If I thought Jon Cleary commanded an impressive amount of hushed attention at his standing Monday night gig at Chickie Wah Wah, I wasn’t prepared for the concert-like silence bestowed on guitarist John Rankin at his Tuesday-night standing gig at the Columns Hotel.
Rankin’s plugged-in acoustic guitar technique, eclectic repertoire and devoted regulars are well-suited to the venerable charm and gravitas of the 120-year-old Italianate mansion-cum-hotel. I’ve been to the Columns plenty of times for outdoor drinking sessions with friends on the wide front porch or a date at the stately mahogany bar in the Victorian Lounge, but I’d never gone specifically to hear live music. I visited Rankin’s gig on the recommendation of a hotel front desk clerk, who said Rankin’s shows have a strong following.
Rankin performed in the front parlor, a small room off the Victorian Lounge that is a world apart in the tenor of its patrons. Whereas the rest of the bar visitors gab loudly in a communal din, the parlor contains about a dozen patrons seated at tables, all silent and looking toward Rankin and his wingman, a multi-instrumentalist joining him for the evening. I brought a girlfriend I hadn’t seen in a while, expecting to catch up with her during the show.
That was a misstep. Rankin’s shows are popular, but he and the audience mean business. Acoustic guitar, even when hooked up to an amplifier, isn’t conducive to cocktail chatter and extended discussions of one’s love life.
At the moment we entered the room, Rankin and his accomplice had just started a beautiful, leisurely version of a Villa-Lobos mazurka. Full of rubato and pensiveness, it made me feel like I should be alone in an attic watching the rain. After watching Rankin silently at the back of the room, my friend and I retired to the Victorian Lounge, sitting on the closest piece of furniture to the parlor, one of those Victorian circular sofas that seat people facing outward. The usefulness of a chair like this had always confounded me, so I was pleased to have finally found a perfect circumstance for it.
As my friend and I chatted within earshot of the parlor, I listened to Rankin shape-shift through several styles back-to-back, first working Great American Songbook fare, then going into jazzy bossa nova with a “Girl From Ipanema” as perfectly unaffected and casual as it was intended.
After one round of drinks — mint juleps, chemically sound but tainted by large ice cubes and a water, instead of pewter, glass — my friend left, allowing me to re-enter the parlor and give Rankin my full attention.
“Just a Simple Love Song,” a Rankin original, was wistful, reflective and lovely. He followed it with the boogie-woogie tinged “I’m Coming Down With Love.”
“Anybody got any better ideas?” Rankin asked nonchalantly after fiddling with his songbook.
“What about ‘Scotch and Soda?’” asked one patron, who must have known Rankin’s work well, because she requested another song immediately after.
The sweet trad-jazz tune “Scotch and Soda” went well with Rankin’s shifty, speak-singing vocals, which he inflected charmingly in the line, “‘Do I feel higher than a kite can fly?’” In his version of the classic “Frankie and Johnny,” Rankin brought the tragic characters to life with the relaxed delivery and technical confidence of a master troubadour.
That, I found, is one of the great pleasures Rankin offers his listeners: He has plenty of stories to tell, but just as often, he lets his music paint a perfect backdrop for stories of one’s own.