Blueblood roots-music royalty or Web Age, crowdsourced pop-star-for-a-day? Take your pick at Club Helsinki in Hudson this weekend. On Friday, September 6, American Idol finalist Crystal Bowersox continues her campaign for a legit and lasting career, forsaking the spangled stages and yellow-brick career paths of the new American idyll for this small-cap, national-circuit club where people like…you know, me…have played.
But on Saturday, status quo is restored as the duo of Sarah Lee Guthrie (Arlo’s daughter) and husband Johnny Irion bring their smart, savvy cosmic Americana to a room built for that sound and for that scene. Irion is John Steinbeck’s grandnephew. While not quite the same sort of perma-foot-in-the-door as being Woody’s granddaughter, it sure makes a great accent on any roots-rock press kit.
A 2010 Idol alumnus with a big Janis issue, Bowersox is now two full-lengths into her career as an able mainstream singer/songwriter. Her most recent, 2013’s All That for This, represents a major step toward a legitimacy apart from her soon-to-expire Idol visa. It was produced by Los Lobos’ multi-instrumentalist Steve Berlin, and its clean, eventful, modern roots arrangements sparkle with detail and ingenuity. The record suggests, if nothing else, that Berlin is ready to follow his obvious forbears (T-Bone Burnett, Froom/Blake) onto the brainy roots-rock producer A-list, and that Bowersox is due some new fans among those of us who black out American Idol as a matter of principle or due to inflammatory meme sensitivities.
Guthrie and Irion make earthy, jangling, hypermelodic records rife with Byrds, Stones and Big Star reverence and reference. 2011’s reverb-marinated Bright Examples was simply great; 2013’s Jeff Tweedy-produced Wassaic Way is probably better (give me a month to finalize this opinion). Their songs, especially those that seem driven by Irion, raid the ‘60s and early ‘70s for their expansive harmonic content. No three chords and the truth here, Woody, but an omnidirectional, agile sophistication as likely to turn towards Motown as towards Liverpool. Tweedy, a retro-sound action painter par excellence, was a natural choice to help set these jewels of songs. And every production/arrangement move here – every last one – is cool.
Born of the Idol dream machine, the well-advised Bowersox seems to be striving for a sustainable position in what is left of the “real,” old-paradigm music industry: a position in which she maintains some creative control or at least the latitude to record her own songs, if not in her own way. In other words, the idol aspires downward, earthward, toward a crumbling Promised Land that Guthrie and Irion were born into but never take for granted, exploiting their head start for all it’s worth with each of their beautiful, quietly ambitious folk/pop records.
Crystal Bowersox with Emily Elbert, Friday, September 6, 9 p.m., $25/$30; Sarah Lee Guthrie & Johnny Irion, Saturday, September 7, 9 p.m., $15/$18; Club Helsinki, 405 Columbia Street, Hudson; (518) 828-4800, https://helsinkihudson.com.