SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY — Let me get this out of the way: The Saratoga Music Hall of Fame certainly will include a John Kribs exhibit.

Kribs is a very versatile performer who has been either a key member or frontman for decades with acts ranging from folk/country (Racquette River Rounders) to rock/rockabilly (Johnny & the Triumphs) to Irish/bluegrass (The McKrells), to folk-rock (Delia), etc.

John Kribs, center, with Arlen Greene (left) and Doug Moody (right). Photo by Joseph Deuel.

Now let’s talk about the present.

John Kribs is still writing and performing killer songs. He is still sounding fresh and playful while honoring tradition.

On Sunday night, July 24, in the intimate setting of Caffé Lena, Kribs presented a show that offered a cross section of American (and a touch of English) styles across the history of popular song while maintaining the brilliant edge of a contemporary singer-songwriter.

With bassist Arlen Greene and fiddler Doug Moody also adding backing vocals, musicianship was at a high level throughout.

Moody played a number of interesting violin solos. He threw in a bit of an extra little scale in the trio’s cover of the Beatles’ “Rain,” before yielding to Kribs’s own solo, commanding audience attention very early in the gig.

Greene stepped out in a solo and provided a texture that included drones and more complex rhythms.

Kribs used his storehouse of musical knowledge to not merely celebrate American roots music but to describe the American condition. And he didn’t simply describe the surface “condition” as described in traditional song. Oh no. Kribs showed us a much more complex side … one that puts him in synch with contemporary singer-songwriters like Amos Lee, Jeff Tweedy, etc. And yet you could throw in a whole lot of “likes” names for comparison, if you must, from James Taylor to even Jimmy Buffet.

“Fading Out” is one of those killer songs … just as deep as you please and yet you can, in fact, dance to it. Perhaps it had something to do with the timing but my mouth dropped open the first time I heard Kribs sing it. This time, of course, I couldn’t stand still. Kribs makes us feel “the chill of the rain … the silence that surrounds” and yet there is very much a presence in the song, an affirmation. Is it suitable for contemporary radio (or Pandora)? I think so. I know it sounds terrific live.

Kribs gets a little deeper into psychology, still, in “Blue Wall.” Now I’m not dancing … I’m wondering what the hell I’ve done to myself!

These contemporary originals also served to illuminate the psychological underpinnings of the older songs Kribs covers, like those of Carl Perkins (“Honey Don’t,” etc.) … a big influence on Kribs’s electric rock band period.

Kribs’s own “Gone Too Far” harkens to rockabilly and to Chuck Berry … but it’s hardly superficial.

Part of that American condition is the lingering legacy that is the dream of “cities of gold” as Spanish explorer Hernando Cortez described. It has appeared in our poetry and fiction and has been noted as part of the restlessness that has gripped the American spirit. Kribs’s own, “The Bus to Las Vegas,” beautifully describes that aspect of this culture: “You can just see the lights.”

Furthermore it affirms the American connection to the highway.

America’s country roots were illustrated in Kribs’s rewrite of a piece from the Johnny Cash kitbag, “Old Blue,” and in a cover of “Bartender Blues,” made famous by the hugely influential George Jones. Kribs gave the audience a novelty song, “Nothin’s Funny All the Time,” with Moody fluidly running a series of violin clichés by us. The trio tipped a hat to Lester Flatt & Earl Scruggs on Kribs’s original “Papa Pa” on the banjo (might sound pretty good on a dulcimer, too) and gave us a huge piece of Americana on that banjo with Stephen Foster’s “Hard Times Come Again No More.” Important? Hell yeah.

The Sonny Terry-Brownie McGhee tune, “Jump Little Children” (a piece that influenced some of Kribs’s rock band stuff, I think) offered Kribs a chance to present an acoustic guitar solo that was quite a crowd pleaser. The trio shifted gears to offer the mountain music sound with Kribs’s “Wake Me Up Later Love Me in the Middle of the Night.”

I haven’t covered songs in order; neither have I mentioned every tune, either. Still, let’s note that the trio encored with “Railroading on the Great Divide,” a spiritual in the truest sense. The Sara Carter (b. July 21, 1898, d. January 8, 1979) chestnut doesn’t talk “about” God. It is more like a reflection of the sky. As well as being genuine Americana, the song helped underscore Kribs’s enduring (and grateful) local connection, as the song has long been played at Caffé Lena by artists like Ramblin’ Jack Elliott and the late Utah Philips.

Keep it tight.

Caffé Lena page.


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