SAN FRANCISCO — Fans of folk and Americana got a rare opportunity Sunday to witness one of the early progenitors of the style. Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, a contemporary of Woody Guthrie and early acquaintance of Bob Dylan, came to town to give an understated and personable matinee concert at The Chapel.
After being introduced by his road manager, Elliott pranced onto the stage with a locomotive gallop. Taking a seat on a high stool, he then accepted assistance in strapping on his guitar. The stage was set with lamps and potted plants, and the mostly seated audience quickly established a colloquial proximity to the artist. As the 88-year-old Jack Elliott sipped from a white mug, an attendee implored “what’s in that cup, Jack?”
“Oh, it’s whiskey,” Elliott responded wryly. “I was hoping it was something else, but it’s whiskey.”
Early on, Elliott struggled slightly to wrap his fingers around the neck of his guitar. Accentuating some open chords, he hit a couple audible clunkers. “New guitar,” he joked as he continued the song.
In this relaxed manner, Elliott’s personality carried the performance. A droll fellow, he introduced many songs with tales from his ramblin’ days and established a conversational familiarity with the audience. In a sad ballad from the early 20th century, Elliott summoned “a pretty bird to fly” and addressed a character named “Willie.”
After the song, he elucidated: “That’s not Willie Nelson. The song pre-dates Willie Nelson. Did anybody see him, by the way?” Elliot asked, referencing Nelson’s recent performances at the Fillmore.
Elliot’s sense of humor crept into some of the songs as well. He described “bed bugs as big as a jackass” in “Bed Bug Blues,” a tune popularized by Dave Van Ronk in 1961.
As a guitarist, Elliott displayed a well-worn ease with the folk picking-and-strumming style. He picked the strings carefully throughout conventional chord formations, connecting the changes with cheery bass runs and neat off-kilter fills. Like his verbal interdictions, some musical passages and chord progressions came refreshingly off-the-cuff. He rounded out one minor key song with a long run of non-repeating chords, ending on a surprise major.
Elliott’s rusty voice cracked and howled when he pushed it to full force, giving a raw, windswept edge to his sound. At quieter moments, he commanded the vocal melodies with ease and clarity of tone. Once or twice, his voice soared with the acidic reediness of a bygone era in American song. Elliott seemed right at home on a talking-blues number about shipping out with the merchant marines. The informal directness of the lyrical style fit his demeanor, and he allowed himself to come up with variations on the fly. Similarly, he turned small flaws in his guitar rhythms into idiosyncrasies of song.
Elliott set up folk standard “House Of The Rising Sun” with a Bob Dylan story from the Newport Folk Festival. In Elliott’s telling, Eric Burdon and the Animals’ version of the song came on the radio in Dylan’s car, and both Dylan and Elliott pointed to the radio, simultaneously exclaiming, “That’s my version!” Elliott played the song in a sultry, rumbling low key. He also made the unconventional choice to sing the lyrics from the perspective of one of the house girls, which proved popular with the crowd.
Elliott thrived on minor-key ballads, in particular “Buffalo Skinners,” a gripping tale of prairie justice in the “summer of ‘83.”
“That’s 1883, not 1983,” he said.
Elliott spoke of being inspired to learn the song after a conversation with Guthrie. He then closed with “All Kinds Of Trouble,” during which he stopped abruptly to engage the audience in a bit of maundering chit-chat. After continuing the song for a few more verses, he stopped abruptly again, proclaiming with a grin he was “sick of whacking on this” guitar. He got to his feet with flair and energetically shuffled off the stage.
Marin County’s Rainy Eyes, led by singer-songwriter Irena Eide, opened the show. Eide’s straightforward folk songs took listeners down lonesome highways, rolling with “the wheel of time” into forlorn hill country. Accompanied by an electric guitarist and mandolinist, Eide switched between guitar and banjo, singing in her exceptionally clear and balanced voice. Rainy Eyes played songs from debut album Moon In The Mirror, maintaining an earthy humility appropriate to the small venue.