Live Review: Ry Cooder – Great American Music Hall (San Francisco, CA)
As of late a Ry Cooder live performance is as rare as hen’s teeth. So it was a treat that in support of his current collection of neo-depression serenades “Pull Up Some Dust and Sit Down” Cooder booked two quickly sold-out shows at the legendary Great American Music Hall in the seedy Tenderloin section of San Francisco. Since there seem to be no other dates to follow these it was not surprising that I ran into fans that came from as far away as New York and Texas to catch the event. The crowd in the long entrance line skewed boomer and they reminisced abut the various incarnations of Cooder they had experienced live over the years.
It’s easy to overuse hyphens when describing Ry Cooder’s sound. Cooder is a musicologist of sorts, but it’s not all theory, he then puts his discoveries to work in songs. Wikipedia has his sound as “dust bowl folk, blues, Tex-Mex, soul, gospel, rock.” Yet somehow he fuses it all together to make great songs. His eclecticism is born out of his career of great solo work but also collaborations with artists as diverse as Taj Mahal, Captain Beefheart, Randy Newman, Neil Young, Eric Clapton, the Rolling Stones (according to Keith Richards bio “Life,” Cooder let Keef in on the magic of open G tuning), Little Feat, Van Morrison, Judy Collins and African multi-instrumentalist Ali Farka Toure and the conduit for forming the Buena Vista Social Club. And then there is the 15 soundtracks he’s created or contributed to. Yeah, you could say the man is diverse.
On this night Cooder staples Terry Evans and Arnold McCuller helped out with soulful vocals. San Antonio’s own Flaco Jimenez was on hand to lend his Tejano-style accordion to the occasion. The rest of the band skewed to a younger generation with a rhythm section featuring Cooder’s son Joachim on drums and Robert Francis on bass. Then there was the ten-piece brass section Cooder brought with him from So-Cal (it included tuba and bass-saxophone) which stretched the limits of space and had to be positioned in the balconies flanking the stage.
The night kicked into gear with the slinky funk of Crazy Bout An Automobile, then Boomer’s Story followed as a personal request of bassist Francis (“Youth must be served Cooder quipped”). A soulful rendition of Why Don’t You Try Me followed, then there was a lively version of Woody Guthrie’s Do Re Mi highlighted by Jimenez’s dazzling accordion work and a ode to Sam the Sham’s Wooly Bully (“I saw Sham and the Pharaohs pull up that hearse and thought Man, that’s weird.” said Cooder.)
Cooder’s new album carries through with the theme he followed recently of socio-political commentary done through contemporary folk numbers that are biting in their message but tempered by excellent song-craft and a wry (sure, pun) sense of humor. This was done to excellent effect by his performance of the new song El Corrido de Jesse James, which Cooder introduced as a fable told as a conversation between the outlaw James and God. Jesse James asks for his .45 colt peacemaker back so he can revisit Earth and introduce the Wall Street fat-cats to some old-style justice. It’s never been made clear why an outlaw would suddenly turn law enforcer but it‘s a fine tune nonetheless.
The show was a feast of sound and visuals but the moments that made you catch your breath were when Cooder took a solo or slide intro and made seemingly disparate notes alchemically transcend and glue the song together. The subtle mastery that Cooder brings to the guitar puts him in a rare class which might include Bill Frisell, Mark Ribot and Dave Rawlings.
San Pablo’s Los Cenzontles (The Mockingbirds) opened the show with authentic Mexican-influenced dance songs which set a festive tone and delighted the packed house.