Pausing between songs at his intimate, mostly acoustic November 6 show at SPACE in Evanston, Illinois, New York singer/songwriter Garland Jeffreys quipped, “So, we’re on this little tour … I call it ‘The Rest of My Life Tour’ ….”
At 72 and still bringing down the house, you can’t begrudge him the hint of road-weariness implicit in that observation. Since the release of his phenomenal come-back album, The King of In Between, in 2011, Garland Jeffreys has seemingly been on tour nonstop, pausing a bit to record his crowd-funded follow-up, Truth Serum, in 2013, before heading back out on the road. My wife and I have seen him in Chicago three times since 2012, twice with a full band. But this latest tour takes a stripped-down, conversational approach, featuring Jeffreys on acoustic guitar and vocals, accompanied only by Justin Jordan on electric guitar.
In Evanston, Jeffreys opened his twelve-song set with “Coney Island Winter,” the first track off The King of In Between. Despite some momentary problems with the sound, his sparse live take reminded the audience why we flocked back to him in 2011 when that song was released. After an extended sabbatical, “Coney Island Winter” was everything you could ask for in Garland Jeffreys’ song: A guitar riff that cuts like a knife; a sneering lead vocal that says, “Politicians kiss my ass/Your promises, they break like glass”; and indelible images of his beloved New York City, a living character that stalks the background – and often the foreground – of Jeffreys’ forty-plus-year oeuvre.
His unabashed love for his hometown, and his unflinching honesty about it, were among the things that first attracted me to Jeffreys’ music in the early 1980s. His lyrics suggest that he feels about New York much the same way I feel about Chicago: Like it’s a member of the family, deeply loved, deeply flawed, but irretrievably woven into the fabric of who you are. It’s not surprising that Chicago gives Jeffreys such a warm welcome, or that he feels a fondness for the Second City. We get it. To illustrate the point, Jeffreys said between songs that he wished he could relocate Chicago so that it would be next door to New York. It’d make both better, he suggested, and he’s not altogether wrong.
Anyway, during his recent stop here he strolled through his catalog with a sort of wistful joy, pausing as he tuned his guitar or flipped through pages in his notebook to comment on the state of the music industry (you really should buy his music, people!); to expound on the derivation of his work; and to wax philosophical about his family, his career, and his life in music, including his fifty-year friendship with Lou Reed, who died a little over a year ago. The set list leaned heavily on Jeffreys’ 1977 release, Ghost Writer, including “35 Millimeter Dreams,” “I May Not Be Your Kind,” “Spanish Town,” “New York Skyline,” and the album’s title track. From The King of In Between, he played, appropriately, the blues-tinged anthem, “Till John Lee Hooker Calls Me,” in addition to that album’s opening track.
And from Truth Serum, his latest, he played the album’s first single, “Any Rain,” and “It’s What I Am,” a song that has become his signature. The son of an African-American father and a Puerto Rican mother, Jeffreys sings, “Too white to be black, too black to be white. I’m one of them.” But he also sings:
I say to all my friends I’ll always be a part of you No matter where I go No matter what I do … It’s what I am
And so, it seems, it is.
Fittingly, before closing the set with his debut single, “Wild In the Streets,” which was initially released in 1973 and later included on Ghost Writer, Jeffreys covered Lou Reed’s “I’m Waiting for the Man.” Recorded by Reed’s band, the Velvet Underground, in 1967, “I’m Waiting for the Man” is one of those songs that altered the course of rock music, turning its focus from changing the world to documenting the lives of the people in it. Jeffreys has long been part of this introspective movement – a movement that ultimately spawned punk rock and more – but he’s often overlooked as one of its pioneers.
Maybe two-thirds of the way through his set, Jeffreys also paid tribute to Bob Marley – whom he met, coincidentally, in Chicago in the 1970s – with a soulful rendition of one of Marley’s most recognizable songs, “No Woman, No Cry.” That song contains one of the great lyrics of all time, and one that so perfectly fits the experience of seeing Garland Jeffreys in concert: “In this great future, you can’t forget your past …” Garland Jeffreys is part of the past, present, and future of rock music. I’m eager to see what the “Rest of His Life” tour brings next.