Vivino (a member of Sebastian’s J Band and the bandleader on “Conan”) will be the special guests at Levon Helm’s Midnight Ramble in Woodstock at 8pm on Saturday.

My review at The Times Union
Excerpt from David Singer’s review at The Daily Gazette: “He plays more blues than you realize. Some of it had a jug bounce, or a Nashville twang, or a Spoonful pop-folk treatment, but in the end, it was the blues, and his guitar playing highlighted this during songs like ‘Passing Fantasy’ … The stories were interesting, given Sebastian’s experience at the dawn of it all – before sound systems could handle large venues, for example. But more music and less talk probably would have made some happier. No matter, it was an enjoyable evening of music and story telling.”

I’m Satisfied (Mississippi John Hurt)
Just Don’t Stop Til You’re All Worn Out
Do You Believe in Magic?
You Didn’t Have to Be So Nice
Avalon Blues (Mississippi John Hurt)
Prison Wall Blues (Gus Cannon)/Younger Girl
Jug Band Music (Gus Cannon)
The Strings of Your Heart
Walk Right Back (the Everly Brothers)
My Passing Fantasy
Coffee Blues (Mississippi John Hurt)
Did You Ever Have to Make Up Your Mind?
Nashville Cats
Darlin’, Be Home Soon
instrumental harmonica solo

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