River of Grass Café – 05/18/12
Joel Zoss (www.JoelZoss.com) played the last show of this season at River of Grass Cafe’s concert series with one Cotten-picking good performance. And I say that with full conviction, cause here’s a man whom an ex-slave took aside as a teenager to teach long forgotten southern traditional songs. Here’s a man who when he was a little older actually played guitar with, and learned to play guitar from Elizabeth Cotten (1895-1987). Here’s a man who went on to tour with, play with, and write for some of the greatest names in modern music, including Bonnie Raitt and B.B. King. And here’s a man who singularly gave us a nearly two and a half hour show of twenty-three songs divided into two sets that filled the River of Grass Café with the unique sounds that were all Zoss.
While the evening was one of mostly originals, Joel did open with a Memphis Blues rendition of “Oh, Weeping Mary,” singing with the kind of sincerity that can only come from having learned from a woman who had seen, lived in, and then escaped slavery. Songs without history can only be sung, but ones with heritage are reborn with each re-telling, and Joel breathed new life into this piece of enduring providence. He also covered an Elizabeth Cotten tune called “Oh, Babe, It Ain’t No Lie” which she wrote at age eleven in response to a baby sitter who had wronged her. But when he played it, Joel’s sense of tradition and meaning were so pervasive that one couldn’t help wonder if maybe he was telling of his own woes when singing, “Just one women in this one horse town/And that women keeps telling lies on me.” Other greats like Big Bill Broonzy (1903-1958) and Huddie William Ledbetter (a.k.a. Leadbelly; 1885-1949) also appeared on stage with Joel.
But beyond a few carefully chosen covers, Joel filled the heart of this evening with his own inspired creations. From “Pushing The River” where love is a two way street that only goes one way, to “The Little Fox” where if everyone kept their heart open everything would be so nice, his luxuriant and resonate mahogany voice rose and fell between runs of crisp and sparkling finger picking accented with brisk, effervescent, full-bodied guitar strumming. You could at once find him immersed in the upscale and upbeat base line of his “Junker’s Blues,” only to later hear him segue into the iambic pentameter of his hymn-like homily entitled “Music Is A Balm To My Soul.” The imagery he composed mixed the old with the new, as in “All These Things” where, “The postcard says you are in Spain/We both know HTML is quicker.” Or it could expose the deepest of all foci – love – as in “I Waited For You,” when “I walked on your deserts and slept in your door.” And then there was hope, as in “The Riddle Song” when Joel sang, “If this world turns to ashes, I’ll see you in the next.”
The evening ended with an encore of Bob Marley’s classic “Three Little Birds.” Prefacing this night cap with praise for the past yet ever-present musical prophet, Joel’s performance embraced this song with such radiance that, in the end, it too was all Zoss. And so this show, the season’s concert series, and the music came full circle. To put it simply, it was all Cotten-picking good.