Instead, they are claiming Dylan and Guthrie as traditional music in the best sense: as music that each generation must re-create anew. More rigorously than Gandalf Murphy & the Slam-bovian Circus of Dreams and the other bands that have drawn on the 1960s well lately, they avoid nostalgia. They sing not like Dylan, not like rockers, but like themselves. They perform “City of New Orleans,” “Shelter from the Storm,” and Dylan’s gospel-inflected “You Gotta Serve Somebody” (gospel has been part of the Abrams family background) with a flexible ensem-ble including fiddle, mandolin, and banjo, but also at various times pedal steel guitar, electric guitar, other stringed instruments, percussion, and touches of vintage keyboards like the Clav-inet. The ensemble allows a range of references to the roots forms that underlay the music of Dylan and Guthrie themselves but that isn’t precisely like any that existed in the 1960s and 1970s. With the brother harmonies and duo instrumental work of John and James as a closely synchronized core, the music branches off in flexible, organic ways.
You wouldn’t think it was possible to do a fresh version of “Mr. Tambourine Man” at this point, but try it out at the Abrams Brothers show at the Ark on Tuesday, May 19, and you’ll be surprised. The smoking, toking crowds that went to hear Dylan and Arlo in the 1960s may not have thought they were hearing songs that would be taken as cultural touchstones by fresh-faced young Canadians forty years later, but that’s exactly how it’s worked out.
[Originally published in May, 2009.]