David Grisman and John Sebastian: These guys have done this before. As college kids, they gravitated to New York’s Washington Square to learn from folk and blues oldsters. Now they’re oldsters themselves, but the lessons they learned together 40 years ago still sounded fresh in their minds, hands and voices on Sunday in their duo show at Troy Savings Bank Music Hall.
They unwrapped each vintage tune from a cover of cozy chat, like old newspapers around some attic antique. Like their “Satisfied” duets album, they started with Mississippi John Hurt’s “I’m Satisfied,” Sebastian crooning this ancient blues in a whispery drawl, keeping a steady guitar pulse and marveling at Grisman’s mandola riffs — like everyone else. After “Don’t Stop,” a tribute to jug-band music (they played together in the Even Dozen Jug Band in their late teens), they returned to Hurt’s songbook for “Coffee Blues,” whose line about a “lovin’ spoonful” Sebastian borrowed as the name of his 1960s pop group.
Sebastian has written some fine tunes since his Spoonful days, as “Strings of Your Heart” from “Satisfied” demonstrated with its claim that without his love “I’m only most of a man.” At times he seemed only most of the singer he once was, his voice squeezed into a narrower range than in his prime. But mostly that didn’t matter, as he sang-talked through the romantic “Passing Fantasy,” for example, casting a sweetly nostalgic spell.
Instrumentals always crackled, though, Sebastian finger-picking the beat and melody and Grisman flat-picking decorative chordal explorations or soloing with brisk panache. “EMD” and “Walk Right Back,” though wordless, were wonderfully expressive. When they reached back to the Lovin’ Spoonful’s anthemic “Jug Band Music” to close the first set, they set up the Spoonful-heavy second.
At first the duo ignored song requests to unpack upbeat antiques “Mobile Line,” so lilting and optimistic it made you want to board the train of the title; “Banjo Mandolin King Rag,” a droll banjo duet; and “Deep Purple,” soft and mellow, despite Sebastian’s struggles with the high notes. Although the sad Spoonful obscurity “Coconut Grove” preceded Grisman’s tribute to Jerry Garcia — a blues or rock ’n’ roll waltz as Grisman described it — Spoonful songs gradually took over, to the delight of fans who sang along, or whistled along when Sebastian sang “What a Day for a Daydream.”
That was sandwiched between the Spoonful’s “Nashville Cats” and the Yank Rachel classic “Tap that Thing,” complete with another kids-at-the-feet-of-the-masters anecdote. The standing ovation hadn’t even begun to fade when Grisman and Sebastian re-emerged to encore with “Harmandola Blues,” Grisman tickling tasty licks from his mandola as Sebastian went poignant on harmonica.
The two seemed completely relaxed, trusting fans’ deep affection for their tunes and engaging personas. They earned it time and again, though, with the depth, warmth and skill of their performances. Grisman got most of the hot licks, but Sebastian anchored the music with self-effacing guitar accompaniment, airy vocals and tales of old days when these old pals fell in love with even older music.