Harry Smith Project – UCLA Royce Hall (Westwood, CA)
“Harry Smith’s shining down on us,” exclaimed a stately Marianne Faithfull early into a five-hour tribute to the legendary music archivist and Beat Generation Renaissance man. While Smith’s monumental 1952 Anthology Of American Folk Music frequently has been credited with fathering the 1960s folk revival, he probably would’ve been pleased that his lasting legacy drew such an eclectic gathering of acolytes to pay homage to him.
One of the groundbreaking aspects of the Smith anthology (and with the recently released additional volume as well) was that it didn’t separate music by conventional genres, and the same philosophy held court at this concert. One early second-act sequence started with Pere Ubu’s frenetic frontman David Thomas backed by the legendary Van Dyke Parks and ace fiddler Richard Greene, inventively reworking Uncle Dave Macon’s “Way Down The Old Plank Road” and the perennial “Fishing Blues”. Next came Steve Earle, who did simple, rough-hewn versions of Dock Boggs’ “Country Blues” and Blind Lemon Jefferson’s “Prison Cell Blues”. Philip Glass’ signature piano playing followed, accompanying three of Smith’s short experimental films.
The breaking down of genre walls also resulted in some unique collaborations. Elvis Costello shared the stage with jazz clarinetist Don Byron, guitar virtuoso Bill Frisell and modern-folk darling Eliza Carthy; the aforementioned Faithfull, meanwhile, was backed by a “chorus” of Earle, Todd Rundgren and Beck, with ex-New York Doll David Johansen wailing away on harmonica.
This rare opportunity to see such a spectrum of musicians on the same stage made this concert special. On a night filled with highlights, several moments particularly stood out. Thomas’ animated yet compelling performance had the crowd clapping along with him. Bob Neuwirth, one of the few musicians who actually talked about Smith from the stage, did a lovely version of “Little Moses”, accompanied by Carthy and the McGarrigle Sisters. The McGarrigles also performed with Elvis Costello on a two-part version of “Ommie Wise”, with Costello doing a sequel to the traditional murder ballad. Faithfull delivered a rousing rendition of “John The Revelator”. Johansen, who now plays with a group called the Harry Smiths, showcased his powerful vocals on a trio of tunes, most notably “A Lazy Farmer Boy”.
Spinal Tap’s Harry Shearer, Christopher Guest and Michael McKeon brought some humor to the festivities with their parody trio the Folkmen, whose clean style was the antithesis of what Smith was all about; their version of “What A Feeling” (yes, the Flashdance song) would have made the Kingston Trio proud.
But it was a rendition of the Carter Family’s “No Depression In Heaven” that proved to be the night’s most captivating performance. While The Band’s Garth Hudson masterfully alternated between a trio of keyboards, his wife Maude sang the song with such unadorned elegance that it hushed the packed hall.
Music producer Hal Willner, whose name appeared in the show’s title, and David Sefton, the new director of UCLA’s Performing Arts, previously organized Smith tributes in London and New York City in 1999. This latest concert was done in conjunction with a Harry Smith symposium at Los Angeles’ Getty Museum.
While more remarks and recollections about Smith undoubtedly would have deepened the personal dimension of the performances, the musicians’ heartfelt performances conveyed their obvious appreciation of the man and his work. And as the clock approached 1:30 a.m. and the house lights went up, concertgoers and participants listened to Hudson play, on a floor-level pipe organ, a rambling but energetic recessional that seemed to capture the eccentric, disheveled spirit of both Harry Smith and this tribute concert.