Sunday, June 21, 2009

Jack's got the blues and that ain't bad

At age 77, Marin's own Ramblin' Jack Elliott has a hit on his hands.

"A Stranger Here," his new album of country blues, is a tour de force by a folksinging legend who was a prot g of Woody Guthrie and a mentor to the young Bob Dylan.

In a voice that sounds as weathered and worn as a West Marin fence post, one of folk music's most endearing characters expands his repertoire, interpreting an intelligently selected collection of Depression-era blues songs that, sad to say, resonate once again in today's downbeat economy.

This is Jack's second CD on ANTI-Records, the label that made a name for itself by signing Tom Waits. "A Stranger Here" came out of the chute running, making its debut at No. 5 on the Billboard blues charts and tying

Audio: Ramblin' Jack Elliott - Death Don't Have No Mercy

with Leonard Cohen's "Live In London" as the highest-ranking new release. gushed: "Elliott has made his masterpiece, an album at

once elegiac and defiant, that can stand beside great late career recordings by master singers like Billie Holiday and Frank Sinatra."

The Wall Street Journal pronounced it "a career record."

Oddly enough, Jack has never liked making records. He'd rather be working on the old dory he keeps at his home on Tomales Bay in Marshall. But I've long suspected he had a great album in him, and it took producer Joe Henry (Bettye LaVette, Elvis Costello, Allen Toussaint), to create the setting for that to happen, for him to do some of the best work of his life.

The seed for the CD was planted when Henry produced Jack's recording of "Just Like Tom Thumb's Blues" for the Bob Dylan-inspired movie "I'm Not There."

"I saw that as a beautiful template for something," he told me. "I thought it would be a great coup if we could make a fully realized album for Jack with a full band and a concept that drives it."

Henry says he became obsessed with the idea of Jack singing the Rev. Gary Davis song "Death Don't Have No Mercy," and the notion of an entire album of pre-World War II blues flowed from that.

"I don't know why that song entered my thinking, but it did and I couldn't get rid of it," he recalled. "So I developed a concept that would give me an excuse to have Jack sing it. I heard it as very dark and terse. I heard Jack singing with a band."

As it happened, "Death Don't Have No Mercy" became the haunting centerpiece of an album that frees Jack from the constraints of his folksinger persona.

"It thrills me to listen to it," Jack said, speaking from a friend's home in Austin, Texas. "I heard the Rev. Gary Davis sing that song, but I couldn't hope to imitate him, so I don't know if there's any discernible influence. But it's very powerful. It's so heavy I'm afraid of it."

Jack, who opens the Kate Wolf Memorial Music Festival with Rosalie Sorrels on June 26, has always been a lone wolf, singing cowpoke ballads and folk tunes, strumming or finger picking his acoustic guitar and cracking up audiences with his rambling anecdotes (hence his nickname).

For this album, he recorded over four days in Henry's basement studio in South Pasadena with a handpicked ensemble of crack musicians, including keyboardist Van Dyke Parks and David Hidalgo of Los Lobos.

"I didn't have the courage to tell anyone how frightened I was because some of the songs were nothing like anything I'd tried to sing before," Jack confessed. "I felt totally unprepared, but those guys must have done their homework because they played so damn well I was buoyed up. A lot of times I didn't even play my guitar. I just stood up to the microphone and sang."

Jack and the band recorded 10 songs by the likes of Son House ("Grinnin' in Your Face"), Blind Willie Johnson ("Soul of a Man") and Mississippi John Hurt ("Richland Women Blues").

Jack met Gary Davis and Mississippi John Hurt when the old blues masters were rediscovered during the '60s folk revival of which he was so much a part.

Now that he's an elder statesman, maybe this album will lead to the same thing happening for him - exposure to a whole new audience.

"I thought it was brilliant of the record company guys and Joe Henry to choose to have me do this record," Jack said. "That's one of the main reasons why it's going to be a success. I'm very excited about it. But I'm not really a music lover. I just play this stuff. That's what buys the cat food and diesel fuel."


- What: Ramblin' Jack Elliott opens the 2009 Kate Wolf Memorial Music Festival

- When: 5:30 p.m. June 26; through June 28

- Where: Black Oak Ranch, five miles north of Laytonville on Highway 101 in Mendocino County

- Tickets: $30 to $200

- Purchase: 558-4253 or 866-558-4253; also atCulture Shock, 7 Bolinas Road, Fairfax, 456-8138

- Information: 707-829-7067;

Monday, June 15, 2009

Guitarist Robben Ford: A musician's musician

For a performer Musician magazine named one of the 100 greatest guitarists of the last century, Robben Ford isn't as famous as he has every right to be.

