Two shows in Chicago that seemed at first glance to be about as far as ou can get on the spectrum that is “roots music”. Rose has been doing this since his days in the overtone-laden minimal psychedelia of Pelt and his demeanor on stage is of abject seriousness, staring a hole in his acoustic guitar and barely communicating with the audience at all, letting his instrumental music fill the air and get perceived for what it is, removed from his personality. Borges has three albums out, two on Sugar Hill, and her voice, like a huskier Amy Allison or a twangier Dar Williams, is the show, and she’s bending over backwards – at some points literally – to be ingratiating and charming.
The more you see Jack Rose the more you realize how much he’s evolved over time, what on his first solo album was easy to dismiss as post-Fahey, longer forms, some beautiful flat-picking, melodies showing off their elasticity by stretching until they almost broke then snapping right back, or like pools of viscous rainwater on a dirty street running together so you can see the rainbow in the whole.
By the time the first two were collected under Two Originals Of and then the gorgeous Raag Manifestos I started to realize what an original voice you had in Jack, not by eschewing what’s come before but by absorbing it, Lightnin’ Hopkins and Maybelle Carter and Mississippi John Hurt and Peter Walker, and Hawaiian slack key and Indian music and sacred steel and more recently and most intriguingly flamenco runs. His most recent album and the most recent time I saw him, at Terrastock, has him accompanied by the Black Twig Pickers, a more traditional bluegrass/mountain music duo and again it didn’t click until I spent more time with the record and realized he’s integrating his own harmonic language without compromising it into this fabric.
But the show at the Hideout found him back in solo mode and it was hypnotic and uplifting, hitting everything in his catalog and bringing out the melodies more than I think I’ve ever seen him. In that little room, everyone fell to silence and each note hung in the air in an almost Morton Feldman waltz. Decay and generation, birth and age, step one, one-two, one-two-three, heel-toe-turn. I didn’t even stick around to see the headliners, I wanted those songs to keep ringing in my head a little longer.
Borges the next night followed the stultifying Elvis 56 which featured the fantastic guitar work of Eddie Angel and the drumming of Teen Beat from Los Straitjackets but a English singer who did a spot-on Elvis impression and perfect Elvis dancing and mannerisms and sang a set of things from Elvis’s early career including his covers of R&B like “Money Honey” which weren’t that good in the first place. Angel’s muscular guitar playing and Smed’s always lithe and sexy drumming tried mightily to elevate this but it couldn’t get over being charmless, feeling like like you walked into a particularly humorless Civil War recreation, give me somebody who shows up as Dr. Who or something.
Sarah Borges and the Broken Singles, included bass player and harmony singer Binky, Robert Larry Delaney on drums, and Lyle Brewer who might be the best lead guitarist I’ve heard for this kind of music since the guitar player in Robbie Fulks’ band, which is high praise by any measure and doubly high when we’re seeing them in Chicago. They came out and in a ballsy move opened with the first song of theirs I ever heard, “On the Day We Met”, which is still think is probably the best song they’ve ever written and it stood as a call to arms, an ars poetica that set up the fun, free-wheeling tone of their set, “I want my old records back / I’m gonna sell them all for trade / It’ll be less lonely hearts club / And more of the hit parade” and went through an hour and a half of their own fine songs, especially good was the ‘60s pop-Latin by way of Dean Martin and the Shirelles “Me and Your Ghost” (“Since you’ve been away I’ve been livin’ / But you know that livin’ like that’s a shame / Me and your ghost both know / We can’t go on this way”), the ragged stomp of “I’ll Show You How”, the Aerosmith-style blues stop (thanks to Anne for pointing that out) aon the song about a prostitute (can’t find my notes where I wrote down the title and I’m not finding it on either of the records I have) and the soaring ballad “Better at the End of the Day”.
Between the seams of this rock-solid original material they wove in enough covers to show their muscle but did it without making the covers seem like they were showing up their own songs and shining light on their aesthetic that can encompass Smokey Robinson’s “Being With You”,. J. Giles Band’s “Cry One More Time”, Charley Pride’s “Just Between You and Me” and Hank Ballard’s “Open Up Your Back Door” (what turned into a rousing 30 minute encore when a certain member of Elvis 56 had to be hooked off the stage, which again proves how fantastic her band is, when he went into “Treat Her Right” they were right there with him on every digression), and still left me wishing they’d done a couple of other covers they’ve recorded (“It Comes to Me Naturally” and “Stop and Think it Over”). Much like Jack Rose, they’ve absorbed all of these genres and styles, amoeba-like without changing their shape or their intent.
Sure there are quibbles, there’s nothing truly new here and the banter went on to the point where it hit a Tammy Wynette-like level of smarm, but those are minor. If you want a well-played, purely entertaining bar band in the best sense with some fantastic vocals, you can’t do better than this. See Sarah Borges.