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From the Country Standard Time Archives

Monsters of Folk also prove to be masters of storytelling

McCabe's, Santa Monica, Cal., April 10, 1998

By Dan MacIntosh

SANTA MONICA, CA - On the fourth night of a nearly month long tour featuring four of the finest modern folk artists - who all just happen to be signed to HighTone Records - it was hard to tell which aspect of the show was more entertaining: The stories about the songs, or the songs themselves.

The quartet - Dave Alvin, Chris Smither, Ramblin' Jack Elliott and Tom Russell - itself seemed to be an odd collection of singer-songwriters, to begin with.

Alvin has rockabilly roots which go back to his days with The Blasters; Smither could easily pass for a traditional blues artist; Elliott is as much a real life cowboy as he is a singer; and Russell is brainy and funny enough to be a comic.

Nonetheless, they all seemed to be comfortable sharing the same stage together.

The show was formatted like an informal guitar pull, with each singer taking a turn on a song of his own, interspersed with a few group sing-alongs.

Russell had the audience chuckling along as he sang "Sky Above, Mud Below," and as he told how Ian Tyson taught him to write cowboy songs. He also treated the few hundred assembled in this guitar-shop-by-day/nightclub-by night to the touching love song, "Navajo Rug."

Ramblin' Jack Elliott struggled with a sore throat as he alternated between singing solo and leading the others through a few of Woody Guthrie's songs. Better still, though, were the moments when he reminisced about his traveling days with Guthrie.

Smither was the quietest of them all. Yet, he still had funny story to tell about how he got his first bitter taste of religion at a tender age. This prefaced perfectly his singing of "The Devil Is Real."

Alvin acted as the default master of ceremonies, and introduced the rest of the gang. His best story concerned his brother Phil's big chance to speak the only German phrase he knew. His performance was highlighted by the difficult guitar work of Big Bill Broonzy's "How You Want It Done," in addition to a run through of his classic, "King Of California."

After concluding with a group effort on the old Roy Acuff signature song, "Wabash Cannonball," the audience was left wishing that this train ride would never end. But even though music had to stop, concert goers will have stories to tell about this night for a long time to come.