Last Friday night, my wife and I and my longtime friend Joel were fortunate enough to see the great New York City troubadour Garland Jeffreys at the Square Roots festival in Chicago, sponsored by one of the outstanding musical institutions in America, the Old Town School of Folk Music.
Touring in support of his most recent album, The King of In Between (2011), Jeffreys has come to Chicago several times in the past few months – including two appearances at FitzGerald’s Night Club, which is right in our neighborhood – but the stars never quite aligned for us until last Friday. It was worth the wait.
Garland Jeffreys first scored a radio hit with “Wild In The Streets” from his self titled debut album in 1973, but he’s never achieved the household-name status of many of his East Coast peers (he counts Lou Reed and Bruce Springsteen among his friends). From his website:
After a string of records in the seventies including American Boy and Girl, One-Eyed Jack and Ghost Writer, the eighties brought the fiercely rocking Escape Artist, which yielded radio favorites “R.O.C.K.” and a cover of garage classic “96 Tears.” After Guts for Love, a record chronicling the ups and downs of a long-term relationship, Jeffreys took a long hiatus before returning with Don’t Call Me Buckwheat, a complex and searingly honest exploration of being biracial in America.
Complex and searingly honest, indeed. Don’t Call Me Buckwheat (1992) included some of his best and most pointed songs about life as a mixed race singer-songwriter who came of age in pre-Civil Rights era America. The title track (which he played Friday night) puts it this way:
This is a song about words
The power of words
Well it all takes place
In a big city
With a very small mind …
Don’t Call Me Buckwheat also includes the hip-hop influenced “Hail, Hail Rock ’n Roll,” a history lesson all fans of modern music could stand to learn:
This, by the way, is what’s so great about Garland Jeffreys. Although he came from the late ’60s, early ’70s New York City rock ’n roll scene that produced artists like Lou Reed, he’s never limited himself to any one sound. His music is laced with blues, rock, reggae, jazz, soul, gospel, R & B … There really isn’t a more versatile artist in rock ’n roll.
The King of In Between, his most recent release, is somewhat more reflective than his earlier records. Many, if not most, of its tracks focus on aging and mortality – yeah, we’re all getting older – but without self-pity or cloying sentimentality. He’s still not afraid to confront racial politics in America, being the son of an African American father and Puerto Rican mother, and I love him for that, but he also seems comfortable in his own skin. The moment I heard the first track from The King of In Between, “Coney Island Winter,” I knew this album was special:
But here’s the thing. While Garland Jeffreys’ music often deals with heavy subjects, he’s anything but a downer. In concert, he’s entertaining as hell – funny, energetic, loud, fast, soulful … exactly what you want in a live performance. And more than that, he’s a genuinely nice guy. After playing nearly two hours Friday night – a long set for a street festival – he was kind enough to chat with us and take a few pictures:
Forty years in rock ’n roll clearly hasn’t taken his humanity away.
Friday night’s show was a rousing and life-affirming trip through his diverse career, and it left me with only one regret: That I hadn’t managed to see him sooner.
Better late than never, I suppose.
In the meantime, here’s my current favorite song from The King Of In Between, “Roller Coaster Town,” another love song to the city of his birth:
“Every song I’ve ever written is about New York,” he says in the introduction to the song. And that may be. But if he ever chooses to relocate to Chicago, we’d love to have him.