Jim was back in town for one of his rare visits on September 3rd and was headlining the Thursday night show at the fey Johnny D’s. I had to go, got a solo ticket, and showed up at 7:40 or so for an 8:00 show, expecting a huge crowd. But even though Davis Square itself was already writhing in the clutches of the Thursday college wave, Johnny D’s was an island of calm, with about half the tables full and only a few people at the bar.
I grabbed a beer and a table behind the soundboard, and then joined in on a conversation with Jim, who was cruising through the bar area but stopped to talk, as warm and friendly as ever. As it turned out, all three of us fans in the conversation had been at the Me and Thee to see Jim the last time he was in the area. He remembered that well, especially since he had shown up in Marlborough when he was really looking for Marblehead. Small mistake.
The opener was The Darlings (Kelly Knapp and Simon Ritt), but their lead guitar player had just broken his arm (by punching it through a wall). And so they did an acoustic act for us, the two of them strumming guitars and trying to fill in with a harmonica once in a while. Nice voices, but this act didn’t really work. They covered some old stuff (opening with a few lines of Bill Monroe’s Those Memories of You), and did a couple of well-crafted originals, but were a little boring. In fact, the sound guy was playing solitaire on his phone soon after the set started (I could see over his shoulder) and missed it when Simon’s mike started acting up. He had to be woken from his stupor to go fix it.
But then Jim came on solo and was just fantastic. He’s got a mastery of his voice and his style that’s reminiscent of the best bluegrass singers, but his sound is so uniquely his own. He did a long set, including some of the best songs from throughout his career. He sent a shout-out from the stage to Cousin Kate, hoping she was there, told his story about Nick Lowe, and played song after song co-written with his buddy, Robert Hunter. Possibly the highlight of the set for me was when he did Like Him from his album with Ralph Stanley, which is one of those devotional songs that just brings chills up the backbone. Another one was his early song, Whisper, which also showcases his voice but also his wonderful control of the tone of his guitar.
Jim ended a long set and strolled to the back of the club, then around again to the stage while everybody hooted and hollered. Johnny D’s had filled in a little: all the tables were taken but there were only a handful of people in the standing area and the bar itself was only half full.
Jim made it back up to the stage and I guess he figured that if we were sticking around then he’d keep on playing. And he did a five song encore! He’s written enough songs so he could go on for a while and we sure wanted him to.
After the show I stopped by the merchandise table to talk for a bit (and to be enlisted as photographer by the gaggle of young women gushing over Jim). Then headed on out of the rocking Davis Square and made it back home by 11:30 or so.