What does Ramblin’ Jack Elliot, a 75-year old country folk guitarist, have to do with Pop Montreal, the city’s ecstatic embrace of the “next big thing”? Perhaps the most significant asset that Elliot’s Wednesday night set at the Ukrainian Center brought to the festival was authenticity. Elliot shuffled onstage laboriously, but once seated on his stool he attacked tunes by the likes of Woody Guthrie and Bob Dylan, among other classics, with the eagerness and zeal of a 16-year-old at a talent show, even though he has been performing for over four decades.
But Elliot never uses his old age as an excuse for hitting a false note here or there, despite admitting to the audience that he has begun to have a harder time touring extensively and is spending an increasing amount of time sleeping in his hotel rooms. As evidenced by his presentation Wednesday night – just a man and his guitar on a stage – Elliot has always been a musician who tackles music his own way. We are, after all, talking about a man who once played Bob Dylan’s “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright” at an open mic, only to notice Dylan himself, who happened to be present, stand up and shout “That’s my song… but I relinquish it to you!”
Surely, a man to whom Bob Dylan defers automatically possesses credibility, but Elliot is carried by more than just his reputation. His warm playing style infuses life and a sense of humanity into every one of his songs. His voice has a plaintive, worn-in feel to match the cowboy hat he wears onstage. When asking for adjustments to his microphone EQ, he described his desired sound as “more Johnny Cash, less Tiny Tim.” Elliot’s lengthy between-song banter, which earned him his namesake, ranged from why he prohibits flash photography while he sings (it makes him forget the lyrics) to an experience involving him letting his dog drive his car (the dog drove too slowly, making Elliot late for a show). Elliot’s skill in melding dialogue with wistful American folk tunes is a throwback to an earlier musical era – here’s hoping he’ll be ramblin’ on into the future for years to come.