Guy Clark/Jesse Winchester – Appel Farm Arts & Music Center (Elmer, NJ)
At concerts, opening acts can be treated like the Rodney Dangerfields of the world: They don’t get no respect. Short sets, sound problems and inattentive audiences are among the unpleasant fates often endured by openers.
On this night, Jesse Winchester sidestepped such problems and delivered a performance that was nothing but a breeze, to borrow the title of his 1977 album. The veteran singer-songwriter mixed folk, country, blues and a touch of gospel in a 20-song, 70-minute set that showcased his strengths as a performer. Winchester made the 250-seat Appel Farm theater, located about 30 miles from Philadelphia, seem like an oversized living room as he delved into a catalog that spans 30 years.
A native of Louisiana, Winchester moved to Canada to avoid the draft during the Vietnam War. He became a Canadian citizen in 1973, but the South remains a permanent part of his musical heritage, as evidenced by “Talkin’ Memphis”, his opening number. He seemed a bit tentative in his delivery, hesitating on the lyrics and slightly unsure of himself.
Winchester quickly rebounded with heartfelt renditions of songs that demonstrated the depth of his talent, from his 1970 self-titled debut album (“Brand New Tennessee Waltz” and “Yankee Lady”) to 1999’s Gentleman Of Leisure (the tongue-in-cheek title track and “No Pride At All”). He effortlessly made the transition from the heartbreak of “I Don’t Think You Love Me Anymore” to the romantic humor of “You Tickle Me”.
Accompanying himself on acoustic guitar, Winchester projected a casual elegance, dressed in a blue shirt, gray sweater and olive pants. Seated on a stool, he often moved his left leg in time to the music, almost proving you could dance while sitting down. He abandoned his chair for the gospel-like encore of “I Can’t Stand Up Alone”, doing an impromptu dance while singing a cappella. In “Talkin’ Memphis”, Winchester sings, “I can’t get enough.” He left the audience feeling the same way, departing the stage to a standing ovation.
The combination of Winchester and Guy Clark, both natives of the South and labelmates on Sugar Hill Records, was a natural pairing. Clark, with solid instrumental and vocal support provided by guitarist Verlon Thompson, did not disappoint the crowd of about 180. He opened with “Cold Dog Soup”, the title track of his 1999 disc, his rough-hewn vocals a perfect match for songs that recall short stories set to music. “The Randall Knife”, Clark’s elegy to his father, took on added poignancy as he stepped to the front of the stage and sang without the benefit of a microphone.
After an audience member shouted out for “Texas Cookin'” about 30 minutes into the set, Clark answered, “Why not? We don’t have a set list. We just came to play.” He and Thompson obliged and made the title track to the 1976 album come alive, enhanced by a good-natured guitar duel that continued despite Thompson dropping his pick.
Clark cheerfully played other requests from the crowd, ranging from “Immigrant Eyes” to “Dublin Blues” and “Boats To Build”. He rendition of “Homegrown Tomatoes” hit home in a state where the red fruit is a treasured delicacy. “My short-term memory works,” Clark said, chuckling after successfully remembering the names of the requested songs. “My wife says I can hide my own Easter eggs.”