Ostensibly an acoustic showcase for the spring and summer releases from the ace roots-music label Hightone, this quartet of guitarist-songwriters turned in a delightful song swap that’s about as close to a Woody Guthrie-Cisco Houston-Pete Seeger gathering as we’re likely to experience. The performers, all onstage for the two-hour show, framed their songs in engaging, and often hilarious anecdotes, a wonderfully informal antidote to the pre-programmed nature of so many contemporary — and that even includes folk — concerts.
Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, the Brooklyn-born troubadour who has traveled with Guthrie and Bob Dylan, played elder statesman with stories of 1950s tours with Guthrie, a late-1960s rendezvous with an unknown Kris Kristofferson and a 1970s burglary at his Laurel Canyon home.
Dave Alvin played the role of emcee and, this being his hometown, the star on the bill. He rummaged deep in his catalogue to come up with a string of winners, among them “King of California,” “Haley’s Comet” and Whistlin’ Alex Moore’s “East Texas Blues.”
Chris Smither added considerable technical dexterity and love songs; Tom Russell, whose next disc concerns the migration of his Irish ancestors, tapped into Old West themes and symbols. Each musician took a solo turn and then introduced the next with the occasional group performance tossed in. As a quartet they delivered some ragged Appalachian-style harmonies, heavy on the bottom end and long on tales of hard-living in rural America.
The three songwriters — Elliott says he has written all of two songs in his 67 years but his talking blues and folk odes certainly fall in line — share an acute ability to capture a uniquely American weariness in which the characters feel constricted by fate and indebted to a lover, employer or higher being. The songs and stories find people accustomed to mud on their jeans and dust in their throats, with pasts best left uncovered; in Elliott’s hands, Kristofferson’s “Me and Bobby McGee” sounds old as the hills and as prophetic as Big Bill Broonzy’s line “I could get religion,” uttered by Alvin. Ensemble closed with a spirited and appropriate rendition of Guthrie’s “Do Re Mi,” a tale of warning for Southern migrants headed to California.