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John Sebastian - Old Town School of Folk Music, Chicago, 11/12/2009

  by Lisa Torem

published: 13 / 1 / 2010

John Sebastian - Old Town School of Folk Music, Chicago, 11/12/2009


Lovin' Spoonful front man John Sebastian and David Grisman played together in New York bluegrass bands of the 60's. Now back together after a forty year absence, Lisa Torem watches them play an intimate, but engaging set in ther second of two shows at the Old Town School of Folk Music in Chicago

David Grisman’s floral print shirt is striking against his stark mandolin. He’s a dead ringer for St. Nick with his fluffy white beard and cotton candy hair. Bespectacled, straggly-haired John Sebastian sits close by. The sing-song melody with the lyric of ‘I’m satisfied, I’m tickled, too, I’m old enough to marry you’ rolls off his lips. Sebastian faces the audience and explains that he and David have come together again after a long separation. They reconvened at a benefit in 2005 and made plans to record the album ‘Satisfied’ together. Alhough both musicians performed, socialized and played a strong part in igniting the jug band craze in the New York Greenwich village days of bluegrass yore, their separation culminated in Grisman forming Earth Opera and Sebastian forming the pop group the Lovin Spoonful. It’s a diverse crowd age-wise which has piled into Chicago’s intimate Old Town School of Folk Music. A girl of about ten eyes her instrument’s leather case and some teens wiggle in their seats. I’m wondering how long they’ll last given the slow-moving, acoustic show that will shortly begin. This is the second of two performances; both sold out. The School’s wood- panelled concert hall is made for listening and you’ll not hear the annoying din of cash registers, pulsating blenders or brawling drunkards within its respectful walls. Spoonful classics provide most of the material tonight, plus songs which Sebastian’s muse Mississippi John Hurt penned. I was expecting Sebastian to be the more outspoken of the two this evening, probably because his profile is typically more well-known, but, to my surprise, Grisman’s deadpan style of humour kept the audience delightfully engaged. Their to and fro patter chronicled their hippie days in New York’s Washington Square neighborhood. Their anecdotes about socialists and “old timey” music garnished some nods of appreciation from some randomly seated silver-haired men. The younger fans couldn’t quite understand the cultural references, witty repartee or punch lines, but the calm patina that washed over the room seemed to help alleviate any generational gaps. Furthermore, as Grisman and Sebastian faced each other, modestly picking at their respective instruments and sharing solos, their vigilant eye contact added to the sense that all in the room would end up as old friends by the evening’s end. Grisman is known for his unique picking style and has done for the mandolin what Django Reinhardt has done for swing guitar. He has kept himself busy over the years playing with and composing for his David Grisman Quartet which has played nation-wide acoustic jazz concerts and produced live recordings. Sebastian sticks to his acoustic guitar while Grisman remains steadfast to his miniscule mandolin and banjo. “We have ten strings between us,” Grisman says, as he shares some facts about his instrument. I hadn’t realized that banjos can have four, five or six strings. Throughout the evening the two reminisce about the days they jammed in Washington Square in the early 60s where a conclave of up and coming folk artists began a renaissance of sorts; they had been strong purveyors of the ‘roots’ collective since that time. 'Summer in the City', a pretty ballad about putting the strings of your heart together, allows both men to soften their voices and drift more acutely into each other’s personal space. Sebastian acquired fame playing the simple, but contagious riff in ‘Summer in the City’ which showcased these urban musings; “Hot time/Summer in the city/Back of my neck’s getting dirty and gritty.” His original recording was piano-driven, so when he used his guitar to perform this live rendition, several audience members looked puzzled and possibly disappointed. I missed the hard-core sway of the piano, too. But, the song still had the verve that had made it so popular then. Grisman teasingly says, “It’s time to come out of the banjo closet.” Grisman does surprisingly complex solos on instruments that can just as easily be chalked off as simple comping machines. High notes that can barely be detected by non-string players seem to sharply become activated under his fingertips. After they huddle together momentarily, Sebastian, as though struck by a lightning bolt, says that maybe they should do a jug band tune. Sebastian pulls out his harp and sneaks phrases like, “It sounds so sweet/It’s hard to beat” in-between the drawing in of blues notes. Another non-sequitor is made about the political activism and old lefty types who knew each other, but didn’t interact. Sebastian makes it clear that he plays “bluegrass” and not blues. The teens and tweens are still, thankfully, alert and almost seem intrigued by the mood of the quiet venue. Grisman showcases the lovely and somewhat mysterious ‘Dawg’s Groove’ He recreated this instrumental, which was first written on mandolin, for the banjo. Afterwards, Sebastian recounts one particularly personal experience which happened while playing with the Easy Dozen Jug Band. As the spotlight shines softly, Sebastian admits having had a crush on Maria D’Amato, then the jug band’s vocalist. He had taken her to see the Jim Kweskin Jug Band. How could he have known that Maria would fall in love with Geoff Muldaur that evening and eventually adopt his name? (Sebastian harboured regrets, but admitted that Kweskin himself was a champion fingerpicker.) The expressive performer added that suddenly, that evening, Miss D’Amato forgot that Sebastian had brought her there. She was so entranced that the lovestruck musician went home that evening all by himself. ‘My Passing Fantasy’ is an innocent, although somewhat flippant love song. Sebastian expresses his admiration for Mississippi John Hurt. The starry-eyed songwriter spent about two weeks getting up the nerve to speak with Hurt after watching him perform. Finally, when the two were introduced, Hurt admitted that he knew all along Sebastian had been aching for his attention. “I seen you watching my fingers,” Hurt said, and then he explained his mysterious style of finger-picking. “You have to got to get this thing going with your thumb and then your fingers just follow along,” he said. Hurt’s blues ballad in which he moans, “I love my baby by the lovin spoonful”, of course, gave way to Sebastian’s group of the same name. Sebastian played his well-known hit ‘Daydream’ in commemoration of that time. Then, Sebastian sang, “I’m just sitting back/Sitting there loving you” in a casual style which suggested the image of an ice-cold pitcher of lemonade and a porch swing swaying in front of a frame house. Grisman switches back to banjo and Sebastian mumbles that audience members are really polite in- between songs. The set ends with Jug Band Waltz which is gorgeously tinged with streaks of melancholia. Grisman plays bright and sad trills and then a call and response between the two troubadours takes place. The evening went by quickly and by the end, this multi-generational audience hung out to purchase CDs and meet the guys. One teen marveled at the fact that a whole evening of music could revolve around such a simple, unplugged set-up. She had particularly loved the searing melody of ‘Dawg’s Groove.’ But, on the other hand, she felt that somehow her generation of tweeters and texters had missed out on this movement. Nevertheless, she was glad to have stumbled across this authentic ‘roots’ music. Ultimately, this evening ended up being a night of “daydreams” that for some had only just begun.

Picture Gallery:-
John Sebastian - Old Town School of Folk Music, Chicago, 11/12/2009

John Sebastian - Old Town School of Folk Music, Chicago, 11/12/2009

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