House of Tudor

Troubadour Jason Webley gets you singing, squirming, and maybe even doing the "gnome dance."

A charitable theurgist outfitted with an accordion, a moth-bitten fedora, and a peculiar sense of humor, Jason Webleyhas the uncanny ability to persuade roomfuls of people to close their eyes, open their mouths, and spin around until they fall down. Under his sway, turgid club owners leap from their chairs, pull their shirts over their heads, and do the "gnome dance"; staid journalists engage in tickle fights with strangers; ailing grandparents do the cancan; dogs and puppets perform murder ballads; the temperate sing drinking songs; and the dour giggle like children. All the while Webley stomps, laughs, leers, and cajoles, his songs waxing between merriment and derangement, his hands bleeding after making too good use of a plastic jug filled with change, his words tumbling out like betel nuts wrapped in love, cheese, turnips, cemetery soil, faith, ship wax, and moonlight. And yet, however raucous and ribald his live shows might be, Webley is a songwriter, not a provocateur, and his albums have always emphasized the delicate, mindful quality of his craft. Belying the album title, Webley's latest, Only Just the Beginning, is the fourth full-length offering from the wild-eyed minstrel, and it is by far his most thoughtful and accomplished. On the opening "February Relaxing Her Fingers After a Brief Winter's Grip," a hollow, repetitive chime is met by the plucking of violin strings and Webley's husky voice, which seems to crawl out from beneath a pile of blankets to sing, "Wake up ... wake up ... wake up ...." "Music That Puts Everything Together" leaps to its feet with a bright orchestral air, but Webley's voice remains moored by his dreams, somnolent and wistful. It's an easy segue into "Balloon Feather Boat Tomato," which shelters a piano melody as tender, heartbreaking, and persistent as a doomed sapling. "When you can't find your heart but your body keeps moving/ When you can't tell your life apart from your dreams/ Follow the light into the valley/ Gently respond to the pull of a string," sings Webley in his vulnerable, whiskey-soaked tenor; "The knife will fall/ And something will die." The lyrics are a compass for the rest of the album, which follows the faithful and foolish through the dark nights and blinding mornings of the soul, as viewed from under a patchwork tapestry of Spanish tango, Irish reels, country blues, Northwest punk, and Weimar cabaret. Even the live favorite "Icarus," with its percussive, pint-pounding chorus, "I push/ I strain/ I wrestle with my brain/ Then I feel something snap/ And I relax," is here laid bare. While musically inventive, and sometimes peculiar, Only Just the Beginningis by far Webley's most sincere and direct work. Some longtime fans might miss his surreal humor and lyrical trickery, but they will find longer-lasting blooms in his humanity. Jason Webley performs at a number of locations this month, with each appearance being seasoned by the venue, so pick according to mood. The shows are Thursday, May 6, at the Odeon with Australia's Soda Stream opening at 9 p.m. followed by "Kostume Karaoke." Tickets are $5; call 550-6994 or visit www.odeonbar.com. Friday, May 7, supporting Oranger at Santa Clara University's Benson Hall, with Film School and Shinobu opening at 7 p.m. Tickets are $5; call (408) 554-4429 or visit www.scu.edu. Saturday, May 8, at 924 Gilman in Berkeley opening for the Phenomenauts along with Harold Ray Live in Concert, the Mothballs, and the Herms at 8 p.m. Tickets are $5; call (510) 525-9926 or visit www.924gilman.org. And Sunday, May 9, at 21 Grand in Oakland at 8 p.m. Tickets are $5-10; call (510) 444-7263 or visit www.21grand.org.

 
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