Report: John Sebastian Live in Saratoga

 

Appearing at the
Montalvo Carriage House on October 22, the erstwhile Lovin’ Spoonful leader
dipped all the way back to the beginning to scoop up gem after gem from his
back catalog.

 

By
Jud Cost

 

John
Sebastian, frontman for famed New York folk-rockers the Lovin’ Spoonful, is
back on the west coast, toting a couple of electric guitars, plenty of chart-topping
’60s tunes and tall tales of the days when his band was as big as most of the
British Invasion stars of the day. The perfect 1965 haircut may have thinned a
bit, and the trademark, round wire-rim glasses have been traded in for the
current model, but the good-time attitude is still there-in spades!

 

“I
was a lucky guy. I grew up right in the heart of Greenwich
Village, right off Washington
Square,” says Sebastian, a card-carrying
member of the budding, early-’60s N.Y. folk scene. At times tonight, Sebastian
seems almost overwhelmed by a supportive Montalvo Carriage House audience of
about 300 in Saratoga, Calif. “Your enthusiasm amazes
me,” he says. “I’ve played places in New York where there’d be old guys in the
back playing chess.”

 

Sebastian
wraps the crowd around his little finger as he describes the night he got up
the nerve to talk to his idol, Delta blues legend Mississippi John Hurt,
concealed in a tiny dressing room behind a green curtain in Manhattan’s
Gaslight Cafe. “I open the curtain, and right there is John Hurt, and I
lose it,” he says. “I forget what I’m gonna ask him.” Unlike
bluesman Lightnin’ Hopkins,
who would turn away when he played his best stuff, Hurt was very kind to the
nervous kid, showing him some of his trademark fretboard maneuvers.

 

The
best moments come when Sebastian describes the genesis of many of the
Spoonful’s ten Top 20 American hits, a streak that lasted from 1965-67. “I
loved Motown, particularly Martha and the Vandellas,” he says as he strums
the chords to “Heat Wave,” the Vandellas’ 1963 hit. “That
sounded so cool. I figured if I played those chords twice as fast it might be
twice as cool.” The pattern immediately morphs into the Lovin’ Spoonful’s
first smash, “Do You Believe In Magic?” an incandescent song whose
title became a buzz phrase for the hippie music scene about to burst at the
seams on the west coast.

 

Or
the time they kinda pinched part of a song by jug-band legend Gus Cannon and
turned it into Spoonful staple “Younger Girl.” Sebastian recalls Mac
Rebennack (a.k.a. Dr. John, the Night Tripper) telling him, “We’d steal
from anybody we could.” The Spoonful, too, notes Sebastian, were real
“musical kleptomaniacs.”

 

“We
headed straight for San Francisco
in 1965,” says Sebastian after forming the band with guitarist Zally
Yanovsky, bassist Steve Boone and drummer Joe Butler. “Of course, in those
days we couldn’t get arrested. We played a club in North Beach
called Mother’s that featured a dancer named Topless Maria. And it wasn’t easy
playing when you’re going like this,” he says, demonstrating the whiplash
effect that sharing the stage with a semi-nude young girl would have on a
novice musician.

 

Boone
asked Sebastian back in the early days, right after the hits started coming, if
weird things had been happening to him, too, like “getting lots of
attention you know you didn’t deserve” from young female admirers.

 

“Nashville Cats” [“Been playin’
since they’s babies…Get work before they’re two”] came from a late-night
beer or two shared in the hotel bar by Sebastian and Yanovsky after the
Spoonful had played a prestigious Music City venue. They noticed some kid
setting up his gear and starting to play his guitar for any bar patrons who’d
listen. “And he was so much better than we were. Here we were, playing
this big theater, and he’s playing the Holiday Inn. We just tiptoed out of that
place.” Turns out the neophyte picker was a teenage Danny Gatton.

 

During
his early days, Sebastian played harp with the Even Dozen Jug Band, whose
members included David Grisman, Steve Katz and Maria D’Amato. The gold standard
of the genre, however, was the Jim Kweskin Jug Band from Cambridge, Mass. whose
jug player, Fritz Richmond, is credited with coming up with the band name for
the Lovin’ Spoonful. “Fritz looked like a riverboat gambler, and he had
these funny, little round spectacles. Note to self…” says Sebastian who
would soon adopt similar eyewear.

 

The
“straight eight,” a change-up from rock’s trademark 2 and 4 backbeat
was copped by the Spoonful from another Motown classic, “Where Did Our
Love Go” by the Supremes, claims Sebastian, who used it as the backbone
for their ’66 hit “Daydream.” With the curious omission of the band’s
only U.S. number one smash, “Summer In The City,” (a song written by
Sebastian, Boone and John’s younger brother, Mark Sebastian), all the career
stepping-stones were touched upon, including “You Didn’t Have To Be So
Nice” and “Did You Ever Have To Make Up Your Mind?” Sebastian
ended things with a heartfelt rendition of “Darling Be Home Soon,”
followed by a rip-snorting harmonica encore, an instrument he first heard
played by his dad, a classical music virtuoso.

 

If
a full-blown Lovin’ Spoonful reunion doesn’t seem in the cards these days
(Yanovsky died in 2002), John Sebastian is ready, willing and able to spread
his band’s legacy single-handed, just the way he started out in Greenwich Village: one small basket-house at a time.
Oblivious chess-playing old-timers in the back are now optional.

 

[Photo
Credit: CSP Images]

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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