From an outsider’s perspective, it appears that musicians are best served not so much by pivoting but by adapting and blending their influences, old and new, together as they move along in their career and accumulate critical life experiences on that path.
Though his pursuits in his younger days angled toward punk, Jonathan Linaberry has unabashedly and enthusiastically embraced the direction of musicians whom he happened to hear while finding his way as a self-taught, college-age guitar and banjo player.
When his ears discovered the likes of Blind Lemon Jefferson, Son House, and other blues-belting guitarists from places like Texas and the Mississippi Delta, Linaberry — who hails from Central New York, near Syracuse — began to genuinely mold those sounds from the first half of the century, as well as the spirit and character of the music, into his own song writing style.
The end result is a refreshingly modern and approachable twist on backwoods roots: a musical identity known as The Bones of JR Jones and a name under which Linaberry released his first EP, The Wildness, back in 2012. He’s since relocated from Brooklyn to an isolated spot near the Catskill Mountains and the Hudson Valley, and he’s put out three full-length albums and another EP, 2021’s Celebration.
Jonathan came to Songbyrd in Washington DC on Sept. 22 to prove that this outfit is just as dynamic live as it has been across its handful of studio offerings.
He’s performed as a solo musician at times in his career — able to play an assortment of instruments — but Jonathan came to the still-new Songbyrd on Penn Street NE flanked by two talented bandmates — drummer Daniel Sousa and bassist Kiyoshi Matsuyama, who with Linaberry co-produced the recent six-song Celebration.
Watch The Bones of JR Jones perform “The Heat” via OurVinyl Sessions on YouTube:
Delivering a set that isn’t easy to come by in a city loaded with live music, Linaberry justified The Bones of JR Jones as an authentic dive into a realm where he can thrive with his timeless voice — haunting, grumbling, stirring — and his nuanced maneuvering of a decades-old Kalamazoo guitar, his banjo and his resophonic.
Putting the punk informative out in the open to start, the band blasted “The Drop” from Ones To Keep Close, maybe taking the crowd by surprise with the immediate edginess of this track and kicking off what felt like a ritualistic ceremony with an attitude that required Daniel to smash with a focused control and Kiyoshi to stretch out the strings of his bass by thumping thick, insolent notes to mirror Jonathan’s hammering on the guitar.
“Know My Name,” also from the 2018 album, casted Linaberry’s spell onto a grooving gospel landscape where he projected lyrics and riffs that transmitted sentiments of truck-driving country and hard core.
“Bad Moves,” released early in the year and later on Celebration, utilized a fast-paced loop that beats in and out and let Jonathan interject his voice in batched sections as the song built up. The chorus rang out at Songbyrd as desolately psychedelic with a texture reminiscent of 80s new wave: “I wanna hold your shine. Wanna hold your shine. Wanna hold your shine.”
Stream The Bones of JR Jones’ 2021 Celebration EP via Spotify:
Maybe the song that best showcased why Linaberry is so well equipped to hunt these perilous places, “Howl” is constructed on simple acoustics and his quivering, forlorn voice that can at times sound tortured with grief, and in this track, it’s longing for the companionship to defeat that pain. When he calls out “won’t you howl with me?”, he’s as lonesome as any creature you’ll find struggling on this planet.
Jonathan showed here like in most other songs he’s created that he can detect and either relieve or exacerbate painful tracts within the human psyche. Humble and fairly soft-spoken in between songs, Linaberry should be plenty confident about the sound he’s established. He’s been featured by the likes of the lifestyle website/outfitter Huckberry, his music has been used on different films and TV series, including an episode of Daredevil, and he’s been joined by adored voices such as Nicole Atkins, who joined him for the standout track “Burdon” recorded on Ones To Keep Close.
Linaberry’s vocals stood out again on “Keep It Low,” as his ability to adjust his pitch and prolong his groans helped make this a highlight of the night. Tasked with rotating through thunderous, restless songs as well as hypnotic, pensive tunes such as this one, Daniel and Kiyoshi thrived in their support of Jonathan and seemingly clutched the opportunity to perform his music to this intimate audience on a rainy night in DC.
Recorded on 2014’s Dark Was the Yearling, “St. James’ Bed” shifted the attention to Linaberry’s skilled fingers on the banjo, a song that rang out as eerily stark. Its careful undulation drifted toward a gospel hymn before meandering into a sophisticated groove that at times had an undecided direction that complements Linaberry’s timbre.
Later in the set, before Jonathan would finish the night alone on stage, The Bones of JR Jones performed an elegant version of “Hearts Racing” that felt culled from a dream. This 2014 track is painfully gorgeous, offering tones of hope, reassurance and imagination to paint the image of love that’s come too far to turn back. Jon put his mouth to the harmonica for this one, and his skill with the tiny wind instrument subtly added an abundance of affection to what feels like an achievement in heart wrenching song writing.
Watch the official music video for The Bones of JR Jones’ “Stay Wild” on YouTube:
Banjo in hand, solo for the final few songs of the night, Jonathan chose “Sinner Song” and “Stay Wild” as a way to bring the crowd in a bit tighter, delivering stripped down, untreated versions of these songs. “Sinner Song” heard Jonathan lament words that sounded like a remorseful murderer looking for reprieve: “Sweet woman, take me home. Wash this blood from my clothes. Won’t you watch over me? Till I finally find some sleep.” The chorus seemed to capture the deeply agonizing essence of The Bones of JR Bones: “Well, I am lost. And I’m ready to be found. I’m lost. And I’m ready to be found.”
Cheered back out for an encore, Jonathan pointed out that he’d normally come right out into the crowd for his finale, but he gestured at the ledge of the Songbyrd stage. But the roomful of fans — some familiar, some newly exposed to his work — wasn’t having that and he was encouraged, more so commanded, to hop down to the floor, which he did with his Kalamazoo in hand.
And he capped the night with “13 Kinds,” a track that gains momentum and cuts along to swift notes while Jonathan threw his head back in a bellow, oscillating his voice and bouncing it off the walls, where it sounded like that of a ghost floating out of some marsh in the deep south. Getting the most out of the antique instrument in his hands, Jonathan’s strumming had a bewildering curve, almost a manipulation to it, that you could feel as he seemed to get the most out of the green painted guitar.
Forming a circle around him as he strummed and hollered right in front of the stage, the impromptu on-floor encore cemented Linaberry as a one-of-kind performer palpably connected to the songs he writes and sings, and this special night of further helped break in the new Songbyrd, which is ripe for this type of unprocessed, fearless performances from artists who are taking chance.
Many others in the currently active generations have been inspired by music of old and felt encouraged to give it a shot. But as listeners have the eternal right to opine, it’s all about what musicians put into their music, how they carry themselves and what they harvest to share with others. For those who have opened their ears to Linaberry’s library, the opportunity to see him perform his music live in person was both rewarding and validating — it provided a glimpse of a man who cares passionately about his songs and strives to nurture them.
Know My Name
Keep It Low
I See You
Here are images of The Bones of JR Jones performing at Songbyrd Music House on Sept. 22, 2021. All images copyright and courtesy of Casey Vock.