‘Spider’ John Koerner’s well-worn folk
by Seth Rogovoy
(GREAT BARRINGTON, Mass., March 15, 2004) – You heard many of the songs “Spider” John Koerner played at Club Helsinki on Sunday night previously, but unless you’d already seen him, you never heard them played quite the way Koerner plays them. The 1960s cult legend acknowledged this early on in the first of two generous sets before a packed house when he referred to his program as “traditional American folk songs played in Sixties bar style.”
Koerner and his three-piece outfit – ensemble seems too formal a word for this bunch – fitted songs like “Stewball,” “St. James Infirmary,” “Midnight Special” and “Delia’s Gone” like a well-worn shirt, a little frayed at the collar and the cuffs, but friendly, comfortable and familiar.
The upstate New York native who landed at the university in Minneapolis and fell in with the crowd in Dinkytown – that city’s answer to Greenwich Village -- around the same time as a young Bobby Zimmerman soon to be Bob Dylan, has been mining the old-time vein of American folk music for over 40 years. If his songs and renditions seemed well-worn, however, they were anything but used up. Koerner and the musicians clearly have a blast with this music, and their joy was infectious.
Some traditionalists can be serious to the point of stifling about this music – a tendency sent up in last year’s terrific film, “A Mighty Wind.” There was nothing of that in Koerner’s performance. While most of his material was traditional – he threw in a few original songs, but you could hardly tell the difference – there was nothing professorial about his approach.
Instead, Koerner was a quirky stylist, swinging many of the tunes in herky-jerky, two-step rhythms or waltzes. While orchestral at times, his guitar-playing on his 12-string never drew attention to itself. And his sympathetic musicians, including Chip Smith on fiddle and bones, Paul Strothers on electric bass, and Robbie Phillips on washtub bass, jaws harp and harmonica, were with him intuitively and organically.
Koerner was a skilled vocalist, too, who could make his gluey, elastic voice fade out at the end of a line, and who at his most compelling and bluesy evoked the late Richard Manuel of The Band. What his singing lacked in variety and dimension he made up for in enthusiasm and wry wit.
Houston singer-songwriter Denice Franke warmed up the crowd with a short set of her original compositions. More bluesy than blues, Franke mined a dark terrain colored by her rich guitar playing, which she wisely held back in order to showcase her even richer vocals.
[This review originally appeared in the Berkshire Eagle on March 16, 2004. Copyright Seth Rogovoy 2004. All rights reserved.]
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