David Lindley has been one of popular music’s durable session musicians, associated for a long time with ambitious rock songwriters like Jackson Browne and the late Warren Zevon. Along the way he began acquiring stringed instruments from around the world—he has said he actually doesn’t know how many he owns—and began playing them in concert and on recording projects of his own. Last summer at the Ark he appeared solo, performing music from his most recent and all-acoustic album, Big Twang. The concert was a small gem, and Lindley’s return to the Ark on Wednesday, July 29 should bring more from the same vein.
He does several of Zevon’s songs, including the enigmatic “Monkey Wash Donkey Rinse” and a terrific and newly timely number Zevon wrote with novelist Carl Hiaasen about a junk bond king on the run in south Florida playing Seminole bingo. In addition to instrumentals, Lindley contributes a few wry originals of his own. “Tuna Fish Blues” is a reversal of the old “Mercury Blues” into a lament about mercury poisoning anxiety (“not crazy ’bout the mercury”). And he performs intricate versions of traditional and classic pieces from both blues and country repertories, favoring songs with metaphysical content like “Jesus on the Main Line” and Blind Willie Johnson’s “Soul of a Man.”
The instruments Lindley employs over the course of his show, including (for starters) guitar, banjo, mandolin, zither, and bouzouki, are deployed in unique and often technically impressive treatments of each song. Zevon’s “Beneath the Vast Indifference of Heaven” benefits immeasurably from Lindley’s sonorous twelve-string guitar in place of Zevon’s deadpan reading.
Lindley’s originals borrow not only instruments but also musical structures from the eastern Mediterranean crescent. The Celtic classic “Women of Ireland” and Steve Earle’s “Copperhead Road” get long Middle Eastern introductions. Jumping from the slide guitar that brings alive the Florida swamps in “Seminole Bingo” to an oud and trading licks among his instruments, Lindley seems to have independently hit on the submerged connections between the blues and the music of the Arab world that have fascinated specialists in recent years.
The musical language Lindley forges is flexible enough, like the blues itself, to encompass both spiritual ecstasy and a good deal of sly humor. On stage, still with long hair, he’s a gnomic figure, one of the few rock ‘n’ rollers to have not only made it to late middle age gracefully but also gotten better as he’s gone along. His show is guaranteed to be unlike anything you’ve heard before, and it should be required listening for any player of strings.