This “Talkin’ New York” column, the not so semi-regular one where I spotlight an emerging NYC talent, was named after an early Bob Dylan song. The song is one of only two originals from Dylan’s debut album. It seemed strangely fitting to name a feature about emerging talent after a song that preceded the raging artistic creativity that soon followed for Dylan, an artist on the cusp of perhaps the most staggering and prolific years any songwriter has ever shared with the world. But what the song is really about is how difficult it is (was) for a struggling artist to make it in the big city. 45 years later things aren’t much different - songwriters are still playing in front of small crowds (usually comprised solely of other artists) at open mic nights, trying to get noticed amongst a sea of talented folks.
One artist I’ve heard recently may capture the idea behind this column better than any other I’ve written about. On his debut album, State Street Rambler, Eric Wolfson has distinguished himself from many of his peers, as well as crafted a set of songs that recall the burgeoning genius behind Dylan’s early years. It’s pretty clear throughout the album’s 11 folk rock jams that Wolfson is enamored with his home city, with song titles such as “Early Morning, Upper West Side”, “6th Avenue Blues”, and “Harlem Lights” not leaving much about setting to the imagination. His songs use more New York scenes than a classic Scorsese flick - nearly every song drops the names of places you’ll find on the city grid. It’s like he’s spent his whole life soaking up the dirty streets, looking out MTA bus windows, and sweating through his vintage t-shirts busking on subway platforms. Anyway it’s happened, Wolfson writes like he’s lived and breathed on these sidewalks since the day he was born. But, just like Dylan at the time of his debut, he’s relatively new to New York Town, having recently moved here from Boston of all places.
As far as the music on State Street Rambler goes, I think they ought to check and make sure Wolfson wasn’t switched at birth with Jakob, because he sounds much closer to a Dylan heir than the Wallflower ever has. I know Dylan comparisons are a dime a dozen, but I don’t think I’ve ever heard an artist who channels that incredible period of 1963-1966 with as much aplomb as Wolfson does on his debut. These songs are just dripping with influence - the swirling organ of “Cross The River”, the “thin, wild mercury sound” of “Graveyard Girls”, the talking blues of, well, “Talkin’ Dead President Blues”, and the fact that a song on here is called “North Country Girl Blues” and starts with lyrics from Dylan’s song of virtually the same name. The similarities don’t end after the locale and musical sound connections - of course Wolfson possesses a familiar scratchy, nasally-challenged delivery. And social protest is a special of the day as well, with Wolfson pulling no punches in his criticism of the Bush administration. Neither “Strategery Blues” and “Talkin’ Dead President Blues” allows any room for misinterpretation on that account.
But all these Dylan comparisons would be meaningless if Wolfson wasn’t so consistently convincing on his own right. His lyrics cut with their own cynical bite, their own lost romance, their own unexpected twists and turns. “North Country Girl Blues” tosses off the lost love nostalgia of the original and quickly becomes a sort of updated, reincarnated “Tombstone Blues”, infused with his own detailed touch - a slippery girl from Montreal who’s been “in too many moving vans to tell the driver to drive her home”. “Cross The River” is about inter-borough dating, and the daunting task of having to “cross the river” between Brooklyn and Manhattan to see a girl who “gets up in the morning and goes to sleep in the morning too”. “Graveyard Girls”, a song about a drug dealer who also happened to be Buddy Hacket’s niece, is perhaps the album’s most successful track - a mash up of clever wordplay, unbridled enthusiasm, and a ripping band that sounds like it’s blowing dust off the dashboard from a Buick 6. There is a healthy mix of full band songs (his band, by the way, features Andrew Hoepfner of Creaky Boards on organ and backing vocals) and solo/acoustic numbers. There is also a world of identifiable New York and historical references going on - all the pretty girls with boyfriends, Harlem lights, the east village, the upper west side, the ghost of Ann Rutledge, subways, buses, etc. mixed with shots at the current presidential administration. State Street Rambler is a swaggering, poignant procession down an imagined highway 61 running through the heart of New York. On it Wolfson captures the beautiful chaos of the city - its passions, histories, fairytales, corner bars, clear skies and dirty underground with a startling precision. And yes, he sounds like Dylan doing it.
MP3 :: Graveyard Girls
(from State Street Rambler. Buy here)
State Street Rambler is also available at CD Baby and iTunes
Check out Eric Wolfson live:
8/2 @ Sidewalk Café- 9:00
8/18 @ Pianos - 8:00
8/24 @ Sidewalk Café (The Fortified Summer Antifolk Fest 2007) - 12:00 am
8/29 @ Abbey Lounge (Somerville, Mass)
photo by Peter Nevins