Jesse Winchester is Nothin but Wonderful @ Nashville’s Belcourt; Man of Many Songs, A True Voice Shines
The Belcourt Theater
17 November 2010
There is no one more charming than Jesse Winchester. Nor gracious, romantic or wry. With a soft singing tone that’s as pillowy as the world’s softest down bed, an intoxicating drawl and his seamless way of playing that lone acoustic guitar he brings onstage, he exudes a warmth that draws the audience closer to.
Not that the 66-year old guitarist/songwriter is about pyrotechnics or massive decibels. Instead he conjures moods, moments, pictures with an effortless eye to detail and an emotional charge that leaves his heart on his songs. And what a heart it is: “Eulalie” and “That’s What Makes You Strong” are tender treatments of love in its devotion, a thing to be desired and cherished above all.
Even – or especially – there is the fidelity of a daughter’s presence that lights up “It Takes A Young Girl,” a song that holds close the things dearest to the slow talking Winchester. He is not afraid to love, to embrace, to exude a certain intimacy that would be impossible for too many men.
Don’t think the Memphis-born, Canadian-expat (by way of escaping the Viet Nam draft) songwriter is a sop. His wit and lyric play bounce like a quarter on a snare drum: high, tight and clear. “Just Like New” celebrates Elvis Presley’s beloved Cadillacs, while “Gentlemen of Leisure” has a drawling percussive hazz bed to the articulation of the life a man of Mr Winchester’s means deserves.
“It’s A Shame About Him,” a song for his sister, was a truculent bit of high social Southern whispers about a failed son, a marriage embarked up, worn down and then falling apart – and delivered in perfect conversation cadence. Say what you will about whatever’s good, it always refrains around to the sadly whispered tsk-tsk admonition “It’s a shame about him…”
That common touch for life in tiny moments that prove to be big anchors is what ensconces Winchester in the pantheon of great American writers with a strong vein of regional color a la John Prine, Guy Clark, Jackson Browne and James Taylor. He captures the South in colloquialisms, environmental specifics and manners – evoking the gentility that covers the parochialism.
Yet to hear a song like “Nothing But A Breeze” is to drift to a sweeter, more humid place that might not be paradise, but it sure sounds like it. Ditto “Bowling Green,” a song that distills the best aspects of the Bluegrass State until there’s nowhere you’d rather be.
Even the elegiac “Showman’s Life,” which is an austere look at what the traveling world of making music really looks like, is given a golden glow that affords dignity in the desolation. “Nobody told you about this part,” he cautions in a voice that penetrates like good bourbon and honey, creating a lulling KO punch about the universal emptiness beyond the footlights.
It is that gentleness that marks Winchester, beyond his rambling way with a tale – drolly evoking the family’s ties to Robert E. Lee, explaining how minimal his role and maximum his joy at the arrival of his this grandson or suggesting he forgo the traditional beg-for-an-encore exercise in the name of maintaining the music’s momentum.
“Can’t Stand Up All Alone,” the gospel song he’s been raising audience’s with for decades, remains an a cappella jewel. Encouraging the audience to clap and sing, not only does Winchester lean on the Lord’s assistance in the lyric, he takes breaks in the song to lock, pop, break dance, do the robot and other unnamed wiggly moves that defy description with such euphoria you can’t be embarrassed for him.
Indeed, his jubilation set the entire Belcourt Theatre free to romp, stomp, whoop and holler. Low tech, but making his guitar unravel melodies and provide the canvas for 100 minutes of his best loved songs, Jesse Winchester knows the core of the show comes from the heart – and starting there, he evoked the familiarity that creates a sense of community.
As his song “Defying Gravity” suggests, there is a weightlessness that comes from letting go of the heavy stuff and floating. This night, Winchester drifted through the room sprinkling joy, amour and enough picture postcards of places you’d wanna be to offer an alternative reality without moving from your old fashioned theater seat.
— Holly Gleason