“Let’s just savor it for a minute,” said John Sebastian, Nov. 30 at the Bickford Theatre at the Morris Museum in Morris Township. He was telling a story about visiting San Francisco with his band The Lovin’ Spoonful in 1965 — the same year they had their first hit, “Do You Believe in Magic” — and he just wanted to make sure that the wonder of that moment sunk in.
The solo concert was heavy on storytelling, particularly from Sebastian’s youth — partially spent at the Blair Academy in Blairstown (where he was on the wrestling team, which got “creamed” by Morristown High School, he remembered) and on the road with The Lovin’ Spoonful, where he played “every high school in New Jersey.” But if “Springsteen on Broadway” represents one extreme of a journey-through-the-past kind of concert (serious, introspective, carefully worded), this one represented the other extreme (easy-going, genial, upbeat). Though that San Francisco story took a momentary dark turn — the band’s high hopes were deflated when they learned they had been hired to perform at a strip club — Sebastian also said they ended up having the time of their lives, anyway.
While Springsteen’s show is tightly constructed, Sebastian’s stories were apt to veer off in another direction at any moment, just because he remembered another great story to tell. “I’m going to interrupt this story to tell you another story,” he said at one point, when a tale about being on the road with The Supremes in the ’60s brought to mind another one about a chance encounter with Diana Ross at a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony, years later.
Sebastian, now 73, sings in a gruff rumble, but his guitar playing — he alternated between acoustic and electric throughout the show — was crisp and deft. Not surprisingly, he resurrected lots of Lovin’ Spoonful gems (“Do You Believe in Magic,” “Daydream,” “Darling Be Home Soon,” “You Didn’t Have to Be So Nice,” “Did You Ever Have to Make Up Your Mind?”) and his one major hit as a solo artist (“Welcome Back”). But he also played “Nobody Cares Like a Bear” (which he wrote for a Care Bears cartoon) and lots of old blues songs, including Mississippi John Hurt’s “I’m Satisfied” and Lightnin’ Hopkins’ “Shining Moon” (reworked by Bob Dylan as “It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry”).
Ever a student (and teacher) of Americana music, he pointed out how Gus Cannon’s “Prison Wall Blues” led to the The Lovin’ Spoonful’s “Younger Girl,” adding, “Who knew that I would be playing this song long enough for it to become creepy?”
Like “Springsteen on Broadway,” Sebastian’s show was most riveting in its first half, when he took the audience, more or less linearly, through his youth and up into The Lovin’ Spoonful’s early years. Sebastian, like Springsteen, lost a bit of focus in the second half, treating it more like a regular concert — still telling stories but jumping around to different points in his life, and leaving big parts of it untouched.
It was still very entertaining, though I would love to see what Sebastian comes up with if he ever tries to tell the story of his life in a more cohesive, comprehensive way, in another evening of songs and stories.