This isn't so much a review as a rumination on the best concert I've ever seen. Jon Dee Graham played the American Music Festival at Fitzgerald's in Berwyn, Ill. over the July 4th weekend, deservedly headlining one of the nights on the main stage. I had watched just a couple of his videos beforehand, like this one, so I didn't recognize the heavier, bearded man who shuffled around onstage before the show; I thought he was a superannuated roadie.
But it was Jon Dee himself, and he quickly acknowledged the change: "Doesn't everybody quit drinking, gain 40 pounds and grow a beard?" Then he and his electrified band played 90 minutes of the best roots rock on earth.
His songs, like the one in the video above, show a genius for the honest expression of what hurts and what gives hope. Like these lyrics:
It was a level-3 facility for the drunk, and the disturbed,
For the drugglers and the strugglers, God's crippled little birds.
It was a place to talk things over, for people without words,
Oh man ... what a ball ... not beautifully broken. Just broken, that's all.
At least a half-dozen emotional nuances are expressed by his gruff but supple and musical voice in this verse (in the video and at Fitzgerald's that night): vague disdain and gallows humor, childlike wordplay-joy, outright empathy, deadpan irony ("talk things over"), insight ("people without words"), chagrin ("Oh man ... what a ball") and clarity.
Which is to say that Graham is what great singers are: a great voice actor. It's the same in this video, made easier by exultant lyrics like these, from a character who sees his "lucky day" in poignantly pedestrian events like this, from his car radio: "Neil Young, The Who, The Clash, all in a row. Cortez the Killer!..."
I think it's the delicate, open, rueful humor that makes his songs so affecting. But lord, don't ignore his melodies, his guitar playing and the out-and-out fire that he carries through from his days with cow-punk pioneers The True Believers and other Austin bands.
Throughout the show, he told and showed the audience how grateful he was to be there, appreciated. He demanded a rousing cheer for John Fullbright, who played before him, referring to him rightly as "the little genius from Oklahoma." He gratefully inhaled a cigarette near the end, in violation of local ordinances: "Thank you. God. That's good." And for his final tune, he looked at a guitar that had sat unplayed on the stage and explained that it was specially made for him but that he'd never yet played it publicly, "because I'm afraid of it." But, inspired, he picked it up and jumped into the abyss. Nothing's lonelier for a guitar player than a guitar that won't play along, but this sober, appreciated man was ready to face it. After you've written songs like "Holes," (this video actually from the show), you can do that.