Review: Garland Jeffreys at Lion's Lair, 1/21/12

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There was no opening act for Garland Jeffreys on Saturday night, and the show got started around 9 p.m., so if showed up thinking it would start later, you missed some songs. This wasn't the usual sort of show for Lion's Lair, where the area in front of the stage is kind of a free-for-all. The staff had set out folding chairs so people could witness the spellbinding powers of Jeffreys in comfort rather than standing like they were at a punk show or almost anything else. Jeffreys sat on stage playing his acoustic-electric guitar with a masterful assurance, and he was accompanied by a second guitarist named Gabe, who enhanced every moment of song with perfectly interlocking rhythms.

Jeffreys played from across the breadth of his long career with some newer material earlier on. But in the second half of his roughly hour and a half set, he drew mostly from his classic 1977 album Ghost Writer. It was immediately striking how Jeffreys seems to be singing stronger than ever, and the sheer emotive resonance and versatility of his singing never flagged.

On "35 Millimeter Dreams," Jeffreys proved he hasn't lost passion for any of his material. Sure, he's a pro who's been at this for five decades or so now, but it never felt like just an act. Jeffreys clearly felt this music from deep down, not just as someone who felt that way once and can tap immediately back into that emotional vein, but as someone who has taken the pains to craft the perfect expression of that feeling.

At the beginning of "Matador," Jeffreys flubbed the intro, and without missing a beat, he told us that he didn't even drink and gracefully went back into it, delivering the vocals with a palpable force. During "Spanish Town," it was impressive to see how Gabe and Garland accented their collective playing to give the impression of slowing down and changing the dynamic of the tempo and, thus, of the musical narrative itself. The interplay between the two musicians was seamless and made for a deeply layered but completely uncluttered sound.

After "Rough and Ready," Jeffreys told us that the next song was for everybody in the house and then he went into "New York Skyline." Someone had been shouting out the title earlier in the set, but everyone seemed thrilled to get to hear it live. Jeffreys even got us all to sing along to the chorus for a while and then playfully said, "That's enough." But someone kept on anyway for another couple of stanzas. In that song, Jeffreys sang of the two towers of the World Trade Center, and at the end of the song he said, "Thank you for walking me through my nervous breakdown." Obviously, his experience with the 9-11 attacks, like everyone from New York, wasn't just something he saw on TV.

Following "She Didn't Lie," Jeffreys played the familiar strains of "Wild in the Streets," and everyone knew that song and many sang along. But toward the end, Jeffreys laid down his own guitar while Gabe kept playing, and he came out into the crowd and sang directly into our faces before returning to the stage. The main part of the set ended with a rousing cover of "96 Tears."

Everyone stood up to applaud and there was such a demand for another song that Garland and Gabe treated us to "Got to Get Away From This World" from 1997's Wildlife Dictionary. Commanding an audience with just a couple of amplified acoustic guitars and a strong voice isn't often easy, but Jeffreys made it seem as natural as breathing.


Personal Bias: I was already a bit of a fan of Garland Jeffreys and his songwriting before the show, and I feel lucky to have seen him in such an intimate setting.

Random Detail: Ran into Joaquin Liebert of Reckless Nights (and The Risk and others) at the show.

By the Way: Jeffreys had vinyl copies of The King of In Between at the show.

Follow Backbeat on Twitter: @westword_music

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