What’s a nineteen-year-old white Stanford freshman from Eugene, Oregon doing singing the blues? Take a hard listen to singer-guitarist David Jacobs-Strain’s latest CD, Stuck on the Way Back (NorthernBlues Music), and that question answers itself. But another question crops up: How the hell did this kid absorb so much in so few years?
One minute he’s a dead ringer for Kelly Joe Phelps and his lonesome-road ragas, the next he’s growling like Dave Van Ronk. He works a John Fahey fingerpick-and-slide vein on the CD, but throws in surprises — a West African Mandinka kora accompaniment on his cover of R.L. Burnside’s “Poor Black Mattie,” a Zimbabwe-style mbira (thumb piano) on his original “Black and Blue,” and bitter social protest on “Dark Horse Blues”: “Sometimes those stars and stripes/Look like a ball and chain/You wanna kill that white tiger/Snort cocaine.” Bursts of Mississippi Fred McDowell and labelmate Otis Taylor flash by, but the upshot of the CD is that this young man with “the soul of a man in his eighties” (his publicist’s tag line) wields a bullwhip voice and plays demon guitar. He probably wears a cobra snake for a necktie, too. He’s ready, ready as anybody can be.
But right now, he’s balancing gigs — like this Friday night’s at Berkeley’s Freight & Salvage (1111 Addison St., 510-548-1761) — and textbooks. At a time when many young performers are smoothing it out, Jacobs-Strain prefers roots and protest music. “I guess all music has a political statement within it, intrinsically,” he said in a phone interview. “I do want to avoid writing songs about smoking pot and superficial relationships. That one’s already been done. I’m trying to write topical songs.” He may have cut his teeth on Bessie Smith and Lightnin’ Hopkins records, but that doesn’t mean he’s living on gin and pickled pig’s feet. After all, he goes to Stanford. “I grew up in a left-of-center artistic community in Eugene,” he confides. “I don’t feel I have to live the ‘blues lifestyle’ to play it.” His music backs that up.