John Sebastian & Arlen Roth
What do you get when you cross one of America’s greatest songwriters with an extraordinary guitarist? A hint: “Do You Believe in Magic?” The title of just one of John Sebastian’s numerous timeless hits, written for his chart-topping band the Lovin’ Spoonful, says it all. One of the Spoonful’s biggest fans, Arlen Roth, the guitar maestro known for his studio and touring work with such artists as Simon & Garfunkel and John Prine, popped the question to Sebastian: Why not make an album together? In the tradition of Roth’s acclaimed reimagining of the songs of S&G (Subway Walls & Tenement Halls) and the Rolling Stones (Paint It Black: Acoustic Stones), John Sebastian and Arlen Roth Explore the Spoonful Songbook was born. This time out, though, says Roth, “It’s a true collaboration, something I’ve never really done to this extent.”
It didn’t hurt that Sebastian thoroughly enjoyed Roth’s Stones and S&G efforts and that the two had shared stages over the years. About Roth’s prowess as an instrumental interpreter, Sebastian points to “Burt Bacharach’s comment on one of Arlen’s CDs, ‘Nobody has ever gotten my lyrics so accurately.’ That’s how Arlen is.” Sebastian had never considered doing re-recordings of his Spoonful classics until Roth approached him: “I’d left the material alone for 50 years.” But Roth’s deep artistry and exceptional knowledge and love of the guitar style of Spoonful guitarist Zal Yanovsky changed Sebastian’s mind.
“I was a kid of 12 when I was first blown away by the Spoonful’s songs, their performances on TV, and their guitar sounds,” Roth recalls. “Zally was such a huge influence off the bat. I was taken by his uniquely ‘country’ approach to lead guitar and that was such a great sound in a rock & roll band! It was right up there with the Beatles and the Byrds! I love the Spoonful songs so much, and they occupied a big part of me, inside.”
Working out the guitar parts, with Sebastian playing his original licks in each song, gave Roth the opportunity to complement the Spoonful’s sound with his own. “He was doing double and triple flips off the diving board, while I was doing cannonballs,” Sebastian recalls. “It all comes naturally to me and John,” according to Roth. “Collectively, he and I must have about 120 years of experience doing this kind of thing down through the ages. We just look at each other and play off each other. Also many of Zally’s Spoonful parts helped inspire me too.”
And revisiting those songs in the studio with Sebastian, drummer Eric Parker (Joe Cocker, Bonnie Raitt) and upright bassist Ira Coleman (Sting, Family Man Barrett) was “a joy, more than a challenge,” says Roth. “Since John was involved, it was a collaboration more than a tribute.”
Other Sebastian collaborators were also enlisted: Joining them in the studio were his “favorite exes” Maria Muldaur (with John on the lovely “Stories We Could Tell”) and Geoff Muldaur (with John on “Did You Ever Have to Make Up Your Mind” and a raucous “Jug Band Music”). And Sebastian’s newfound discovery the MonaLisa Twins – Austrian twins Mona and Lisa Wagner, who reside in Liverpool – added their “blood harmonies” to Sebastian’s vocals all the way from the U.K., thanks to their producer/engineer father Rudolf Wagner, who digitally delivered the files. Sebastian is a big fan of the sisters’ albums and musical concepts, which showcase their remarkable vocal blending as evidenced here on tracks like “Lovin’ You,” “Four Eyes,” and “Darling Companion.” Sebastian took a solo vocal turn on the gorgeous “Darling Be Home Soon,” which he wrote in 1967 for a Francis Ford Coppola film soundtrack. And rounding out the “family” of musicians: Sebastian’s son Benson supplied percussion, and Roth’s daughter Lexie cut lead vocals on “Didn’t Want to Have to Do It,” originally intended as an instrumental. “She loved the song so much, she just had to try it,” attests Roth, “and she nailed it – one take!”
Following initial sessions at Chris Anderson’s Nevessa studio just down the road from Sebastian’s Woodstock home, COVID struck. “We had to separate to do the other thing that Arlen and I are really good at,” says Sebastian, “which is be a multi-instrumentalist – serve the song but not overdo it.” Sebastian added autoharp, harmonica, and his distinctive whistling to several tracks, while Roth contributed his awe-inspiring slide guitar, as well as acoustic lead. “This was constructive in its own way,” says Sebastian. “We were reacting to each other’s parts, even though we weren’t in the studio together.”
Roth sang lead, appropriately enough, on “Nashville Cats,” Sebastian’s ode to the Music City A-team of session pickers. “I’ve played with and known so many of the Nashville Cats and beyond,” Roth explains, “not to mention that some consider me to be one of them. It’s a full circle kind of thing to be pickin’ and singin’ that wonderful song!”
Both men thoroughly enjoyed the experience – and it shows in the album’s organic, joyous feel. For Roth, working on an album of Spoonful songs with the man who originated them was a dream come true: “Oh man, what is there that this man can’t write, in all feelings, genres, attitudes, poetic graces, and so much more? He is a songwriting giant! One of the best of all-time. The pleasure of working with the man you’re actually paying tribute to is beyond words!”
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