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POP MUSIC REVIEW

Authentic blues, folk amid Getty's ivory-tower setting

May 12, 2003|Steve Hochman | Special to The Times

Like many of the blues and folk originators to whom David Johansen paid homage during his concert Saturday at the Getty Center's Harold M. Williams Auditorium, the singer took repeated hits from a bottle kept at hand on a stool next to him. But this was different.

Holding a dropper to his mouth, Johansen explained it was St. John's wort -- a botanical extract purported to cure, uh, the blues.

A gag from "A Mighty Wind"? Even the idea of a white New Yorker doing neatly mannered arrangements of rural tunes at the highbrow Getty smacks of the current celluloid skewering by Christopher Guest and crew. But neither herbal mood elevator nor ivory-tower setting diminished the artistic and emotional legitimacy of Johansen's interpretations of chestnuts and obscurities mostly from the pre-World War II rural South, as featured on his two latest albums.

The show capped a weekend Getty Research Institute program titled "Feel Like Going Home," featuring film screenings and seminars exploring biographical portrayals of musicians. Ironically, Johansen is best known for winkingly contrived musical portrayals -- the cross-dressing '70s glamster of the New York Dolls and '80s bon vivant Buster Poindexter (of "Hot Hot Hot" fame). But this was no camp act.

Looking like a grizzled cross of Jim Morrison and Kurt Cobain, the resonant-voiced singer ably evoked old recordings by such figures as Son House and Memphis Minnie; Gillian Welch's darkly compatible "My Morphine" was the only offering from a living writer. But with his nimble four-man acoustic band (called the Harry Smiths, after the late avant-garde filmmaker who compiled the vintage records of the essential '50s "Anthology of American Folk Music"), he bent familiar blues and folk motifs into distinctive shapes. The settings were hardly authentic, but they were true to the spirit and true to Johansen, and that's the most meaningful kind of authenticity.

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