With the kind of artist who's both fearless and immensely gifted, a musical residency can let an audience witness the very act of creation. Young L.A.-based singer and songwriter Maxim Ludwig is that kind of artist, and Wednesday's opening night of his monthlong stint at the Hotel Cafe in Hollywood provided a captivating glimpse of Ludwig's restless musical passion at work.
He and his four-piece band, the Santa Fe Seven -- "None of them are from Santa Fe and there aren't seven of them, which is why they're called the Santa Fe Seven," Ludwig quipped right before the show got underway -- are willing experimentalists, players who derive joy from making music in the moment rather than reproducing what's been honed to perfection.
There were certainly ragged moments, but it was apparent that this quintet, which got a high-profile opening slot last spring at the Stagecoach Country Music Festival in Indio, is deeply schooled in the art of Americana music stalwarts such as Bob Dylan, the Band, Gram Parsons-era Byrds/Flying Burrito Brothers and the twangiest leanings of the Rolling Stones.
Ludwig just turned 20 but shows a literary sophistication in his writing that would suggest someone who's logged considerably more years than that. He often spews out lyrics like a man having a bullet pulled from his thigh without anesthesia. His eyes roll back, then close, as one who completely surrenders to the will of his muse, and the result is an electricity that can't be faked.
A head of thick, blond hair and a bushy beard, combined with his blue denim work shirt and jeans, give him the look of a man straight from the mountain, with a satchel full of timeless-sounding rootsy rock songs clutched in his hand.
The 50-minute set included a couple of numbers from his recently released, self-produced CD "Maxim Ludwig and the Santa Fe Seven." "To Be With Sweet Marie" invokes the legacy of Dylan, one he seems more than ready to take on.
"Paradise Cove," inspired by the coastal trailer park community outside Malibu, where Ludwig spent some formative years, was a knockout -- a haunting, blues-rock waltz meditation on life outside the gates of heaven. He punctuated it with dramatic pauses that demonstrated a savvy awareness of the power of silence amid the noise. "Big Black Train" let the group crank up a Stones-cum-White Stripes-worthy blues-raucousness, hammered home with intuitive contributions from guitarist Eli Pearl, keyboardist Evan Vidar (who is all of 18), bassist Jake Faulkner and drummer Sam Kaufman-Skloff.
Ludwig also worked in several newer compositions, which he said he writes at the rate of about two a day.
"I'm a huge fan of people like Irving Berlin and Hoagy Carmichael," Ludwig said immediately after the set. "I wouldn't compare myself to those people, but I was reading the biography of Hoagy Carmichael, 'Stardust Melody,' and he talked about getting up every day, going into his office and writing songs. That's what I want to do: just write songs. We're just making songs."
The goal of the residency, which runs Wednesdays through Aug. 26, is "to see what works with this group of players I'm working with."
He comes across as a voracious reader whose tastes are as smart and wide-ranging as his omnivorous musical preferences, from the titans of American popular song to Charles Mingus to the Monkees.
Among those in the house was producer Hal Willner, who expressed his admiration for Ludwig's multipronged abilities as a songwriter, singer and instrumentalist. With performances like the one he delivered Wednesday, coming on the heels of the Stagecoach performance and a recent showcase at the Troubadour, it's hard not to believe that this period in Ludwig's career will one day be regarded with the kind of respect invoked by those who caught the Buffalo Springfield's early gigs at the Whisky.
Maxim Ludwig & the Santa Fe Seven
Where: Hotel Cafe, 1623 1/2 N. Cahuenga Blvd., Los Angeles
When: 10 p.m. Wednesdays, through Aug. 26
Info: (323) 461-2040 or www.hotelcafe.com