february 2009

Do You Believe In Magic?

By David McGee

John Sebastian & David Grisman
Acoustic Disc
(Released Nov. 6, 2007)

There are plenty of worthy new albums coming in every week, but sometimes an older, heretofore unappraised recording demands some ink because it's just so damn good it can't be ignored. That's Satisfied, a sublime duo effort by John Sebastian and David Grisman released on Grisman's Acoustic Disc label in late 2007. This then is an effort to right the great wrong of overlooking Satisfied when it was new, even though TheBluegrassSpecial.com did not exist then. Nevertheless, as Carl Perkins once said, "Did you ever stop to think that when something's right, it's just flat right?" Well, it's flat right to wax effusive over Satisfied, any time.

Those who don't follow roots music all that closely may think these two an odd couple, Sebastian being mostly identified with the beloved Lovin' Spoonful, one of the '60s greatest bands, Grisman being a progressive bluegrass pioneer whose style is so uniquely Grisman that, as Sebastian writes in his liner note appreciation here, "he had to come up with a new name for his music"-by which Johnny means "Dawg Music"-adding, "One genre just won't hold this guy." But in fact their common roots run deep, back to Greenwich Village, New York University and the fertile folk "revival" scene of the early '60s, when they met by chance and wound up playing together in the Even Dozen Jug Band. The Even Dozens eventually went their own ways, and some 40 years later, Sebastian and Grisman crossed paths again, at a benefit concert where they decided to forgo individual sets and explore the duo route. Folks in attendance were reportedly waylaid by the quiet power and bracing good vibes of the performance; more to the point, the two principals felt it too, and the result of that eureka moment is Satisfied. If this is the only time these two musical giants ever record together, then let it be said they made the most of their moment. Satisfied, the title, is as much an understatement of the feeling you take away from experiencing this music as is Sebastian's liner note observation that "I've never had much visibility as an instrumental virtuoso, and David's interest in pop music flagged somewhere around Chuck Berry. But that's half the fun of the album. We kept surprising each other. We hope we might surprise you too." Surprise and satisfaction are the least of this union's enduring artifacts-ecstasy and exultation might better describe the benefits of total emotional immersion in what's going on here. If you thought the Lovin' Spoonful defined good time music, get a load of this. Maybe that's what happens when John Sebastian shows up, because he is suspiciously present whenever good times erupt.

John Sebastian and David Grisman: The magic's in the music, and the music's in them.
Photocredit:@CSP Images

The fare is old and new blues, folk, bluegrass and pop. Sebastian naturally assumes the lead vocalist role and adds instrumental support on guitar and harmonica, leaving Grisman to dazzle repeatedly on mandolin, mandola and banjo mandolin. John Hurt's "I'm Satisfied" leads off the album and sets the prevailing tone with its mellow lilt and Sebastian singing in that warm, amiable voice that lets you know how much he's enjoying Hurt's playful lyrics, while Grisman adds a down-home touch with his frisky mandolin lines darting all around the vocal. Deeper into the album the duo tackles another Hurt song, "Coffee Blues," and apart from a scintillating guitar-mandolin dialogue during the instrumental break, the song has an added historical dimension Hurt never envisioned when he wrote the chorus that Sebastian sings with such delight, about lovin' his baby "by the lovin' spoonful." Something like the pride of ownership surfaces on those occasions, and more power to Sebastian. "Deep Purple" might seem an unlikely number in this context, but Sebastian reads it softly and tenderly in a blues ballad style, and he (on guitar) and Grisman follow each other with soulful instrumentals before Sebastian comes back for the big finish when his voice breaks into an excited whisper on the words "you'll wander on back to me," dispensing with the usual torchy, melancholic overtone in favor of one of anticipatory delight at the sensual delights awaiting him when the deep purple falls.

Of several exquisitely beautiful performances, arguably the most evocative is the tender, ruminative treatment given the Everly Brothers' "Walk Right Back." Grisman, picking so soft as to be barey audible at times, works some subtle variations on the melody, before making room for Sebastian's guitar, which stays on the melody while Grisman continues to weave delicate filigrees around it. In the end it sounds like something filtering out from a quiet bistro in Paris in the 1920s, maybe with Django Rheinhardt in residence. Sebastian's own languorous, dreamy blues, "Passing Fantasy," follows, bringing the scene back to the Stateside saloon in the wee small hours, very much a bookend in attitude and ambiance to the song preceding it, giving the album a memorable one-two punch. Another instrumental, "Dawg's Waltz," follows "Coffee Blues" and restores the reflective mood of "Walk Right Back" and "Passing Fantasy." In addition to the varying textures Grisman provides in his bluesy, discursive soloing, Sebastian adds the sort of warm, soulful harmonica soloing he's pretty much trademarked, just ahead of him wailing on some mean blues harp in the traditional toe-tapper, "Lonely One In This Town." But fans of Sebastian's harp work-and they should be legion, because he's one of the greats-will want to check out "Harmandola Blues," wherein he is afforded ample room to wail and moan in a brisk dialogue with Grisman's forcefully picked mandola, sometimes strummed behind Sebastian's serpentine lines, and at other times more proactive in winding, sprinting solo runs. Not the least of the attractions here is a subdued, lowdown blues treatment of the Spoonful's "Coconut Grove," written by Sebastian and Spoonful guitarist Zal Yanovsky, with Grisman offering spare, mournful solos as an instrumental counterpart to Sebastian's breathy, dramatic reading. As the next tune begins Grisman says, "We'd like to send this out to all our jug band music friends in radio land," and the two are into "Jug Band Waltz," a plaintive rendering that brings the artists full circle, with Sebastian blowing a beautiful, flowing, winsome melody over Grisman's touching, subdued rhythm support. And if you hang in there for a few seconds when the track ends, you'll hear an unlisted bonus track, a scintillating taste-and it's only a taste-of the Spoonful's "Daydream," with Sebastian whistling the melody over Grisman's trilling mandolin.

David Grisman is still at the forefront of progressive bluegrass, and John Sebastian has, happily, been showing up on more albums these days, mostly playing harmonica (see reviews of Beausoleil's Alligator Purse in this issue, and the Yank Rachell tribute album in last month's issue). The friends are playing a couple of shows together in North Carolina in early February, but it says here they should get themselves back into a studio together, soon. On Satisfied they've conjured rare magic, and not believing in its reoccurrence would be like trying to tell a stranger about Dawg Music.

Founder/Publisher/Editor: David McGee
Contributing Editors: Billy Altman, Derk Richardson
Logo Design: John Mendelsohn (www.johnmendelsohn.com)
Website Design: Kieran McGee (www.kieranmcgee.com)
Staff Photographers: Audrey Harrod (Louisville, KY; www.flickr.com/audreyharrod), Alicia Zappier (New York)
E-mail: thebluegrassspecial@gmail.com
Mailing Address: David McGee, 201 W. 85 St.—5B, New York, NY 10024