David Johansen & the Harry Smiths | Theater Critic's Choice | Chicago Reader

David Johansen & the Harry Smiths 

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DAVID JOHANSEN & THE HARRY SMITHS

From his days as front man for the New York Dolls to his more recent incarnation as lounge lizard Buster Poindexter, David Johansen has often relied on an unstable mixture of gifted role-playing and heavy-handed irony. But with his new band he seems to have found a better fit--though "folkie" may be just another role for him, it's one he can inhabit sincerely. The Harry Smiths take their name from the self-styled anthropologist who compiled the Anthology of American Folk Music in 1952, a document that would serve as inspiration and touchstone for the 1960s folk revival. And on their eponymously titled debut, released last year on Chesky, Johansen and company immerse themselves in a set that reflects Smith's own obsession with what one commentator recently called "gangsta folk": the songs they've chosen are full of betrayed lovers, fatal mistakes, murders, suicides, and spiritual immolations. Musically, the Harry Smiths deftly mix tradition and modernism, segueing without a bump from note-for-note reproductions of mountain harmonies or Delta blues patterns into postvaudeville pop chords or smooth countrypolitan acoustic guitar. Out in front, Johansen delivers even the most morbid lyrics with an offhand ease that gives them the immediacy of nightmares: on "James Alley Blues," a Richard "Rabbit" Brown tune from Smith's anthology, he rasps, "Sometimes I think you're too sweet to die / Then another time I think you oughta be buried alive." On Lightnin' Hopkins's rakish "Katie Mae," he sounds like he's been up all night drinking Old Grand-Dad laced with Spanish fly. The public-domain number "Oh Death," on the other hand, is a gleefully bleak graveyard dance: Johansen chokes out lines like "The earth and worms both have a claim" in a constricted gargle, while the band charges through a half-hysterical minor-key reel behind him. Lots of critics like to complain about "rock stars" tackling traditional rural material, implying that people who haven't lived the life don't have any right to its music. But Johansen isn't milking some kind of hick shtick--he clearly loves these songs, and he throws himself into each character with the passion of a dedicated actor. Friday and Saturday, March 30 and 31, 8 PM, Old Town School of Folk Music, 4544 N. Lincoln; 773-728-6000.

DAVID WHITEIS

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Brian Koonin.

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