If you look for Peter Rowan on the music encyclopedia web site AllMusic, he’s listed under “Country.” Yes, he once played with Bill Monroe and the Bluegrass Boys and he’s spent a lot of time in Nashville. He’s also played with Jerry Garcia and been a member of rock bands Earth Opera and Seatrain. He’s not a one-genre artist. As his January 16 show at McCabe’s Guitar Shop proved, Peter Rowan is one hell of an entertaining fellow.
The first half of Rowan’s performance was a solo shot, just him and an acoustic guitar. With a powerful voice and flexible fingers, Rowan created the maximum sound out of the minimum.
After his opening number, Rowan adjusted the position of the guitar, which he had played while holding it up close to his face. “Too much guitar?” he joked. “I get stage fright and I like to shield myself with the guitar. But at McCabe’s there’s nothing to be afraid of.”
What stage fright? Rowan seemed incredibly relaxed as he shifted from a serious ballad like “Tumbleweed, ” about a wandering Native American, to the humorous “Panama Red,” (sample lyric: “Panama Red, Panama Red/ He’ll steal your woman and then he’ll rob you dead”), and the even more tongue-in-cheek “Lonesome L.A. Cowboy,” which has inspired the nickname of a certain local radio DJ.
Artists love to debut new songs, and Rowan gave the audience an amusing new tune called “Two of a Kind” about a relationship characterized by “20/20 vision and walking around blind.”
When it came time for the last song in this first set, Rowan asked the audience for requests, and the suggestions came tumbling out like verbal tumbleweeds from fans familiar with Rowan’s repertoire. But he said: “I think I’ll save those for the second set,” and instead gave the audience a beautiful ballad, “Wild Mustang.”
After the refreshment break (coffee, soda, and cookies are how you take a break at McCabe’s, along with looking over the musical merchandise and taking a free guitar pick), Rowan came back with two guests to accompany him singer-songwriter Gillian Welch and her musical partner Dave Rawlings, who both played guitar and sang backup. Some of the material played in this set will be on Rowan’s forthcoming album.
Rowan, Welch, and Rawlings created gorgeous vocal harmonies, and Rowan and Rawlings had fun trading off guitar leads. Welch sang lead on a version of Bob Dylan’s “I Dreamed I Saw St. Augustine,” which she said Rowan had asked her to sing only once before. Haunting originals like “The Winds of Time” were balanced by the “Free Mexican Air Force,” Rowan’s comic classic which has a story behind it in the manner of “Alice’s Restaurant.” Everyone sang along with this and made mariachi cries.
The set wrapped up with a stirring rendition of “Rainmaker,” after which the trio went upstairs. But the applause and shouts for encore went on so long that they had to return for two more numbers.
And when those songs were over, one had the feeling that both the audience and Peter Rowan could have continued all night.