Ramblin’ Jack Elliott is a sort of an apostle of American folk music, having personally witnessed giants like Leadbelly, Big Bill Broonzy and Woody Guthrie roam the land.
And so the small assembly Monday night at Saint Mark Presbyterian Church in Rockville didn’t seem to mind that Elliott’s hourlong appearance, sponsored by the local nonprofit Institute of Musical Traditions, was as long on stories as it was on songs.
The 79-year-old legend, seemingly carved from rock, slowly but wryly unspooled tales of encountering American rodeos in the oddest of places (Japan, Belgium), climbing up a mountaintop radio antenna in Bethlehem, Pa., during a driving snowstorm to meditate and being told by a cocky Greenwich Village-era Bob Dylan that he had “relinquished” to Elliott the classic “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right.”
Elliott delivered the latter — in a voice even froggier than latter-day Bob’s, if such can be imagined — as well as tunes like “San Francisco Bay Blues,” “Diamond Joe” and “Arthritis Blues.”
Through errant chord changes and a hacking cough, it wasn’t always clear that Elliott — still a decent flatpicker, given the mileage on those hands — had ended the same songs as he had begun. But he weathered these lapses with the same rascally charm of his storytelling.
Since he began recording for the indie label ANTI-, Elliott has enjoyed a kind of renaissance, nabbing a Grammy for best traditional blues recording for 2009’s “A Stranger Here.” One cut from there, “How Long Blues,” stood out Monday, sounding truly tormented, in contrast to the pleasant, lazy gait of the ’09 rendition.
That this national treasure wound up in the rec-hall of a suburban Maryland church seemed somehow appropriate.
Dude’s been everywhere, man.