A Troubadour for Troubled Waters

Being Jesse Jackson may not be easy, but it sure seems fun. Chicks come out of the woodwork, cats hang thick by your side, and songs slide straight out of the sky.

Sure, sometimes you gotta hit up a scribbler for a ride to the gig, maybe even a meal. But you get to hole up in a grand ol' inner-city warehouse surrounded by the works of a spectacular visualist. You get to rise at dusk. And each and every Tuesday you assemble a fluid bunch of fine-tuned players and hold court at a hip little hot spot called Amendment XXI.

This Tuesday is no different. Tonight, like every night, your accompaniment is culled from among Miami's finest. On drums is Bobby McIntyre, an erstwhile member of the Twilight Singers (an internationally renowned project by the Afghan Whigs' Greg Dulli). On tuba there's Chad Bernstein, a sideman from the Spam Allstars. Though your repertoire of originals and obscurities is extensive, they know it well. And even if they didn't, they could pick it up in an instant.

A nod, and you and yours are ready. Lights dim, conversations hush. You strap on a banjo, take a stool, close your eyes, and begin singing our souls to wake. At first there's but a few handfuls of the faithful, gripped to silence by the hand-slap of the traps, the moan of the tuba, the urge in your voice. Then, as if by hoodoo, others are drawn — a trickle, a ripple, finally a stream. The joint begins to burst at the seams. It's like watching the birth of a secret.

But Jackson has to be the least best-kept secret in town. And how could he not be? For seven years the cat has been plying his trademark blend of urban folk from county line to county line, busking Lincoln Road for tourists and locals, opening for national acts at Studio A, caressing a cuatro at Churchill's. Name the place, the street, a time, a date, and Jackson has played there.

His is a story that begins with a birth in Italy (to a sculptor father and a songwriting mother); continues through a rise in Cody, Wyoming, and an exile in Maine's Hyde School (a kind of prep school for delinquents); and inexplicably deflects to Vegas. It is, then, a story of goings and the stir that such moves make. As Jackson says, "It certainly helps to leave, whether you're attached to a place or not."

Which is to say that it is, too, a tale of coming — coming to terms with what's been left behind, and coming to a town that, with few exceptions, has long been unkind to any type of Americana songbook (unless, perhaps, it was rendered by Sinatra). It's a place that welcomed the cocaine cowboys yet chased away Charlie Pickett and Sam Beam.

At Amendment, Jackson wrings out all that's wrong with this picture and paints a whole new world, one in which the outlaw wins not by the butt of a gun, but at the barrel of a song. Echoes of Gershwin, Williams, Musselwhite, and Waits vie for space between Porter and Leadbelly and Big Joe Turner. There are gut-spilling reverberations of love and hate, loss and finding. Each word is a turn for bettering the worst, each measure an immeasurable revelation. If there is a God, surely this must be why She created voice.

And if this were Omaha, Jackson would be signed to Saddle Creek Records and swapping spit-takes with the likes of Bright Eyes, Cursive, and Two Gallants. If this were Brooklyn, he'd be on Young God Records, where Akron/Family and their ilk all roost. But this, of course, is Miami, where bottom-heaving crunk and dull-thumping house still break the bank.

No matter. "This scene's got a lot of potential," says the slender songster. "There's Jacuzzi Boys, Rachel Goodrich, Raffa and Rainer — who do great acoustic Wednesday at Churchill's. And my Amendment residency is going so well we're gonna expand. Instead of doing only two sets at 10:30 p.m., we're gonna start with two sets at 8:00 — accommodate the working crowd. I mean, it is, after all, a Tuesday."

In a soon-to-be unleashed video for the haunting tune "Go Away," vividly shot by local cinema queenpin Claudia La Bianca (recently a finalist in the Fox film competition The Lot), the reason for Jackson's increasing popularity is evident in every image. There's the confidence in his shielded gaze, which kicks off the clip, and the courage in his sitting on a low stool to better feel his heartbreak. No boast, no brag, no brouhaha. And when Jackson triplicates in order to serenade himself playing against himself at a chessboard, he becomes something thrice greater — our own back-alley Hermes.

Sure, there's the nod to Rain Dogs. The back-handed shuffle and slide brings to mind Hoagy Carmichael, and there's gruff enough for both Leon Russell and Dr. John. Yet, like the five albums' worth of material Jackson says he has on hand, the song somehow swings with a harnessed wildness all its own. Strings swirl, a chair squeaks, guitar and banjo twist their necks around themselves. And we bend, not only to "the memory of a mother's touch and the joy it brings," but also to the fear we experience upon learning we'll never again feel such warmth.

A fish out of water makes for a particularly poignant theme, especially if the sea is your very own. Nail by nail, board by board, word by word, song by song, Jackson has built himself a rowboat. One of these days we're going to blink and see it has become a big ol' ark, large enough to encompass everyone smart enough to board. Let's just hope he keeps it anchored in Biscayne Bay.