Live Review: Ramblin’ Jack Elliott at the Cedar Cultural Center
To anyone familiar with the legend of Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, Saturday night’s show at the Cedar was magic. The 78 year-old took the stage alone and entertained for just under an hour – “entertained” being the most accurate word because only about half of the show consisted of singing, the rest talking. Since he ran away from home in 1946 after seeing a rodeo at Madison Square Garden, Jack Elliot has been on the road almost non-stop, but the nick-name doesn’t come from his travelling, it comes from his talking. It was supposedly Odetta’s mother who christened him, saying “Oh Jack Elliott, yeah, he can sure ramble on!” Those powers were on full display at the Cedar, as he regaled the audience with stories about driving cross-country with Bob Dylan, tearing it up with Waylon Jennings and Kris Kristofferson and hanging out with Johnny Cash, “who leaned over and said something I’ll never forget, ‘I like to wear black.’”
One of the earliest acolytes of Woody Guthrie (a full decade before Bob Dylan made his pilgrimage to the West Village), Ramblin’ Jack travelled with the Guthries for much of the ‘50’s, playing music from coast to coast. Elliott also played with many of the great early bluesmen, including Leadbelly and Mississippi John Hurt. And while most people have never heard of him, his influence touches nearly every major folk, country, rock and blues star of the past 50 years, from Johnny Cash to Bruce Springsteen to The Rolling Stones to The Red Hot Chili Peppers. Bob Dylan dubbed him “the King of Folksingers.” And lest you think his better days are behind him, he won his second Grammy, only two months ago – the award for “Best Traditional Blues Recording” for his stirring “A Stranger Here.”
The hour-long opener consisted of 9 local artists, each doing a single-song performance either by or about Jack. These ranged from excellent (Dan Israel superb rendering of “San Francisco Blues”) to boring (Kevin Odegard’s never-ending story) to mildly embarrassing (Gretchen Seichrist’s tap dancing clown).
Yet nothing can quite compare to the experience of hearing the living, breathing Jack Elliott do “House of the Rising Sun,” or “Seaman’s Blues,” his voice carrying the full story of American music.