Club Passim can be easy to miss. To get there, one must traverse the unsavory alley between the two buildings occupied by the Harvard Coop and descend a flight of stairs. The space at the bottom is unassuming in its tininess—the size of a large living room, with a glut of tables in its center and chairs pressed up against its perimeter. The stage sits at the back of the room, slightly elevated, able to accommodate three uncomfortable musicians at most. Club Passim’s modesty belies its unbelievable history: In the ’60s, when it was known as Club 47, it was the foremost spot to catch singer-songwriters in the Boston area. Joan Baez got her start there. A young Bob Dylan played between other people’s sets; billing was so competitive that even a future Nobel Laureate in Literature never managed to land a performance of his own. "Even then in 1962, 1963, [billing at Club 47] was the seal of approval that you had made it as a folk musician," said Millie Rahn, Club Passim’s archivist, in a retrospective for NPR. In other words, David Ramirez had enormous shoes to fill.
He filled them with aplomb. Stopping by Club Passim on his Bootleg Tour, in which each show is recorded live and distributed among the audience afterwards, Ramirez brought both professionalism and soul to his set. The Austin-based singer-songwriter is a seasoned performer, having released his first album, “11503 Lansbury,” in 2005 and toured steadily since then. Armed with just a guitar, a harmonica on a holder, and his voice, Ramirez never once slipped up onstage. He opened the set with a cover of a Neil Young deep cut, “Vampire Blues,” which lent him an opportunity to show off his range: His powerful voice, perfectly coated in reverb, alternated between upper-register howls and tuneful mumbles when he wasn’t ferociously attacking the harmonica.
“Vampire Blues” turned out to be a mere warm-up. Its subtle, purely decorative guitar strums and brooding mood instantly gave way to virtuosity and warmth once Ramirez shifted to his original compositions. Every chord change and turn of phrase in his songs united the room in exquisite sadness. Ramirez himself never fell short of captivating, bringing a presence and animal force to his set that exhausted him; he frequently wiped his face with a cloth, which sat on a nightstand beside Ramirez’s picture of “Groundhog Day”-era Bill Murray. On “Mighty Fine,” he slid in and out of a smooth falsetto, a rarity among his folk peers, before belting, “Boy, make up your mind,” holding the last word for a few seconds to create the maximum emotional impact. “The Bad Days” in particular, with its interpolation of Bonnie Raitt’s heartbreaking “I Can’t Make You Love Me,” provoked audible snuffles.
Ramirez proved to be charismatic in between songs as well. While at first, he merely delivered curt thanks in a stoic, Southern accent, he soon began to loosen up and banter with the audience. The moment he ended “Mighty Fine,” a glass shattered, to which Ramirez deadpanned, “Good timing. Too bad it was in the wrong fucking key.” A woman in the audience complimented his accent, and he feigned blushing. A man, who had been making incongruous headbanger gestures all night long, got up and exited in a flurry of obscene motions. “Did someone get kicked out?” Ramirez asked. “All I saw was what looked like the silhouette of Rick Moranis in Ghostbusters.” He then turned to the picture of Bill Murray. “That’s your friend, isn’t it?”
Compounded with his forceful songwriting and musicianship, Ramirez’s charm seemed to win over his audience, who continually expressed their fondness for him: One old lady felt compelled to exclaim, “All night long, baby!”, disturbingly. Her reaction was not incongruous. Ramirez succeeded in every aspect, crafting a truly absorbing experience. While it would be disingenuous to compare him to the likes of Baez or Dylan, he nonetheless proved his mettle and his immense talent, making himself right at home in Club Passim’s legacy.
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