Ramblin’ Jack Elliott / Bill Morrissey – The Bottom Line (New York City, NY)
Though you’ll probably never see them on VH1, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott and Bill Morrissey are still an interesting pair of storytellers. On one hand is Morrissey, who weaves his tales in songs that burst with exquisite detail, like well-crafted short stories. On the other hand is Elliott, whose between-song asides frequently last longer than the songs themselves (his nickname is well-deserved). These two types of raconteurs were brought together for this show, and the result was an evening that seemed more like an informal get-together than an actual concert.
Morrissey peppered his opening set with songs from his latest CD, a salute to another storyteller, Mississippi John Hurt. Though these covers are a bit of a departure from Morrissey’s own densely written work, his deep, distinctive voice fits songs such as the set’s opener, “Avalon Blues”, and closer, “Shake That Thing”. While deftly picking his guitar, Morrissey invested heart and soul in his renderings of Hurt’s tunes, avoiding the inherent pitfalls of telling another man’s stories.
These covers were also a bit of a relief from Morrissey’s own songs, which are so meticulously detailed that you feel guilty if you don’t pay attention. Overflowing with rich imagery, “Barstow” and “Winter Laundry” (with the memorable line, “The sheets hung like a truce”) were the high points of Morrissey’s set, along with a brief song he said he’s working on (“I may just let this one go,” he added) about Tinky-Winky cruising the streets, looking for love.
Though one may have felt obligated to listen intently to Morrissey, it really wasn’t necessary to pay strict attention to the evening’s headliner. Ramblin’ Jack’s between-song stories, alternating between amusing and dull, generally didn’t follow any sort of linear pattern. After offering a rendition of Woody Guthrie’s “Buffalo Skinners”, for instance, Elliott went on a little verbal journey that eventually wound its way to a dissertation on the origin, naming, and inner workings of the chuck wagon.
Still, the audience took to Ramblin’ Jack like children crowding around a crazy uncle. One guy recalled the time Elliott played at his wedding; another asked for a particular tale Ramblin’ Jack picked up from Orson Bean about some Martians. Of course, such talk merely encouraged a little more rambling, as Elliott reminisced about Shel Silverstein (who had died the day before), driving his mobile home from Ohio to Florida, and listening to Dylan’s “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right” for the first time, among other things.
When Elliott did manage to focus on singing, his road-tested, gravely voice delivered strong versions of “Dead Or Alive” and “Rake And Ramblin’ Boy”, as well as a closing combination of Tim Hardin’s “Reason To Believe” and “If I Were A Carpenter”.
Sure, it would’ve been nice to hear Elliott play more and ramble less, but that’s probably impossible. After all, how can you keep a storyteller from telling stories?