Robin Wheeler

August 24, 2012

Concert review and set list: Ramblin' Jack Elliott keeps going and going at the Old Rock House, Thursday, August 23

When 81-year-old Ramblin' Jack Elliott took the stage, alone, to a small Listening Room Series crowd, the room fell so deeply silent we might have heard the creaking of the old folkie's bones, had Elliott not been laying out his photography rules - "Flash cuts between my two brain cells," he said, before offering to pose nude in the parking lot after the show.

These aren't the ramblings of a fading old man; Ramblin' Jack could outwit us all with his circular tales that seem to veer off path but somehow, always, come back to his point. He straddles a the line between truth and hyperbole, sometimes going into blatantly absurd territory. His former tour manager - a car-driving husky-Australian shepherd mix named Shep who once drove so slow that Ramblin' Jack had to play a scheduled Denver concert over a pay phone in Nebraska? Hearing Elliott explain the situation, it seems plausible.

Stranger things have happened in Elliott's storied life. The Brooklyn-born son of a Jewish surgeon ran away from home as a teen to be a rodeo bronc rider, took up guitar, became a fixture at Woody Guthrie's house and spent years introducing Bob Dylan as his son. With a biography like that, driving dogs don't seem so questionable.

Ramblin' Jack got his name not for his travels - although they were plentiful - but because of his storytelling prowess, evidenced at last night's show. In two hours he only played ten songs, sandwiched between tales of travels, friends and an incredible lifetime highlighting the 20th century American experience.

He told tales of his friends who brought the songs to him, including many stories of Guthrie: how a young busking Elliott pursued Guthrie through a near-fatal bout of appendicitis, to their 1954 cross-country drive to Elliott becoming, "a walkin', talkin' Woody Guthrie jukebox."

He told of meeting his long-time banjo player Derroll Adams, who he paints as a near-caveman genius who educated him in cowboy music, a story intercepted by a tale of floating the Mississippi River with actor Will Geer ("Grandpa Walton") as he spouted faux Shakespeare. He dedicated the songs to his long-dead friends.

Musically, Elliott remains simple and pure. His age shows in his voice in small bursts, exasperated by a cold he fought with tumblers of Jamesons, neat. Cold aside, he still has the strong warble that influenced Dylan's vocal style. When necessary Elliott powered through his few vocal constraints with sheer emotional force of will, making the doggy snuff of "Old Shep" heart-wrenching instead of sentimental, and the bitter growl of lost love ballad "The South Coast" sinister and dark.

Elliott downplays his substantial influence on Bob Dylan, saying that Dylan was forced to start writing songs when he realized Elliott was already the Woody Guthrie "jukebox." He jokes that he's still waiting for a Dylanographer to interpret things his protegee has said, and told of having to access Dylan via a mutual friend at one of Bob's shows.

He ended the show with a story of being trapped in a cabin during a blizzard with a friend, firewood, a freezer full of venison, a bottle of Cutty Sark and a Dylan record. He passed the time learning to play "Don't Think Twice, It's Alright." Upon emerging from the storm, he hit an open mic night with Dylan in the audience. When Elliott played the opening notes, he reports that Dylan stood and said, "I relinquish it to you, Jack."  

Elliott helped Dylan develop his storytelling, his pained voice, his emotive acoustic guitar. Ramblin' Jack's the rightful owner of the song; we wouldn't have it without him and his ramblings that keep on going.

Ramblin' Jack Elliott set list:

San Francisco Bay Blues

How Long Blues (Ledbelly cover)

The Cuckoo is a Pretty Bird

Old Shep

The South Coast

I'll Be Your Baby Tonight (Bob Dylan cover)

Talking Sailor Blues (Woody Guthrie cover)

Anytime (Eddy Arnold cover)

Hard Travelin' (Woody Guthrie cover)

Don't Think Twice, It's Alright (Bob Dylan cover)