Jesse Winchester – Bearsville Theater (Bearsville, NY)
“A showman’s life is a smoky bar/The fevered chase of a tiny star/It’s a hotel room and a lonely wife/From what I’ve seen of a showman’s life.”
Jesse Winchester wrote “A Showman’s Life” in 1978, but he hasn’t lived much of that life in the 25 years since. The reclusive expatriate singer has tended to stick close to home in Quebec, venturing out on the road infrequently at best, usually with just a guitar in hand. So it was a homecoming of sorts when Winchester visited the Bearsville compound outside Woodstock for a pair of full-band shows on a Friday and Saturday evening in late August.
Between 1970 and 1981, Winchester released eight albums on the Bearsville imprint, even if he recorded only one song at the company’s famous nearby studio (at least partially because his Vietnam draft-resister status kept him out of the states until Jimmy Carter’s 1977 pardon). This time Winchester and company were recording everything, for planned future release as a live disc and DVD.
The first half-hour of Saturday’s epic show found Winchester plucking on his trusty nylon string guitar, doling out nuggets such as “Talk Memphis”, “Little Glass Of Wine” and “If I Were Free”. When Winchester invited the band onstage, it was a revolving high-profile wrecking crew consisting of guitarists Artie Traum and John Sebastian, drummer Jerry Marotta, bassist Viktor Krauss, keyboardist Vince Melamed, reedman Jim Horn, accordionist Aaron “Professor Louie” Hurwitz, and backing vocalists Jon Pousette-Dart and Valerie Carter (the latter two opened the show on respective nights).
Woodstock electric guitarist Josh Colow proved to be the wild card in the band, spiking “Club Manhattan” and “Gentleman of Leisure” with gutsy, impressive solos that had Winchester — who spent most of the band portion of the set behind a piano — nodding in approval.
Here and there, technical matters, such as a pause for switching tapes, slowed the show, but the intimate audience was understanding, even if Winchester had little to say during the down time. When he did deign to chat, he was craggy and funny, a mugging, charming curmudgeon through and through.
And the songs made it well worth any wait.
Winchester’s catalog is rich and impeccable, and he casually dipped into it for classics such as the aforementioned “A Showman’s Life”, “My Songbird”, “Yankee Lady” and the breathtaking “Biloxi”.
In essence, Winchester writes two types of songs. One is a gentle, almost philosophical folk tune; the other is a greasy ode to all things funky. At Bearsville he took “That’s What Makes You Strong”, “If I Were Free” and “Defying Gravity” from column A, and “Rhumba Man”, “Just Like New” and a killer “Well-A-Wiggy” from column B.
The reedwork of Horn was especially effective on “Gravity”, one of several Winchester tunes that have been recorded by Emmylou Harris. The effortlessly beautiful flute line wafted through the room, lifting the crowd’s souls as easily as Winchester’s lilting lyric. Only “The Brand New Tennessee Waltz” and “Too Weak To Say Goodbye” suffered from too many players trying too hard.
After playing for well over two hours, Winchester finished with a soulful a cappella encore of Martha Carson’s “I Can’t Stand Up Alone” (from 1974’s Learn To Love It), and a lovely solo acoustic reading of “I Wave Bye Bye”.