At Gerdes Folk City
A review written for the Folk and Acoustic Music Exchange
With nearly every flattering superlative already having been laid on Doc Watson at some point in his career, there isn't much that could be said to increase or diminish the stature of one of traditional American music's greatest ambassadors. In fact, it's really kind of hard to find any appropriate adjectives to capture just how much the man has contributed. As Watson has become almost a mythical figure in some circles, it is of the utmost importance that Sugar Hill has finally unearthed and released the recordings of Doc's first performances in front of New York's burgeoning West Village folk scene of late '62/early '63. Having spent the 1950's in rockabilly bands, Watson hit the stage at Gerdes Folk City without even owning an acoustic guitar, having to borrow one for the performances. Amazingly, despite the circumstances, these records show Watson to have been in full control of his craft from day one. |
The liner notes tell of Watson's great surprise that these sophisticated New York audiences would respond so enthusiastically to such strongly traditional material, but if he battled his nerves on those evenings, it certainly doesn't show up in the recordings. Relaxed and warmly entertaining, Watson chats with the audience, invites friends such as Ralph Rinzler, John Herald, and Bob Yellin to join him on stage, and generally steals the show with his richly adorned tales and exemplary picking. In effect, the cross section of tunes chosen for those first performances offer a blueprint for Doc's career.
From haunting Appalachian ballads like "Little Sadie, The House Carpenter and The Roving Gambler, Watson's affinity for the sounds that surrounded him in his youth is in great evidence. Being one of the first performers to have the benefit of growing up with both primary song sources and commercial recordings, Watson's knowledge of material and the ability to translate his talents into different forms is truly astounding. He is just as comfortable jumping into St. Louis Blues and Milk Cow Blues as he is delivering a flurry of fingers in covers of Merle Travis' Blue Smoke and Cannonball Rag. The depth of Watson's abilities seems to have been on full display from day one.
You can almost feel the amazement of the crowd's first witnessing of the extent of his talent when jumping from guitar workouts, to the fiery mandolin on Liberty, to modal-tuned banjo on The Wagoner's Lad. While songs like The Old Wooden Rocker and The Dream of the Miner's Child are not particularly flashy, the poignancy of their words and the way in which they are delivered do much to add to the extremely inviting feel of the performances. Similarly, Watson's spirited take on the rapid fire nonsense syllable-laden Sing Song Kitty (which seems to be strongly related to both Froggy Went A-Courtin' and King Kong Kitchee Kitchee Ki-Me-O) adds a little humor to a set that could have just as easily focused solely on his instrumental prowess or the stark sincerity of his repertoire.
Although there may not be many reasons to recommend this collection over some of the other Doc Watson live albums on the market, At Gerdes Folk City truly does give the listener the feeling of sitting in the audience watching a folk legend take his first public steps. Despite the historical relevance, this is just a great collection to sit back and enjoy - without any adjectives necessary.