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POP MUSIC REVIEW : John Sebastian Serves Up Lovin' Spoonful of Honey


SAN JUAN CAPISTRANO — John Sebastian didn't have to be so nice, but the fans who turned out for his warm, witty, eminently companionable show at the Coach House on Friday weren't about to complain.

Not that Sebastian can afford to be arrogant. At 49, he still looks boyish, but his voice hasn't aged well. The brightness and verve that registered in his days as the Lovin' Spoonful's front man (now more than a quarter century in the past) are long gone. His singing Friday had the texture of knotted wood, husky and rough and not very flexible. So, accompanied by a three-man band, he fell back on a disarming personality and exuberantly played renditions of appealing material that has aged well.

He opened with "You and Me Go Way Back," one of three songs culled from his solid new album, "Tar Beach." This welcoming overture embraced a predominantly Boomer crowd that indeed must have followed Sebastian from way back. The song also beckoned, in theme if not musical approach, toward the stylistic slant of much of what would follow: Sebastian and band spent most of the show going way, way back, to the jug band music he played in his pre-Spoonful days as a Greenwich Village folkie.

A good chunk of the set was devoted to old country blues well suited to Sebastian's homespun, creaky voice--amiable songs by the likes of Mississippi John Hurt and Sleepy John Estes that call for feeling and personality rather than powerhouse vocalizing.

Several jaunty Spoonful songs fit nicely into the jug band vein, including "Daydream," "Did You Ever Have to Make Up Your Mind," "Lovin' You" and "Nashville Cats."

Sebastian's vocal creakiness caught up with him on two more fine oldies, "Darling Be Home Soon" and "Summer in the City." But the former at least maintained its gentle glow, and the latter offered some harmony-guitar sizzle from Sebastian and lead player Jim Vivino.

In keeping with the notion of going back to musical origins, Sebastian introduced "Gimme Back My Roots," a rollicking but pointed new blues he wrote with Vivino. The song wryly underscores the need for pop to be anchored in a rich past rather than set adrift from fad to passing fad.

Vivino's slide guitar playing certainly was steeped in tradition. But it was lanky Fritz Richmond, a veteran of the '60s-vintage Jim Kweskin Jug Band, who truly made the sound jug-ular. Richmond rusticated the rhythm using objects now available only in antique shops: His instruments were a pottery jug suited to holding moonshine whiskey and a bass fabricated from a wooden pole with one thick string attached--an implement that looked like Huck Finn's fishing rod until Richmond mounted it on its washtub foundation.

The bass thumped along with appropriately loose drumming from James Wormworth, a young fellow who nevertheless showed a knack for old-time beat-keeping. Richmond turned his jug into a poor man's tuba, producing fat, sputtering notes by blowing into its mouth.

Sebastian offered a funny, cheerful introduction to virtually every song, linking the tunes together in an ongoing discourse that made the evening go by like a visit from an old friend who drops by to joke, reminisce and update you on some of his latest doings. This sociable musician seemed particularly happy to be back in the company of other players after many years of touring as a solo act.

His friendly visit actually was a bit short on the latest news. Sebastian played just 75 minutes, and well could have expanded the set with more of the engaging "Tar Beach" material. The audience certainly didn't want him to go so soon, but its lusty call for a second encore failed to prolong the stay. Still, Sebastian lingered long enough to draw his fans into more happy singing and clapping along than the Coach House is apt to witness for a while to come.

Those looking for pure, plain-beautiful singing didn't have to leave disappointed, thanks to Beth Fitchet Wood. The opening solo-acoustic set by the singer from Laguna Beach ranged through an excellent, varied, intelligently chosen selection of material that showcased her voice in settings both soaring and delicate.

Included were a sweet traditional Irish song, a rich, assured, longing-filled "Somewhere Over the Rainbow," a jokey, folksy nonsense song, and tense studies of urban life written by a couple of fine craftsmen, Jules Shear and Wood's old band mate from Honk, Richard Stekol. In Wood's hands, Stekol's dramatic "Repay" came off as the best song Shawn Colvin never wrote.

Wood flubbed a note or two on her guitar, but they were negligible imperfections in a set that summoned some of the emotional depth and tawny vocal hue of a Bonnie Raitt for "Buckeyed Jim," a lamenting Honk oldie, and the haunting "Baghdad Cafe" theme, "Calling You."

During the past few years Wood has given good performances in reunion shows by Honk and with the Girls, a local harmony trio. But she never has sounded better than she did on her own. She is scheduled to play solo at the Renaissance Cafe, 234 Forest Ave., Laguna Beach, on Sunday and April 30, and with the Girls at Slade's Restaurant, 327 Newport Center Drive, Newport Beach, April 17 and 24.

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