At about 10 minutes to 10 last Thursday night, David Johansen strode unimpeded across the floor of the House of Blues and took the stage. Unimpeded, that is, because the room was far from full. Johansen has a haggard face with a prominent sloping brow and a bad-ass goatee, and he looks older now, but I suspect he’s cultivated this look to suit his new material — the old, old songs of Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music, as well as maudlin pre-war blues, hillbilly tunes, and the occasional 19th-century pop song. (A waggish friend of mine has taken to calling him "Buster Lomax.") He has dazzling aqua eyes that meet you sideways through thin-slitted lids; he has perfect shoulder-length brown hair; his trousers are still as tight as when he fronted the New York Dolls. On stage, he sat on a bar stool with an acoustic guitar across his lap and his backing band, the Harry Smiths (two guitarists, an upright bassist, and a trap-kit drummer, they look deceptively like the kind of sedate professionals Buster Poindexter might have run into on the wedding circuit), cooling behind him, all of them outfitted with laminated lyrics-and-music sheets in thick black binders on music stands.
Perhaps a survey of his career would reveal that Johansen was always an old-fashioned entertainer. Now, for sure, he is seasoned and charming, and though he said little, he has the knack for putting over a song as if it were a secret he’s delighted to share with you. He might say, in his quiet smoker’s baritone, "This is the most deliciously vulgar song I know. And I know a lot of them. But this one is tops." Or, as when he introduced Memphis Minnie’s hard-bitten "In Love Again," he might hip you to "a real love song — not some Pollyanna, pie-in-the-sky bullshit."
The songs were mostly about sex and death and not infrequently about the ways the one leads to the other. There were also songs about loneliness and growing old. "I’m sorry you all can’t sit," he said to the standing audience; the music was, with a couple of exceptions, meant for listening as opposed to dancing. Most of it came from his two albums for the audiophile label Chesky Records, songs like Lightnin’ Hopkins’s "My Grandpa Is Old Too," Son House’s "Death Letter," Rube Lacy’s "Ham Hound Crave," Tommy McClennan’s "Deep Blue Sea," and Geeshie Wiley’s "Last Kind Words."
Johansen sang many of the songs in voices that approximated the original recordings — leaving in word-for-word dialect pieces in a talking blues, retaining the "wimins" and "folkses," and imitating the peculiar roundings and phrasings of blues-hall shouters, plantation and whorehouse moaners, convict chaingangers, speakeasy balladeers, yodeling brakemen, tramps, dandies, and deacons. The band mostly stayed out of the way, taking pleasant solos, though every once in a while the rhythm section would get excited and break into manic, boplike syncopation. They played for two hours and were climbing back on stage for an encore when I left around midnight. As Johansen had half-joked a few minutes earlier, noting that the crowd had dwindled to about 30 rapt souls, "Sometimes we just play till everybody leaves."