David Johansen & the Harry Smiths

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Shaker Review

by Mark Deming

When one looks back at David Johansen's body of work, it's not difficult to get the feeling you're watching an actor who has slipped in and out of a number of character roles over the years; there was the trashy glam punk libertine of his New York Dolls days, the swaggering hard rock belter on his '70s and '80s solo albums, the over-the-top devotee of vintage-nightclub sounds known as Buster Poindexter, and now the grizzled bluesman who cuts pared-to-the bone acoustic sessions with his band the Harry Smiths. Shaker is Johansen's second album with the Harry Smiths, and the set list is comprised of vintage country blues classics made famous by the likes of Son House, Mississippi John Hurt, and Charley Patton (one notable exception: "My Morphine" by Gillian Welch, which fits in seamlessly into the mix). As with much of his material from the past, the theatricality of Johansen's performance is certainly evident here, though given the purposefully sparse musical arrangements of his band, it stands out in a different degree of relief; Johansen avoids an overtone of minstrelsy as he assumes the role of an aging bluesman, but ultimately he sound like an actor on-stage giving a performance as a bluesman rather than the vintage blues singer himself. That's not to say, though, that Johansen doesn't find something pure and honest in these songs; he's always been a con brio performer, and if his touch is sometimes broad, it's also passionate and sensitive, and he doesn't over-play so much as give a dramatic reading that would befit an actor who must balance restraint with the need to communicate with the last row of the balcony. The result is a collection that honors the tenor of the classic country blues recordings while adding a tone that is pure David Johansen, and not only is his delivery strong and compelling, but his voice is more supple than it has been in years, while his musicians back him up with subtle fire. While dozens of modern blues artists have stumbled while trying to re-create the sound of the past, David Johansen has taken a genuinely different approach to that idea, and on Shaker the results are impressive indeed.

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