Doc Watson is officially an American treasure, and has been ever since he was accorded the National Medal of Arts in a 1997 White House ceremony. But back home in North Carolina, there's still some minor quibbling over exactly where Watson hails from, whether it's Stoney Fork or Deep Gap. You can't blame folks for wanting to claim the 76-year-old flat-picking legend as their own.
At the Birchmere on Monday, Watson, whose wavy white hair and grand eyebrows would look good on a dollar bill or Mount Rushmore, announced that he had "a finger-pickin' notion." And though his digits won't let him cram quite as many notes into his solos as they used to, he still takes artistic chances. He made the Moody Blues' bombastic classic "Nights in White Satin" seem like a fine folk song for a flat-picker. And on the coldest night of the young century, he warmed up the room with "Summertime." Watson's voice remains robust, and he's aware of that: Before launching into Jimmie Rodgers's "He's in the Jailhouse Now," Watson warned the sound man to protect his ears when the yodeling parts come around. When the crowd gave him a mid-song ovation for yodeling better than a man with his years has a right to, Watson explained, "I don't smoke."
He paid tribute to his son and longtime stage companion Merle Watson by covering "Columbus Stockade Blues," a song they played together before Merle died in a tractor accident in 1985. Merle's son Richard accompanies his grandfather on the road and in the studio now, and he sat in on several blues numbers, including Rodgers's "Frankie and Johnny" and Blind Lemon Jefferson's standard "Matchbox Blues."
Jack Lawrence, a guitar wizard who has also toured a lot with Watson since Merle's death, got Watson to join in on "10 Miles to Deep Gap." Watson's playing throughout the instrumental, which Lawrence wrote, was so enthusiastic and crisp, even the folks from Stoney Fork would have applauded. Before leaving, Watson invited fans to help him sing Maybelle Carter's spiritual "Keep on the Sunny Side." It was an offer they couldn't refuse.
Before his death in 1973, Gram Parsons envisioned a "cosmic American music" that mixed country, rock and spacey folk. He never achieved his vision, but for 17 years, Howe Gelb's Giant Sand has concocted a magic blend that picked up where Parsons left off.
Gelb, with longtime drummer John Convertino and bassist Joey Burns, pulled into the Black Cat Sunday night for a rare East Coast stop. As enigmatic as ever, the band played a fine set of sprawling country folk that quietly pulsed, then flowered into structured songs.
Gelb used a Walkman to send strange sound effects into the music, rattled a maraca while he played electric piano, and made his guitar squawk like a weird bird. "Questions?" he asked during one lull. "Will there be a quiz?" one audience member asked. "Well," Howe said, "it will be a test . . . of endurance."
It was. Even his band never seemed quite sure what he would do next. But there were many moments of beauty: "Loving Cup" shuffled like classic Buck Owens; "Wolfy" was the Grateful Dead with a good editor; "Wonder" sounded like an overlooked Americana standard; the new "X-tra Wide" evoked the starry desert vistas of Gelb's Arizona home.
The set ended with Gelb selling the new Sand CD on the honor system. "Just put $10 in the box and take a CD," he said as he wandered off. Typical Howe, tossing his fans off balance and watching how they react. Gelb and his Giant Sand, happily, sounded as sure as ever that he's headed in the right direction, wherever that may be.
The National Institutes of Health sponsors a first-rate chamber music series. On Sunday the young Berlin-based Artemis Quartet began with Stravinsky's Three Pieces for String Quartet, followed by Verdi's String Quartet in E Minor, and closed with a superlative performance of Bartok's Quartet No. 6.
The Artemis (violinists Natalia Prischepenko and Heime Mueller, violist Volker Jakobsen and cellist Eckard Runge) appeared at NIH two years ago. Coached by the Alban Berg, Juilliard and Emerson quartets, the group made its official debut during Vienna's 1997-98 concert season, and is now on its first North American tour.
On Sunday the players swept through the Bartok with the muscles of a gymnast and the sensitivity of an artist at the easel. Recalling the haunting force of the mesto (mournful) theme throughout the work, the ensemble struck a careful balance between the individuality Bartok gives each instrument and the sense of a tightly interlocked whole. The players also managed to maintain the insistent march of the second movement while suffusing it with the twisted, sardonic bitterness that underlies most of the work.
The quartet glided from the primeval austerity of Stravinsky's opening "Danse" to the neurotic tension of the "Excentrique" and the tentative solemnity of the closing "Cantique."
For Verdi's only chamber piece, the bows of the foursome dazzled the ear with the music's lustrous harmonic fabric and passionate urgency.