Ramblin' Jack Elliott
Poor David's Pub
June 25, 2011
Better than: a good 90 percent of artists over 65 still out there performing.
People make fun of The Rolling Stones because they're still trying to rock out at almost 70 years of age. Ramblin' Jack Elliott is 10 years their senior.
But the 79-year-old has never had to live up to a reputation built around being youthful, energetic and loud, which is why his performances can withstand the inevitable physical decay that comes with advanced age.
To say that Ramblin' Jack Elliott is a national treasure is a bit of an understatement. The man who learned guitar technique from his longtime friend Woody Guthrie, then mentored the young Bob Dylan in the late '50s, is still performing at nearly eighty years of age. And, at Saturday's show at Poor David's Pub, Elliott proved that, in spite of his age, he can still deliver a touching performance.
When the tiny, fragile, white-haired Elliott took the stage, the small but reverent audience of about 50 people was completely rapt.
Elliott's aging body appeared to be drowning in a huge cowboy hat and oversized white shirt; his voice has thinned and quieted over the years, but Ramblin' Jack's legendary flat-picking guitar technique was dead-on as he wound his way through a set comprised of originals as well as traditional folk songs and Guthrie-penned tunes.
He's a reminder of a time when cowboy singers were as much storytellers as musicians. He got the nickname "Ramblin' Jack" because of his tendency to tell lengthy anecdotes, and he lived up to his reputation on Saturday, spinning tales of his days hanging out with Guthrie and Dylan in between sips from his coffee cup. The songs themselves were structured more like stories than the rock songs we are used to today; Elliott's ballads are constructed around the characters and events depicted in the lyrics, which gave the impression of listening to an old cowboy spinning yarns while sitting around a campfire.
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The audience, mostly comprised of sixtysomethings with a smattering of young hipsters, was completely in Elliott's thrall, laughing and clapping at the appropriate moments.
Oftentimes, as artists age, their live performances suffer as their bodies can no longer keep up with the high energy that made their music engaging when they were young (see also: The Who at the Super Bowl). Elliott is lucky in that regard -- his stripped-down folk songs work just as well when performed by an 80-year-old man sitting on a stool picking his guitar as they would in a set by a younger, more energetic act.
Earlier in the night, Andrew Delaney, frontman of the eponymous Andrew Delaney & The Horse You Rode In On, performed a solo set to open the show. Delaney's music is remarkably consistent in quality: He's released critically well-received albums in the past four years, and every song that he included in Saturday night's performance showcased Delaney's charmingly personal, witty lyrical bent.
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A fine opener for a legend.
Personal Bias: My parents had one of Elliott's albums, which they played on long car trips when I was a kid. I remember sitting in the backseat of our station wagon with my two little brothers, singing along to "Buffalo Skinner" as we drove through Yellowstone National Park. One of my brothers was in town from Minneapolis this weekend, so I took him to this show with me, and we had a blast pointing out memories that were attached to Elliott's songs. My little brother is, like me, a die-hard metalhead. He hadn't listened to folk music since we were kids, but he had this to say about last night's show: "These guys [both Elliott and Delaney] have more talent in their little fingers than most of the crappy bands out there." Well said, little brother.
By The Way: Elliott didn't hesitate to point out that he recorded "House of the Rising Sun" a decade prior to The Animals' hit; he then launched into his version of the tune, which was much darker than the more well-known rendition.
Random Note: I was so impressed by Andrew Delaney's lyrics. This guy is awesome. If you get a chance, go see him play.