Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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The Sound of the City

Men Without Women

The Monsters of Folk quote unquote--from left to right, ex-Blaster Dave Alvin, ex-New Orleanian Chris Smither, Brooklyn cowboy Ramblin' Jack Elliott, and drugstore cowboy Tom Russell--spelled each other handily at the Bottom Line April 21. With a few extra bows to Uncle Jack, songs proceeded right to left throughout a two-hour set, so you never got tired of anyone's shtick. A dud belting rock and roll like his brother Phil, Alvin has developed a chesty style that resonates cavernously over his acoustic guitar, and the new songs he showcased hit home, especially the border patrolman's "California Snow." Smither bore down on recent material we shouldn't have overlooked, like for instance "The Devil's Real": "They told me I was breakin' through/I was only breakin' down/By the time I learned the difference/They had long left town." Elliott spruced up the aw-shit charm he's lived off for half a century. As for Russell, well, he's a major cornball, but storytellers with the gift of gab have always gotten over in this world.

So despite an unhootenanny-like lack of backup, barter, and kidding around, the evening proved how much fun guys sittin' there singin' and pickin' can be. But another paucity was equally evident: women. There were songs about cowboys, gamblers, cockfighters, buffalo hunters, railwaymen, truckers, fortune seekers, dreamers, drunks, drifters, the Devil, that border patrolman, and the oppressed poor. Women, however, were present only as absences--moved out or left behind, eaten by a mountain lion or in bed with some stay-at-home far away, kissed off with the cutting eloquence of Smither's "Winsome Smile" or Elliott's "Don't Think Twice." This was the music of grizzled, self-sufficient roamers who keep body and soul together where musicians always have--on the road. There wasn't a love song all night unless you count Alvin's resuscitation of the ancient outlaw boast "Black Jack Davy," which in this context was clearly an allegory about how sexually irresistible folksingers are.

They wish.

Village Voice, May 5, 1998