The concept of “the American Songbook” has evolved tangibly in the past decade or so, and nowhere has that broadening of parameters been more unmistakable than at Lincoln Center’s annual series celebrating the land’s indigenous sound. Guitarist Howard Fishman, who’s devoted much time of late to exploring the intricacies of Bob Dylan and the Band’s revered Basement Tapes, unspooled a selection of that album’s loamier songs at Thursday’s particularly inviting perf.
Fishman, much like Dylan himself, is loath to tarry very long in any one particular neck of the musical woods. Something of a sonic Zelig, the guitarist seems equally comfortable stretching out on a jazz standard in one of the Brooklyn cocktail lounges that pepper his itinerary as he does spelunking through the field recordings of Alan Lomax for inspiration.
Appropriately enough, Fishman remained fairly faithful to the latter m.o., working backward to get to the root of Dylan’s source material, rather than attempting to drag the rustic songs into the 21st century. He and his band — anchored by the unabashedly upbeat singer-violinist Mazz Swift — kicked up their heels with Dust Bowl aplomb on jig-inducing runs through traditionals like “Apple Sucklin’ Tree” and “Open the Door Homer.”
Fishman himself proved equally adept at capturing the sky-darkening melancholia of “Basement’s” more foreboding material — the songs that could cut through a winter coat like a jagged Great Plains wind. “Crash on the Levee” was particularly impressive at this perf, its dolefully elegant gait allowing a seething passion to trickle through the tune’s armor.
The spell was dented — not quite broken — when the band delved into the Dylan-Band originals that peppered the original album. Not to say that Fishman and company mishandled “This Wheel’s on Fire” and “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere” — to the contrary, the mingling of Fishman’s fretwork and the brass lines laid down by Ron Caswell and Andrae Murchison proved quite intriguing.