John Sebastian has stories he can tell
This photo of John Sebastian is probably from about forty years ago and it’s how I remember him to look. Or at least it was until I saw him last year in that great jug band documentary film Chasing Gus’ Ghost. Like the rest of us, he has gotten a little greyer over the years with a few wrinkles and such, but he still has that twinkle in his eyes and his guitar pickin’ is even better today than way back in the sixties.
When my wife and I walked into the old church down in San Diego to see him the other night, she whispered in my ear that she was the youngest person there. As I looked around I replied that “despite my advanced age of fifty-eight, I must be the second youngest person”. Yes…the aging of the American baby boomer population seems to be highly visible these days at shows like these where the performances are akin to a living history diorama of sorts. Which is not a bad thing, but you kind of hope that younger folks would take advantage of a musical experience that will soon fade away.
Now don’t get the impression that John’s show is strictly an oldie but goodie Lovin’ Spoonful tribute, because that’s just a small part of his musical career. In fact, while he played a substantial amount of the hits to a crowd that sang along and still remembered all the words, what he really brought to the table was an oral/aural lesson in the American folk and blues tradition.
This was a man who was raised in Greenwich Village and as a young teen he sat in the coffeehouses listening to the great old masters. He had the guts to ask Mississippi John Hurt to show him how to finger pick. He took a neighborhood beauty named Maria to see the Jim Kweskin Jug Band, and she ended up falling for and marrying one of the players named Geoff Muldaur. He was in a group with Mama Cass and Papa Denny, played harp for Fred Neil and Tim Buckley, jammed with the Butterfield Blues Band and is the godson of Ethel Mertz (Vivian Vance) from the I Love Lucy television show.
While the Spoonful had their four year fifteen hit single lifespan, they appeared on Ed Sullivan and Shindig and everything in between. The band played all over and travelled in a school bus throughout the deep South with the Motown orchestra and three girls calling themselves the Supremes. Sebastian did a solo set at Woodstock, put out a few releases on his own and must have hit some sort of a payday with the theme song from Welcome Back Kotter.
By the late eighties Sebastian found a new career working with a Canadian animation studio and writing music for a number of kid’s shows, including the Care Bears. And he was also a pitchman for Time Life infomercials selling those memories in a box. He’s done some “how to” videos and shows up at NAMM…the musical instrument annual convention as a spokesperson for a guitar company.
For a bunch of years now, I don’t know how many for sure, he’s returned to his early jug band and blues roots along with some old friends of his. He’s put out and played on a number of albums with his J Band, as well as with former NYU classmate David Grisman just last year.
So the show….I’d bought tickets for this almost six months ago when they announced that he was doing two nights. The promoter had tried for six or seven years to book Sebastian and this was the first time they connected. Both shows sold out almost immediately. And it was worth the wait.
Sebastian took the audience back to the early sixties and then moved forward by brilliantly illustrating which songs he literally stole from in order to develop the Spoonful catalog of hits. It was like a songwriting clinic as an old blues riff turned into “Younger Girl” and the Supremes “Where Did Our Love Go” transformed into “Daydream”. Back and forth he flowed from the songs that people came to hear, to the ones he loves to play.
It was a more than satisfying blend of the old and older, and this man has stories he can tell.