John Sebastian is a Rock and Roll Hall of Famer as the leader of The Lovin’ Spoonful, but does most of his live performing, these days, in a solo format. That’s how he will perform at his only New Jersey concert of 2017, which will take place at the Bickford Theatre at the Morris Museum in Morris Township, Nov. 30.
“The bread and butter of my work really does comes down to one guy, one guitar,” he said in a phone interview, “though I have these wonderful opportunities that I always take, like me and Jimmy Vivino get together and play, or Jimmy (Vivino) and (his group) The Black Italians, and there are variations of that. And when I play (on the same bill) with (David) Bromberg, we always end up playing together, and I do occasionally play with David Grisman.”
The Bickford show, of course, will contain lots of songs by The Lovin’ Spoonful, as well as material from Sebastian’s solo career. The Lovin’ Spoonful produced a remarkable string of Top 40 hits from 1965 to 1967, including “Do You Believe in Magic,” “Summer in the City,” “Daydream” and “Did You Ever Have to Make Up Your Mind?” (all written or co-written by Sebastian). As a solo artist, Sebastian appeared at the Woodstock Festival in 1969, and had a No. 1 hit, “Welcome Back,” in 1976. His last studio album, a collaboration with Grisman titled Satisfied, came out in 2007.
Sebastian, 73, is working with Arlen Roth on a new album that will feature new versions of Lovin’ Spoonful songs.
“We began this project a few months ago,” says Sebastian, “and our engineer, unfortunately — well, he was happy — but our engineer got a grandson in Australia, so he had to go zipping off for a minute, so we’re sort of delayed on that.”
The initial idea was for the album to be all-instrumental, though “as it turned out,” said Sebastian, “some of the songs ended up, ‘Hey, let’s put the vocal on this one.’ I remember, we started doing ‘Darlin’ Companion,’ which is an old, kind of finger-pickin’ tune, and the words come real fast, and that was one of the tunes that I had to say, ‘I might do well with a lyric sheet on this one!’ There were a few cases like that. But as far as the instrumental situation, Arlen Roth’s capabilities for accuracy, in this case, was just amazing.”
Sebastian is also working on a reissue of his 1993 Tar Beach album, which featured contributions from musicians such as Levon Helm of The Band and Al Anderson and Terry Adams of NRBQ. “A lot of people have requested that,” he said.
And he is putting together a compilation of music he wrote for animated children’s films. It will be called Short Songs for Shorter People, and will feature music he wrote and/or performed for films produced by the Nelvana animation company, such as 1979’s “Please Don’t Eat the Planet (Intergalactic Thanksgiving),” 1982’s “The Jack Rabbit Story (Easter Fever),” 1983’s “Strawberry Shortcake: Housewarming Surprise” and 1985’s “The Care Bears Movie.”
In a short span of time, said Sebastian, Nelvana “went from being a small animated firm, just sort of on the edge of having to disband, and then they were so good that all of this stuff started to work for them, and there were a few years where we were very busy on those.”
Sebastian, who grew up primarily in New York City (though he attended the Blair Academy in Blairstown), is a longtime resident of Woodstock, N.Y.
“It’s sort of like a little New York City for me,” he says. “The thing that happened, that folks may not be aware of, is this enormous move of so many musicians. We all circulated: Everyone was in Los Angeles at one point. But it’s remarkable how many people settled in The Catskills, when they came back.
“Especially guys my age: I’m even getting a few new, old pals, living around here, that were never here. Me and Geoff Muldaur are in this same neighborhood. He and I were in competing jug bands starting in ’62! So, it is that kind of place.
“For example, one day all I’m doing is walking dogs and raking up leaves, but then a call will come through … the best example goes back a few years, but I got a call from (drummer) Jerry Marotta. He said, ‘Look, would you just sort of man a guitar. We’re recording this really good folksinger from Alaska, and we just need a really strong thing in the background. In the mix, we’re going to bury it in the drums.’ I said, ‘Sure, I’d love to.’ I went down and, as a result, I ended up on Jewel’s first three singles. That was one night.
“And then another weekend, going back a little bit, Jimmy Vivino called me up and said Hubert Sumlin’s up at (Levon Helm’s) Ramble again, or, before that, I used to go into New York City to play with Johnnie Johnson. Here I am: I can still have dogs, and I’m in the woods, but I’m also able to have this life that sort of compares to my New York life.”
Sebastian performs at the Bickford Theatre at the Morris Museum in Morris Township, Nov. 30 at 7:30 p.m.; visit morrismuseum.org.
For information on Sebastian himself, visit johnbsebastian.com.