Session Americana’s live shows are like a musical carousel — around and around they go, where they’ll stop nobody knows. The centerpiece is always a small tabletop affixed with microphones below the tabletop for the group’s acoustic instruments and above with a shared vocal mic that is pushed from side to side, singer to singer. After virtually every song, the six-plus members switch seats and instruments, and dive into the next song.
Because of a busy international tour schedule and recording demands, it had been almost a year since the band had last played at its de facto home, the subterranean bohemian-style Lizard Lounge in the heart of Cambridge. In December, the three-month Tuesday winter residency commenced with a stirring show that woke up the echoes and warmed the cockles. With lead guitarist Jefferson Hamer, a core member for the past several years, opting out of making trips from New York for these “one-off” shows in favor of tours, Session Americana brought in one or more guest stars. This kickoff night featured incomparable guitarist Duke Levine. Enough said. Levine is as good as they come. It didn’t work as well with Peter Linton in the lead guitar seat later in the stand, his reticence to solo draining a bit of the energy. But other guest stars, including Linton’s wife, Merrie Amsterburg, and rising neo-soul singer Ali McGuirk bringing fresh and welcome spark to many of the old songs, and their own. While charter member Jim Fitting is the best harmonica player in the world, in my opinion, Icelandic guest star Thorleifur Gaukur Davidsson more than held his own with his jazzy bent on the harp.
The sense of joy in being back home in the Lizard was palpable, and Session Americana reprised many of its favorites in the first two shows, including “Beer Town” in which they invited the Lizard bartender up to the stage in mid-song to sing the verses that celebrate “the people who bring us beer.”
Although the band is sometimes derided as a “glorified cover band,” it’s hard to find fault in that when they bring down the house with their own glorious interpretations. On this night, it included a burning rendition of Los Lobos’ “Jenny’s Got A Pony” (Levine shredding it on slide guitar with a tone and energy that would make Cesar Rosas and David David Hidalgo smile) and the Prince hit “Pop Life.”
One thing is for certain: There is no denying the sheer, unadulterated fun that Session Americana brings to its shows and fans. After all, how many bands could sell out three months of shows at the same club?
Dinty Child, top, leans into the mic during the paean to the “diaphanous light” of his favorite beverage in the song “Beer Town” as Jim Fitting, left, and Jon Bistline react. Gallery, clockwise from top left, Duke Levine, Ry Cavanaugh, Billy Beard, Fitting, and the band around the trademark table.