For whatever reason, he's one of those unsung musicians' musicians overshadowed by the likes of John Mayer and Eric Clapton, the top-hatted Slash and the other celebrity guitar slingers.

Along with Larry Carlton, though, Ford is the most talented and yet underrated jazz-rock fusion players in the business. A four-time Grammy nominee, he's played with some of music's heaviest hitters - Miles Davis and Joni Mitchell, for starters, plus George Harrison, blues giant Jimmy Witherspoon, Michael McDonald, and Marin's own Bonnie Raitt and Phil Lesh.

Audio: Robben Ford - Supernatural

I have a memory of him that has stuck in my mind for years. I was backstage at the San Francisco Blues Festival when I heard a guitarist playing the hell out of a slow blues tune. I didn't know who it was at first because I was unable to see the bandstand from where I was sitting.

Across from me, an older blues cat who obviously knew his stuff was as rapt as I was, swept away by what we later learned was a transporting Ford guitar solo. When the final tasteful note died out, we made eye contact, smiled and nodded in appreciation. We didn't have to say a word. We knew we'd just been taken to a place only a handful of musicians could have taken us.

Ford last played here in February on a bill with Jorma Kaukonen and Ruthie Foster in the 2,000-seat Marin Veterans Memorial Auditorium.

On June 13, he returns for a mostly acoustic show in the intimate 142 Throckmorton Theatre in Mill Valley. His wife, singer Anne Kerry Ford, opens.

"It's the perfect place for us to do something kind of unique," he said, speaking from his home in Ojai, a Southern California haven for musicians, artists and health enthusiasts.

The 57-year-old singer-songwriter-guitarist said the Mill Valley show will be "a little more jazz oriented and song oriented" than his straight-up blues or rock concerts with his power trio.

He'll be singing what he calls his "more subtle songs," namely "Don't Lose Your Faith in Me" and "If" from his 1999 album "Supernatural." It's all part of his campaign to mix music up, to keep it creative and eclectic.

Raised in Ukiah, Ford came of age during the era of the San Francisco Sound, admiring Marin blues guitarists Michael Bloomfield and Elvin Bishop from the Paul Butterfield Band.

"When I grew up, I used to see the most incredible combinations of bands at the Fillmore and Winterland in the '60s," he recalled. "You'd see a jazz act, then Ten Years After and then Iron Butterfly. No one minded that there was this diversity."

Ford is working on presenting a series of diverse shows like the ones Bill Graham used to put together in those freewheeling ballroom days.

"There are a lot of great artists who don't get heard because they're pigeonholed, and that's just nonsense," he said. "I'm irked by that. There are people in the music industry saying you can't do this or you can't do that. But I like doing a variety of things."

That's for sure. I asked him about some of the legends he's played with in his wide-ranging career.

Miles Davis: "That was a crowning moment. I played with Miles when I was 34 or 35, then I left the band. I could have stayed with him for God knows how long because he really liked me. He loved my playing and we got along well.

"But the situation around him was an unhealthy scene. I don't mean drugs, but it was a shame to feel the need to leave. It was incredible to make a connection with probably the most important figure in music, at least to me. I still listen to him more than any single artist. At first when I left, he was angry with me. But the last thing he said was, 'If you want to come back, come back.'"

Joni Mitchell: "She was at the peak of her powers when I played with her in the L.A. Express. The 'Court and Spark' record is insanely great, and 'The Hissing of Summer Lawns' leans more to the dark side. They're yin and yang records. And I got to be there for them, to tour with her and make a live record. It was a privilege to work with the greatest artist of the 20th century in pop music. But I split. I wanted to make my own records. I was young and stupid to think like that. But I did two tours with her and two records, and then everybody kind of moved on."

George Harrison: "It was a great experience to play with one of the Beatles. Who would have thought? I met him in London after a Joni Mitchell concert and he invited me to go on his 'Dark Horse' tour.

"But it was a strange situation. We were doing two shows a day sometimes and they were 31Ú2 hours long. We had a huge cast of characters with Ravi Shankar and a 16-piece Indian orchestra. We'd be in these enormous sports arenas for 16 hours a day. It was relentless. There were a lot of drugs around, so it wasn't the most pleasurable experience, but George was generous and sweet to me. It was the only tour he ever did with his band, but he didn't like being a bandleader. I saw him years later and he said, 'I think of you, Robin.' Wow, George Harrison thinking of me? That was the last time I saw him."

