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I guess that once in 28 years conforms with most people’s definitions of ‘rare’, so this was a very special occasion for fans of folk/blues music – it was Spider John’s first UK appearance since 1981. The gig, at the perfect venue for this kind of thing, was put on by fRoots magazine editor Ian Anderson, himself no mean practitioner of the genre, whose life took a significant turn as a result of seeing Spider John back in his youth.
Spider John Koerner is a bona fide legend, having been one of the first rank of folk/blues revivalists at the very beginning of the 1960s. Based in Minneapolis, he was a habitué of the coffee house scene there, and famously hooked up with the very young Robert Zimmerman while he was in the early stages of inventing the thing called Bob Dylan. Dylan copped some tunes, some techniques, and almost certainly some attitude from him. With like-minded souls, Spider John formed the highly influential trio Koerner, Ray and Glover, and their Rags, Blues & Hollers records of the mid-60s had a major impact at the time, which means they played a significant role in the development of all kinds of music that went ‘global’. Spider John himself has gone through life with a pretty low profile, making records from time to time, doing gigs from time to time, staying pretty much under the radar. And as with all the not many artists with his very special pedigree, people who see him say ‘Why isn’t this guy really well-known?’
In front of a full house at the Green Note, he arranged his lanky frame in a chair, picked up his 12-string, put on his rack harmonica and proceeded to show what a unique acoustic artist he is. Across two sets, he went through a repertoire that consisted of songs he described as ‘traditional American songs in bar style’ and some of his own compositions. The former category included some familiar numbers such as Careless Love, Jack of Diamonds, Delia’s Gone, Midnight Special, St James Infirmary and Goodnight Irene. But there was nothing familiar about the way Spider John did them.
Like all the best artists from his era, Spider John has his own unique ‘thing’, a wholly individual style that never delivers up standard issue, workmanlike versions of the traditional song pool. He gets right inside each song, freshens it up, makes it his own, as if he’d written it himself and was reflecting his personal experience in it. Each performance has a spontaneity about it, there’s no sense of going through the motions. This sucks an audience in, takes them along on the journey; it’s what makes people sit up and take notice. They know they couldn’t get the same thing from anyone else.
One of the great joys of seeing the best acoustic artists is the individuality and idiosyncrasies of their playing – no two are remotely the same. Spider John’s unique 12-string sound is derived from a very heavy bass picking style and an emphasis on single string rather than constant chord work. He’s got a signature lick too, a kind of slurred run/flourish that crops up frequently at the end of lines and phrases, like a hook line, and it makes the music dance. Without ever sounding busy, his style has an outward simplicity that masks some quite complex arrangements and bits of business. The really good players make this kind of thing look easy but everyone who’s listening gets dazzled.
Spider John may now be 71 years of age, but age has not withered the voice, which remains powerful and effective at even the higher range. His is not by any means what people would normally regard as a ‘folky’ voice – it’s really a kind of holler, delivering each song right at the audience, demanding their attention. He has his own phrasing and timing when doing traditional songs, which again makes them unlike any other version you could hear. And there’s an urgency to the vocal style that’s telling you that you need to listen to the story that’s being told or the feeling that’s being described.
The folk/blues tag describes music that has bluesy picking, sequences and fills allied to traditional folk tunes, and Spider John is one of the finest practitioners you could hope to see. His repertoire includes ragtime-style numbers, with the complex picking and runs that entails. He also does various a cappella numbers, much more in the style of field hollers than what most people would regard as ‘folk singing’. And he’s no slouch as a songwriter either. The originals that he did lost nothing at all in comparison with the traditional fare, and in fact were among the real highlights of the set. They fitted in snugly with the rest, not jarring at all, beautifully constructed with non-cliché lyrics.
By the end of his set, Spider John has told you through the songs a lot about life, about people, about politics even. He’s also told you a few jokes, delivered in a laconic, deadpan style. His whole presence is that of a man who isn’t in a hurry, who isn’t desperate to impress, who’s looked at a lot of life, thinking hard about some of it and greeting the rest of it with a shrug.
It would be nice to think that people over here might get to see him again soon, and it seems that plans are afoot. If he does play over here again, go see him. You’ll know you’ve seen someone special.