by David Klein
Duke Coffeehouse, Durham
Friday, Nov. 30, 2012
James Jackson Toth’s set at the Duke Coffeehouse Friday night provided stirring testimony to the enduring power of one person playing a guitar and singing words that matter. Introducing himself by his nom de rock, Wooden Wand, and singing songs from Blood Oaths of the New Blues, his forthcoming release on the venerable London label Fire Records, along with older works, Toth balanced his natural geniality with the serious intent of a musical lifer.
When I chatted with him briefly before the show, Toth was in good spirits, having driven to Durham that day listening to a colossal mix of live Grateful Dead jams. In addition to amassing an impressive body of work under a variety of names and with a sprawling mix of collaborators, Toth is also a sharp-eyed and well-versed music writer. Discussing the challenges of bringing a fresh perspective to writing about music, Toth cringed at the prospect of disseminating the well-worn tropes, rock-speak phrases like “the penultimate track.” I promised him I would not use that term in my write-up.
Toth is just as committed to avoiding cliché in his music, even in the familiar blues-folk-country-Americana genre that is his chosen milieu. His set at Duke Coffeehouse showcased his knack for writing memorable and sometimes surrealistic narratives that don’t reach too hard for profundity but are marked by a depth that won’t be fully fathomed after one listen. These are songs to ponder and linger over. Throughout the set, lyrics would emerge that were worthy of contemplation, like “the monotony of pleasure,” or “Sometimes nowhere seems the only place to go.” Some lyrics seem to have been birthed in that mythic old weird America, such as on “Wand America,” when Toth sings about people who’ll “tell a lie on credit when the truth costs just a dime.” It sounds like a line from Dylan, and the comparison is an apt one. Midway through the set Toth covered “Is Your Love in Vain?,” from Dylan’s not well-loved Street Legal, which he dedicated to anyone in the audience on a first date.
The dirge-like nature of several numbers recalled the “cast-iron songs and torch ballads” vibe of Dylan and the Band’s Planet Waves. There were no shuffles and no sing-alongs in this roughly 10-song set. The pace was deliberate, the strumming passionate. Every word counted.