Shortly after the tour with Harrison, Ford took a much-needed break from the grind of the road and spent a year in Colorado, studying under the controversial Buddhist teacher Chogyam Trungpa, known for the "crazy wisdom" he imparted on his Western followers.

While Ford has never lived in Marin, he should feel right at home in a county with the Spirit Rock Meditation Center and the Green Gulch Farm Zen Center.

"He (Trungpa) taught us to look at our own mind and not look at outside forces for our own personal happiness and well being," he explained. "All of us were trying to turn spirituality into a drug or a lover. But he was relentless in cutting through that kind of a view and getting people to be honest with themselves. It had a powerful impact on everyone in those days. And it still does."

Monday, June 1, 2009

Sweet Deal for Sweetwater?

I had the pleasure of speaking to a community group last week about Marin's rock history. Afterward, the first question from the audience was about Sweetwater. What's going on with the long-closed club in Mill Valley? Is one of Marin's rock 'n' roll institutions ever going to reopen?

Good question. The owners of Sweetwater have been vowing to reopen since they lost their lease and shut down the original club in September 2007 after 37 years on Throckmorton Avenue.

That was more than 1/2 years ago. It looked hopeful when a banner went up on the site of what was the proposed new Sweetwater, just around the corner on Miller Avenue from the old one.

It promised in big bold letters that Sweetwater would open there soon, in a former gift and home furnishings shop at 32 Miller Ave. But when months passed, times got tough and remodeling work stopped, someone crossed out the "soon" and wrote "when?" in green spray paint.

Lately, Sweetwater fans had a new reason to be alarmed when the banner disappeared entirely and a "for lease" sign appeared in the window of the partially refurbished storefront.

There were so many rumors and so much speculation flying around that the club's owners, Becky and Thom Steere, avoided going downtown so they wouldn't be barraged with questions and accusations.

As it happens, they blame the bad economy, government regulations and unanticipated cost overruns for the delays.

"We've mortagaged our house three times," Becky Steere said. "It's extremely hurtfiul to hear some of this stuff people are saying."

For everyone who has been as worried as I've been that Sweetwater may be gone forever, I'm happy to report that there's light at the end of the tunnel, and it isn't an oncoming train.

The good news is that the Steeres have been in serious discussions with Mill Valley Live Arts, the nonprofit organization that operates the popular 142 Throckmorton Theatre.

Under the new management concept they're discussing, Sweetwater would also become a nonprofit venue under Mill Valley Live Arts. In essence, Sweetwater and 142 Throckmorton would be sister entertainment operations under the same umbrella.

"The good thing is that 142 Throckmorton is already quite successful in its programming, and I think Sweetwater would add another venue for the community that's smaller and would allow us to present acts that wouldn't fit well into the larger venue," Larry Goldfarb, chair of Mill Valley Live Arts, said.

This potential breakthrough is being hailed as an exciting new development by everyone concerned, and it could result in the new Sweetwater opening again in a matter of a few months.

I proposed something along these lines for Sweetwater some time ago after visiting Passim's, a historic nonprofit nightclub in Cambridge, Mass. But ideas and reality are two different things. What matters in the end is that all the principals are behind it, including the investors, and they appear to be - at least in concept.

"Having the nonprofit behind us would be a nice thing instead of Thom and I busting our butts every month to make it work, to be able to pay the bills," Becky Steere told me. "It's a good model. It would be a nice community thing. I've never given up hope. And now It looks like it's going to happen."

According to her, fans of the old Sweetwater needn't worry about the club losing it's roots rock character. Under the agreement, she said, Sweetwater would continue to operate as a full bar with live music.

Billionaire Warren Hellman, who bankrolls the annual Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival in San Francisco, is one of Sweetwater's investors.

"He, like many other investors and fans of Sweetwater, would love to see it reopen," said Lora Blum, Hellman's attorney. "And if a nonprofit organization like Mill Valley Live Arts can make that happen, he would definitely support that effort."

There are some legal complications and other negotiating hurdles, including agreements on financial terms. But Sweetwater has such cach and is of such cultural importance that money does not appear to be much of an object.

"If we could reach terms, we have donors in place who are pretty committed to giving or getting the money to accomplish this," Goldfarb said. "I think these donors have the financial resources to do so, and they have expressed their desire for it to happen."

One of the key people in all of this is Lucy Mercer, the founder and artistic director of the 142 Throckmorton Theatre. She has been instrumental in pulling people together in order to save something we all value while at the same time building a nonprofit cultural organization of which we can enjoy and be proud.

"It's not a done deal," she said. "There's still the paperwork to go through, but overall, it does create a win-win for everyone involved."

Contact Paul Liberatore via e-mail at; follow him on Twitter at