TVD Live: Robert Gordon & Chris Spedding at City Winery, 11/5

Rockabilly had its heyday and faded 20 years before Robert Gordon picked up the mantle in the late ’70s. By then, he had already been frontman for CBGB’s mainstay Tuff Darts and he would bring the same punk energy to the bass-slapping vibrancy of the ’50s sound.

He was the pre-Stray Cats king of the rockabilly revivalists even if he only grazed the mainstream. Still, Bruce Springsteen gave him the throbbing “Fire”; he recorded Marshall Crenshaw’s “Someday, Someway” before its author made it his signature song. Throughout a string of initial albums, he built a body of rockabilly works that would drive the music into the next decade.

Decades later, Gordon, at 72, is still performing and on Tuesday headlined a show at City Winery in Washington, DC, not far from where he grew up in Bethesda, MD. A lot of old friends showed up for him, including the drummer for the first band he was in at age 15. But it was not as crowded a night as past local appearances have been.

In a stylish suit and cummerbund, with an attempt at a modish cut in his hair, he cut a figure like a retired baseball star or ex-boxer opening a nightclub. He was welcoming and debonair but with a rough-hewn, old school expression that put him from another era. In front of a band with more credentials than there were fans before them, they rocked right into “Someday, Someway” after a five song set led by guitarist Chris Spedding, who comes to the tour after backing Bryan Ferry on a swing that played to thousands at the Anthem locally this summer.

Spedding, 75, has an astounding legacy in rock, having recorded with Jack Bruce, Harry Nilsson, John Cale, Joan Armatrading, Tom Waits and many more. He playing on the original 1970 recording of Jesus Christ Superstar and produced the first Sex Pistols demos several years later. Since the ’80s, on and off, he’s backed Gordon, who has a history of aligning with superlative guitarists, starting with Link Wray on his first recordings, to some fabled sessions with Danny Gatton, another DC fave.

As such, Spedding was allowed to begin the night with some of his own past recordings (and a salute to Wray), culminating in a crowd-pleasing tune, “Guitar Jamboree” that showcased how he could echo classic guitarists from Albert King and Jimi Hendrix to Keith Richards, Jeff Beck, and Leslie West.

But the rhythm section this night had some impressive credits as well, with no less a bassist than Rob Stoner, 71, who was on Bob Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Revue, played with dozens of luminaries and was on Don McLean’s “American Pie.” And on drums was Tommy Price of Joan Jett and the Blackhearts, who has also played with Billy Idol, Blue Oyster Cult and Scandal. All have played before thousands at a time and may have been playing to their smallest crowd this Tuesday night. But they put their heart into it anyway.

Gordon looked down to a poster-sized paper with all of the possible songs to pick from; the paper needn’t be so big any more, he said, since he’s had cataract surgery. But he picked some goodies, including a few from Johnny Burnette, solo and from his Rock ’N’ Roll Trio — “Sweet Love on My Mind,” “Little Boy Sad,” and, in the encore, “Rock Billy Boogie.”

He could have covered the neglected zing of the Rock ’N’ Roll Trio all night, but he also took some surprise turns, handling everything from Faron Young’s “Hello Walls” to the Everly Brothers’ “So Sad (To Watch Good Love Go Bad.” Harmonies might have been much shakier than on the original, but who even attempts that heartbreaking ballad these days?

The range of his approach could be seen in that he also threw in the Yardbirds’ “Heart Full of Soul” (in which Spedding came through with the Jeff Beck prowess he had hinted at earlier) and Iggy Pop’s “Beside You.” He was at his comfort zone, though, in his mastery of Sanford Clark’s “The Fool,” in which his baritone still manages to reach the basement, even if it can be a little dusty down there.

His stab at Dion’s “The Wanderer,” to fulfill an audience request, indeed did wander; he couldn’t remember enough of it to get to the chorus, let alone the second verse. Probably because he was picking songs as he went along, there wasn’t much of a dramatic arc to the show. So it seemed a little anticlimactic when he closed the main set with Warren Smith’s perky “Red Cadillac and a Black Moustache” and said good night. But maybe it only seemed like a perfunctory end because there was so much more we wanted to hear.

The evening began with a set by Jumpin’ Jupiter, a first-rate rockabilly quartet from Arlington, VA, that kept itself to the classic sound, playing it so fervently there could be no way anyone could dare pronounce the genre dead.

SETLIST
Someday Someway
Lover Boy
Nothing But Sweet Lovin’ on My Mind
Little Boy Blue
The Fool
Hello Walls
So Sad (To Watch Good Love Go Bad)
Heart Full of Soul
Leaving It all Up to You
Beside You
Driving Wheel
I’m Coming Home
Fire
Wild Wild Women
Suspicion
The Wanderer
Red Cadillac and a Black Moustache

Rock Billy Boogie

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