David Johansen and the Harry Smiths' "Delia"
“Chameleon” is a word often used in addressing the one and only David Johansen, who’s been able to morph from frontman of New York’s historic pre-punk band New York Dolls to a stellar solo career, then to the celebrated lounge-lizard persona of Buster Poindexter and then to heading an acoustic roots band called the Harry Smiths, named after the renowned American folk music anthologist Harry Everett Smith—and then all this all over again, capped by his first Harry Smiths performance in 15 years or so Saturday night at City Winery’s Loft.
With the group’s two splendid original guitarists Brian Koonin and Larry Saltzman (the new rhythm section of upright bassist Mark Vanderpoel and drummer Bill Dobrow fit in snugly), Johansen, who also plays acoustic guitar and harmonica, sang his heart out on material mostly taken from his two Harry Smiths albums, David Johansen and the Harry Smiths (2000) and Shaker (2002), and largely made up of classic if obscure folk and blues songs from the first half of the last century.
He started with “a couple happy songs,” which of course were anything but: Lightnin’ Hopkins’ “Darling, Do You Remember Me?,” a slow blues about being forgotten, and Furry Lewis’s “Furry’s Blues,” which starts “I believe I’ll buy me a graveyard of my own/I’m gonna kill everybody that have done me wrong.” Few (the late Leon Redbone comes to mind) could approach these and the other near-forgotten songs in the set with such vocal authenticity, but Johansen, also a deep musicologist whose long-running SiriusXM weekly David Johansen’s Mansion of Fun show delves into all genres of music from all over the world, is steeped in the blues, going way back: The second Dolls album (Too Much Too Soon, from 1974) covered blues harmonica legend Sonny Boy Williamson II’s “Don’t Start Me Talkin’,” and Johansen annually sang Howlin’ Wolf blues standards at the birthday celebrations for Wolf’s late guitarist Hubert Sumlin.
The Harry Smiths guitarists, meanwhile, remain more than up for the not-so-easy task of doing Johansen justice. Koonin, who has played with him in all his guises, would play a perfectly stinging slide guitar solo on Muddy Waters’ “Little Geneva,” Saltzman a perfectly sparing accompaniment to Johansen’s singing on Gillian Welch and Dave Rawlings’ “My Morphine,” the only contemporary-but-vintage-sounding tune in the set. The pair would also play in perfect tandem on songs like “Well I’ve Been to Memphis,” which was recorded for Folkways Records by George “Daddy Hotcakes” Montgomery and is also marked by a nifty internal spoken word conversation about the Memphis police, and Oscar Brown, Jr.’s jazzy slow ballad “Somebody Buy Me a Drink.”
The set’s centerpiece was the much recorded, mournful murder ballad “Delia,” with Dobrow popping the beat with his hands, Vanderpoel bowing his bass, Saltzman soloing beautifully on dobro and Koonin seconding it on acoustic guitar. On all the songs, though, each musician added a different color and technique to songs that were long ago recorded informally and usually solo on now antique equipment. In an intimate room like the Loft, and in the hands of the Harry Smiths, Johansen turned them into high art.
After closing with country blues singer Geeshie Wylie’s “Last Kind Words Blues,” Johansen joked that “the Smiths were taken” when he came to naming the band, then noted that all the songs in the set, while like those in Harry Smith’s collection, weren’t actually part of it. First encore “James Alley Blues,” recorded in 1927 by Rabbit Brown and covered by the likes of Bob Dylan, really was part of Smith’s set, but with closing lines “Sometimes I think that you’re too sweet to die/Other times I think you ought to be buried alive,” he chose to send everyone home with the more upbeat “Looking for Money,” a minor ‘50s rockabilly hit for Al Urban.
“We haven’t played these songs in God knows how long,” Johansen said. “We had a rehearsal and everything!”
If he doesn’t return with the Harry Smiths again soon—as he most certainly should--God knows how long it will be before anyone else hears them in concert.