Last Monday, the false alarm that Jesse Winchester had died hit me hard, right after the (true) news of novelist/essayist/mystic Peter Matthiessen’s death on March 30.
Jesse Winchester’s music and story were rooted deep in America’s southland, but he escaped the Vietnam-era draft, fleeing to Montreal. Years later, he escaped from the music business; later comebacks brought him here periodically.
When I first heard Jesse Winchester in the deep winter of 1970, he sounded like home. Just out of the Navy and three disorienting years overseas, I drifted slowly, pretty lost, from the West Coast to Montreal, where my parents and sister lived.
Fortunately, my musician brother Jim was there, too, on break from college in Oklahoma, playing on an album and shows with singer-songwriter Chris Rawlings.
I went with Jim to a benefit that he and Rawlings played for a coffeehouse. Jesse Winchester played, too. He completely killed the place, and us, with mostly quiet songs of exile, of longing and seeking to belong. A displaced American myself, his songs really got to me.
When he started playing here — I remember a show at The Egg in March 2002 — his songs still had that effect; and he was a singularly fearless solo performer, “dancing” as if made of rubber and singing so softly he drew your heart right to the edge of the stage.
In that false alarm period before Jesse Winchester had actually died (last Friday), Janis Ian wrote, “RIP Jesse Winchester. As underrated a singer as Chet Baker. As underrated a guitarist as Willie Nelson. A man who held the audience in the palm of his hand without moving an inch. One of the best songwriters on earth. Damn damn damn.”
You can see what Ian means in this clip of Winchester on Elvis Costello’s “Spectacle” TV show in December 2009. Watch when you can let it sink in, and recover. (www.youtube.com/watch?v=5uKGWpqnS8E) I don’t know that I’ve ever heard a more devastatingly beautiful melody, sung with such wistful ease. Yet it carries an almost unbearable poignancy now, recalling youth but mourning its loss and, prophetically, the loss of everything. The red-haired woman crying next to him is Neko Case, who lives in a Vermont barn full of pianos and plays The Egg on May 7.
Both Winchester and Matthiessen left last words: Matthiessen’s novel “In Paradise” was published a few days after he died, and Winchester’s album “A Reasonable Amount of Trouble” arrives in a few months.
About Winchester the draft-evader: I don’t speak for my fellow veterans who served, but I don’t resent Winchester or anyone else who didn’t, except for such “chicken-hawks” as Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld, who evaded the draft then started wars for others to fight.
About Matthiessen: Why mourn a prose writer in a music column? Easy: Matthiessen may be our most musical writer. Poet Mark Nepo introduced Matthiessen at a New York State Writer’s Institute appearance by noting that we, Matthiessen’s tribe, awaited our shaman.
Matthiessen’s 1961 post-colonial epic “At Play in the Fields of the Lord” has the most vivid account of the psychedelic experience on paper, plus brilliantly rendered collisions between humans and nature and humans and humans. He wrote his masterpiece “Far Tortuga” in the Caribbean cadences of reggae, with sparse details of the harshly beautiful primordial world as compelling as any naturalist’s. I was pleased when, in a visit to his Averill Park study, our own bard William Kennedy pronounced “Far Tortuga” his favorite of Matthiessen’s books, as it is mine.
B.B. King sings the blues tonight at the Palace Theatre (19 Clinton Ave. at N. Pearl St., Albany). Recent B.B. shows have been uneven, but he remains King of the Blues after 50 albums, 18 Grammys and more miles than Greyhound. Rhett Tyler and Early Warning open at 7:30 p.m.
Admission is $92.50, $72.50, $62.50 and $52.50. 800-745-3000 www.palacealbany.com.
The Ed Palermo Big Band (17 pieces!) plays Frank Zappa songs on Friday at 7:30 p.m. at Proctors GE Theatre (432 State St., Schenectady), last show in the Party Horns NYC season. Palermo has been re-arranging and playing Zappa songs for 30 years and knows how. Admission is $15. 346-6204 www.proctors.org.
Jazz keyboardist Dan Dobek seldom plays live these days, but on Friday he introduces his new album “Dream Again” at Seed of Abraham Church (formerly Rehoboth Church, at 432 Franklin St., Schenectady). Saxophonist Rich Lamanna and trumpeter Terry Gordon accompany Dobek in this 7:30 p.m. free admission show, where he’ll sell copies of the album. 346-1398.
Singer Christine Ohlman brings her rocking band Rebel Montez and strong songs, big voice and big hair to Caffe Lena (47 Phila St., Saratoga Springs) on Friday at 8 p.m. If she looks familiar — check the high-altitude beehive hairdo — she sang on Saturday Night Live for years. Admission is $25, advance; $27 at the door. 583-0022 www.caffelena.org.
The next night, Elizabeth Woodbury-Kasius and her band Heard take over the Caffe stage, hot off their Proctors gig last week. Joy Adler opens at 8 p.m. Admission is $16, advance; $18 at the door.
Martin Taylor wears names of two guitar brands; maybe that’s why he gets top billing in “Great Guitars” on Saturday at the Troy Savings Bank Music Hall (30 Second St., Troy), which also features Frank Vignola, Vinny Raniolo and Peppino D’Agostino. Be on time: Vignola does this wonderful shtick on latecomers, smacking his forehead and lamenting that now the band has to start over. With dazzling aplomb they rip through the first few bars of everything they’d played, Vignola calling out to the newcomers, “Oh, yeah — then we did . . .!”
Expect to see every guitar player without a gig to show up for this no-exaggeration, all-star gang of fret magicians. Vignola can play almost too fast to hear, all by himself, so the Hall will fill with riffs. Show time is 8 p.m. Admission is $34, $28, $22 and $20. 273-0038, www.troymusichall.org.
“This only happens once,” promises troubadour-multi-instrumentalist Michael Eck: He turns 50 and celebrates with what he aptly calls a “maximum solo acoustic” show on Saturday at Steamer No. 10 Theatre (500 Western Ave., Albany). With four solo albums and tons of tunes written for his many, many bands, this big, deep dude won’t lack for songs. Show time is 8 p.m. Admission is $13, advance; $15 on Saturday. 438-5503.
Rock singer-songwriter Zucchero (born Adelmo Fornciari) may be a 50-million-albums-sold star in Europe, but he’s new to American audiences except for PBS fans who’ve caught his Springsteen-like specials. On Saturday at 8 p.m., he plays his local debut at The Egg (Empire State Plaza, Albany). Admission is $34. 473-1845 www.theegg.org.
Reach Gazette columnist Michael Hochanadel at [email protected]