Welcome Back, Sebastian! Brilliance Hasn't Faded

In the mid-'60s, John Sebastian was one of a very select group of songwriters--including also John Lennon, Ray Davies and Brian Wilson--for whom the term genius didn't seem just a publicist's wild notion.

Beginning with the brilliant, still-evocative "Do You Believe in Magic," his Lovin' Spoonful racked up seven consecutive Top 10 hits, including the No. 1 "Summer in the City."

That 1966 song was at the forefront of the extra-musical sound collages the Beatles and others soon adopted, creating a sound poem of car horns and jackhammers. And the Spoonful whipped through that recording in a mere two evenings.

"Ease" seemed to be one of Sebastian's magical properties. Even with such weighty projects as being one of the first rock composers to score films--working with both Francis Ford Coppola and Woody Allen--Sebastian and his band generated a wistful, good-timey mood. There was humor, poetry and exhilaration to their work, qualities Sebastian retained when he went solo and delivered one of the most endearing performances at Woodstock.

If Sebastian is no longer looking out from the stage at hundreds of thousands of listeners, his audiences may have likewise diminished expectations of him. Aside from his 1976 "Welcome Back" theme to the TV series "Welcome Back, Kotter" scarcely a murmur has been heard from Sebastian, prompting the standard rumors that he was perhaps "not all there" any longer.

But the veteran singer was most certainly in command of his faculties at his Peppers Golden Bear performance Tuesday. And though the stakes are surely lowered, there was still a quiet brilliance to his performance.

Indeed, looking younger than he did 15 years ago, Sebastian told the audience, "This is sort of a rejuvenating experience for me because I've played the Golden Bear now for three decades . . . and it's real cute now."

Though the bulk of his set dealt with evoking his '60s Greenwich Village days, he did so with a freshness and a Cosby-esque humor that suggested a Sebastian autobiography would be a wonderful document.

He sang his classic tunes "Rain on the Roof," "She's a Lady," "Daydream," "Younger Generation" and others.

Though his voice sounded strained at times, he still conveyed the songs' joyous mood.

Interspersed between the songs were his recollections, including some about the old Golden Bear.

The Spoonful's first performance there in 1965 stuck in the band members' minds, he said, because in New York, they were accustomed to playing for "guys with beards and turtleneck sweaters and the occasional girl with ironed hair. Suddenly here we were a 'pop group' with girls following our car. We didn't have that Mark Lindsay appeal before."

He also painted verbal portraits of bluesmen Lightnin' Hopkins and Mississippi John Hurt ("He was kind of like having a black Yoda around," Sebastian said)--followed by excellent evocations of Hopkins' "Shining Moon" and Hurt's "Coffee Blues."

There were only a couple of new Sebastian songs in the set. "Just Another Link in the Chain"--on which he accompanied himself on a resonant electric baritone guitar--was a playful ode to genetics. "Night Owl Cafe" was a melancholy stroll through the now-closed Village nightspot where the Spoonful and other artists forged their sound.

Sebastian said he's shopping for a label for a new album, and it seems well worth looking forward to, if these songs are any indication. As splendid a musical historian as Sebastian is, his gift is too great to go without new challenges.

Opener Shawn Phillips did offer signs of growth and change in his 80-minute set, and offered evidence that not all change is necessarily good.

Along with the sonorous om-chant ruminations that made him a minor cult figure back in the hippie days, Phillips showcased his move into the classical genre. This consisted chiefly of tapping the mouse on his onstage Macintosh computer and making conducting motions as the computer spewed out sub-Synergy-grade syntho-classical blather with such titles as "Variations in D, Parts 1 and 2."

Peppers Golden Bear still doesn't have its act completely together in presenting these quieter shows. Tuesday the music had to compete with the club's loud overhead stage-light-cooling fans and an abundance of bar noise.

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