David Johansen and Syd Straw at the Old Town School

April 2, 2001

By Jim DeRogatis, pop music critic

The secret of musical brilliance? Top on the list is the pairing of a great voice with the perfect material.

It is hard to imagine a better combination than rock 'n' roll legend David Johansen and the songs of blues originators Sonny Boy Williamson, Mississippi John Hurt, Clarence Ashley and Doc Boggs.

Backed with considerable taste, talent and dexterity by his five-piece, mostly acoustic band, the Harry Smiths, former New York Doll and Buster Poindexter look-alike Johansen shined at the Old Town School of Folk Music during the second of two sold-out shows Saturday.

David Johansen and Syd Straw at the Old Town School

Johansen promised to approach the classic blues of the '20s and '30s "from a jazz head," and he delivered on that pledge, avoiding the obvious cliches while lovingly applying his wonderfully raspy bullhorn croak.

The singer inhabited these tunes of murder, lust and betrayal as if he'd lived them. Indeed, midway through the set, he paused to take a swig from a medicine bottle. "St. John's Wort," he joked (though it was actually an elixir to soothe that mighty throat).

Honoring the spirit of the musical archivist who gives his group its name, Johansen conducted a two-hour musical history lesson, tracing the blues from their origins in the cotton fields of the South, to their cross-pollination with jazz in New Orleans, and on to fathering rock 'n' roll in Memphis.

Coming late in the evening and via the encore, the latter connection was made through rollicking versions of "Looking for A Kiss" and Bo Diddley's "Pills" (both from the Dolls' first album) and Johansen's poignant and beautiful solo epics, "Frenchette" and "Heart of Gold," which became showcases for his voice and the band, respectively.

It all added up to the sort of evening that earns a spot on music lovers' lists of "best ever" concerts--the sort of evening that leaves you wondering how anyone else could have ever sung these songs.

Opening for Johansen was former Chicagoan Syd Straw. Thrown a bit by a guitar that refused to stay in tune, the always effervescent singer dug deep, leaned on backing guitarist Dag Juhlin, and eventually thrilled with bravura cover versions of Peter Blegvad's "Gold" and the Moody Blues' "Nights In White Satin."