Seeing a show by Jo Serrapere and the Willie Dunns is like a languid Sunday drive through the country. Serrapere’s stage presence is so reassuring, so soothing, that before she even starts to sing I’ve snuggled under my coat, relaxing into my chair.
While Serrapere and the fellas set up, she small-talks us, smiling in a beguiling way. On her left, Jef Reynolds handles the upright bass. Drummer Stuart Tucker waits patiently in the back. To her right, tall, lanky John Devine fidgets about with the strings and doodads on his electric guitar. “We’re gonna start out with a little flirtation,” she smirks.
Devine is still rustling about when Serrapere starts. “You like to come around me / and you like to buzz around me and / you like to circle me,” she sings, fingerpicking her acoustic. At the last possible moment, Devine stops worrying his equipment and comes in with treated guitar licks. I can’t tell whether they’ve planned it that way or not, but I like it. It feels a bit like flirting, actually.
Serrapere is an utterly convincing songwriter, and the quartet moves subtly from acoustic blues to swing, through Delta blues and old-timey ballads. Threading it all together is Serrapere’s magnificent voice. It’s subtle, smug, assured, and disarming. Her ballad “I Will” is heartbreakingly beautiful. Serrapere layers harmonica sadness over simple acoustic pickings, and Devine’s bottleneck resonator guitar brings the twang to the torch. Her voice reaches into the atmosphere, clear and high, lingering above our heads.
| I lay here thirsty from the heat
you never looked so good before
now you’ve entered in my sleep
don’t want to wake no more
there was a time I let the sun go down
content with just livin’ poor.
It’s not that I don’t let my feelings go
Between songs, Serrapere and Devine banter comfortably, like best buddies. Her songs cover a wide range of topics, but my favorites are the ones about being happily smitten. It’s easy to see why she’s so good at it — she and Devine are obviously smitten with each other.
After the show I ask how they met. A mutual friend introduced them when Serrapere was having hand problems. They performed as a duo for four years. “I dated someone else in the meantime,” she says. “That didn’t work out. Johnny and I realized … It was like, you know, you’re my family. I looked at him one day and said, ‘Oh my God, I love you.’
“When you start as friends, you know you really like each other. You have more in common than ‘I like your butt.'”
Jo Serrapere and the Willie Dunns are at the Ark on a triple bill with Delta 88 and J.T. & the Clouds on Sunday, August 22.