Before hearing his music, I interviewed Eric Kelly about Dylanfest, which he organizes. I figured he'd probably be as quick-witted onstage as he is face-to-face, and I was right.
Between songs, Eric banters with pedal steel guitarist John Latini. While Kelly is funny and engaging, he's also quite a smart-ass, leaving himself open to pestering by the Johns, who, by the way, are indeed quite dirty. And it's not just because they're unshaven. When Eric can't find a pick, Latini stands up to see if he's got a loaner. John Sperendi, the other John Who Is Dirty, is an affable kid about half the size of his upright bass. He gives an adolescent giggle and utters the only comment we'll hear from him tonight: "I think those guys just like to have their hands in their pockets." He says this into the microphone — in front of a packed Top of the Park crowd.
But all is forgiven when it's time to make music. All of this wrestling gives way to harmonious execution. Kelly's vocal dexterity takes the spotlight for a bit before he graciously hands it off to the mournful cries of Latini's guitar. Sperendi's bass and Jim "Honorary John" Latini's drum work keep time, and the four elbowing schoolchildren magically transform themselves into grown men. Together, they create one of the most Gram Parsons old-style country sounds I've heard since the Flying Burrito Brothers.
Kelly may be a smart-ass, but his rich storytelling is passionate and compelling. The ballad "Johnny and June" offers a look into the lives of ordinary people who loved the Carter-Cash couple. His "On a Michigan Night" (a finalist in North Carolina's Flat Rock Music Festival Hank Williams Songwriter Contest) is a mournful wish to return home, with a sassy bass line. When Kelly recognizes his buddy Dave Boutette in the audience, he points him out to everyone and plays a waltz they cowrote called "Sad Stories of Red Wagons and Ponies." It's sad, all right — pulls deep at my heart — but right pretty.
Later, on one of summer's very last days, I stand on a sidewalk and try to rant about politics to John Latini while Eric Kelly plays a solo gig. But Dirty John doesn't listen; he just sways a bit. "I love this song," he says, gesturing toward the stage. It's another waltz, heartbreakingly sad — sadder than the political atmosphere I rage against, yet also very sweet. And to my surprise, this beautiful, sad song and humming, smiling Latini make me feel better. We still have music. We still have our friends.
Eric Kelly and the Dirty Johns are at TC's Speakeasy on Friday, October 1.