On the first of June I received the latest monthly email newsletter from Village Records, a wonderful place for finding new music. While scanning the newsletter during lunch, I noticed mention of a new live Koerner & Glover CD. "Oh," I thought, "I'll have to remember to check into that later, and also double check on whether Spider John is going to be playing on the east coast this summer." With that I returned my attention to work.
Around 8pm that night, Spider John Koerner just happened to pop into my head again. I thought I'd go to his web site to see what's up with the new CD. While doing that I looked at his concert calendar and, I'll be darned, but it says he is playing in Nashua, NH the very next night, June 2nd! Woah, if not for the Village Records newsletter, and if not for remembering it later in the day, I'd have missed this completely. Serendipity.
Any hey, what's this? A new music venue in Nashua? Who knew? Studio 99 is nestled in the fourth floor of one of the old mill buildings on the Nashua River. It isn't easy to find, and parking can best be described as, uhhh, creative, but it's just the kind of place I love. Unpretentious and welcoming. Old wooden floors and brick walls, with glimpses of the river out the window. The nice folks running the place appear to be having a good run at offering a full schedule of open mics, jam sessions (jazz, blues, folk/acoustic, and bluegrass), and concerts. I'll be keeping my eye on their calendar.
Spider John, if you are not familiar, is a traditional American folk and country blues musician. Based out of Minneapolis, Spider John was an early influence on Bob Dylan — back before he was, well, Bob Dylan. Oft quoted is this excerpt from Dylan's autobiography, Chronicles, Volume One:
"With my newly learned repertoire, I then went further up the street and dropped into the Ten O'Clock Scholar, a Beat coffeehouse. I was looking for players with kindred spirits. The first guy I met in Minneapolis like me was sitting around in there. It was John Koerner and he also had an acoustic guitar with him. Koerner was tall and thin with a look of perpetual amusement on his face. We hit it off right away. ... When he spoke he was soft spoken, but when he sang he became a field holler shouter. Koerner was an exciting singer, and we began playing a lot together."
Dylan correctly captured one essential aspect of Spider John - his now signature style. Part field holler, part ragtime, part country blues, part American roots, it's instantly recognizable as Spider John. I tried to find something on YouTube that would really showcase him, and this was the best I could come up with:
The show in Nashua turned out to be darn near a private concert. There were only fifteen of us in the room, and that included the event staff! Sixteen, if you count Spider John! I owe the poor turnout to the newness of the venue, its off-the-beaten-path location, perhaps a little lack of advertising, and it being a Tuesday night. While half of me wanted the room to be packed, the other half was thrilled at the intimacy.
Before the show I asked Spider John if he minded if I took some non-flash photos, and he said that was fine. So I also felt less self conscious than normal taking some shots. I have posted the six shots I am happiest with on a Flickr photo set.
Spider John played two sets plus an encore, for what must have been close to two hours of music (I seem to have not noted time in my notebook). We got a slew of traditional songs, his own songs, and a few by Woody Guthrie, Leadbelly (Huddie Ledbetter), and others. Two songs into the first set I was as happy as I could be, when we were treated to one of my favorites, Acres of Clams, a traditional song about the settling of Puget Sound; John sings what is known as the "Lay of the Old Settler" version of this song. When he finished and our applause died down I couldn't help but tell John that I loved that song!
We were treated to songs and stories of old British racehorses (Stewball), the California gold rush (The Days of Forty-nine), trains (Casey Jones), and love and war (When First Unto This Country). Prior to singing one of his own songs, Phoebe, Spider John spoke lovingly, if humorously, about the phoebe birds who have been making nests in and around his house for more than forty years, wondering about their migration every winter and return every spring.
Spider John is also known for what can only be described as corny humor. We were treated to a number of these "groaners" including the one about the two guys in the woods who came upon a grizzly bear. The one fellow says to the other, "I'm making a run for it." His friend replied, "Are you crazy? You can't outrun a grizzly bear!", to which the first guy replied, "True, but I reckon I don't have to outrun the bear. I just have to outrun you!"
At the set break I made a mental note of songs that I wanted to hear in the second set. More Pretty Women Than One and Sail Away Ladies were at the top of my list, so when John announced he had just three more songs to play in the second set, I went ahead and asked, "And will More Pretty Women Than One be one of them?" While he hadn't planned on it, his tuning was right, so John obliged me with his cover of this Woody Guthrie song. John did explain, though, that Woody used to sing "more pretty girls than one" but he thought it more appropriate and respectful to sing "more pretty women than one."
Spider John is nothing short of a national treasure. It's been too many years since Patti and I last saw him. If you get a chance, go see him. If you don't, go buy one of his CDs. Heck, go buy the new Koerner and Glover live CD from Village Records! Tell 'em I sent ya!
Spider John Koerner
Studio 99, Nashua, NH
Tuesday, June 2, 2009
Careless Love (W.C. Handy, Martha Koenig, Spencer Williams)
Acres of Clams (Francis D. Henry)
The Wabash Cannonball (Traditional)
Good Time Charlie (Traditional)
Don't Look Now (?)
Phoebe (Spider John Koerner)
When First Unto This Country (Traditional)
Red Apple Juice (Traditional)
Midnight Special (Traditional)
St. James Infirmary (Joe Primrose)
Danville Girl (Woody Guthrie)
The Ballad of Casey Jones (Traditional)
The Days of Forty-nine (Traditional)
Some People Say (Spider John Koerner)
The Summer of 88 (Spider John Koerner)
No Regrets (?)
Delt My Cards in England (?)
More Pretty Woman Than One (Woody Guthrie)
What's the Matter With The Mill (Minnie McCoy)
Goodnight Irene (Huddie Ledbetter, John Lomax)
Black Dog Blues (Traditional)