DAVE VAN RONK
Live In Monterey
Live In Monterey
I’ve written several times before about my valued friendship with the late, very great Dave Van Ronk (1936-2002), the legendary folk-blues-jazz-cabaret singer, guitarist and songwriter, including in reviews of Down in Washington Square, the marvelous 3-CD collection released last fall, and my book review of his memoir, The Mayor of MacDougal Street, (completed brilliantly in Dave’s words by Elijah Wald).
My last opportunities to spend extended periods of time with Dave were in 1998 when he came to Montreal to perform at the Montreal International Jazz Festival (and sit down with me for an extensive interview on the Folk Roots/Folk Branches radio program), and then later that same summer when I was MCing and he was performing at the Champlain Valley Folk Festival in Burlington, Vermont.
Dave was pretty damn great when he started out in the 1950s – by the early-‘60s he was a major influence on Bob Dylan and just about every other singer, guitarist and songwriter who passed through the Village folk scene – and just kept getting better and better as time went on. The concerts and workshops I saw him in do in Montreal and Burlington in 1998 were all superb – Dave was at the peak of his form.
A couple of months before his great Montreal Jazz Festival concerts, Dave was in similarly fine form when he performed in Monterey, California. An edited version of that concert has now been released as Live In Monterey.
Dave’s repertoire that night seems like a pretty typical Dave Van Ronk concert. Almost all of the 16 songs are numbers I heard him do many times over the years but all are songs I never got tired of hearing him sing and play. For one thing, there were always different nuances and developments in his vocal phrasing and guitar playing that made every version of every song unique. For example, “St. James Infirmary” (sometimes known as “Gambler’s Blues’) is a song I heard him do in almost every show I ever saw him do – and there were many – and I’ve got 10 different recordings of Dave doing the song, but I hear something new and exciting in every one.
And the same goes for the other songs in the set. It is a treat to hear his whisper-to-a-growl-to-a-shout voice and inspiring, always-intricate guitar arrangements on such classics as Jelly Roll Morton’s “Winin’ Boy Blues,” Reverend Gary Davis’ “Cocaine Blues,” “Candy Man” and “Jesus Met the Woman at the Well,” Brownie McGhee’s “Sportin’ Life Blues,” his beautiful version of “He was a Friend of Mine,” adapted by Dave, Dylan and Eric Von Schmidt, from the traditional “Shorty George,” Mississippi John Hurt’s “Spike Driver Blues,” Tom Paxton’s tribute song, “Did You Hear John Hurt?” and all the rest.
Some of these songs – including “Cocaine Blues,” “Candy Man,” Bessie Smith’s “You’ve Been a Good Old Wagon,” and his own “Losers” – are infused with Dave’s patented humor while others, including “Jelly Jelly,” “St. James Infirmary” and “Winin’ Boy Blues” are informed by jazz, particularly the traditional New Orleans jazz that Dave loved and sang so well.
Although almost all of the repertoire on Live In Monterey was from the standard Van Ronk canon, the set ends with an extraordinary and beautiful version of Ian Tyson’s classic “Four Strong Winds.” Although, Dave recorded the song on To All My Friends In Far-Flung Places, I don’t recall ever hearing him perform it in concert.
The CD booklet includes words from co-producer Rick Chelew and a great essay by Happy Traum, who knew Dave from the mid-1950s on and recalls vividly their friendship from the early days in Washington Square forward, as well as Dave's importance as a musical innovator and mentor to many.
About the only thing I miss on Live In Monterey are most of the asides and stories that typically punctuated a Dave Van Ronk concert. I assume they were edited from this recording to make it a purely musical experience.
I return often to many of Dave’s albums and this is one that will certainly be among those for years to come.