“Come back more often!” yells an audience member between songs during one of Ry Cooder’s two 2011 concerts at San Francisco’s Great American Music Hall. Those performances, captured on Live, were Cooder’s first at the venue since the 1977 gigs recorded for his first live album, Showtime. So the guy in the audience definitely had a point. These days the guitar hero and radical troubadour from Santa Monica rarely plays in public anywhere, so this set of 11 songs he’s recorded over his multi-decade career, plus one wild card, is a rare treat.
Starting out in the late ’60s in the Rising Suns, a band that also included bluesman Taj Mahal, Cooder went on to play with Don “Captain Beefheart” Van Vliet in an early version of Van Vliet’s Magic Band. He then worked as a sideman with Randy Newman, Little Feat, and the Rolling Stones. (Although he played on both Let It Bleed and Sticky Fingers, Cooder didn’t especially relish his time with Mick, Keith and company, describing them as “reptilian” in a Rolling Stone interview). In the ’70s, he released a series of solo albums on Warner Brothers that explored blues, R&B, country, rock ‘n roll, folk, ragtime, Tex-Mex, and Hawaiian. During the ’80s, he worked mainly as a studio musician and a composer of soundtracks for films like The Long Riders and Paris, Texas. In the ’90s, his focus shifted from American idioms to Africa, India, and Latin America. He recorded and produced Talking Timbuktu with the Malian guitarist Ali Farka Toure, A Meeting by the River with the Hindustani classical musician V.M. Bhatt, and the best-selling “world music” album to date — Buena Vista Social Club, featuring mostly elderly singers and musicians performing vintage Cuban music.
In 2005, Cooder released the first of a series of thematic albums, Chavez Ravine, an ambitious and brilliantly realized portrait of the titular Mexican-American community in Los Angeles that in the 1950s was destroyed by “urban renewal”. Next came My Name Is Buddy, a leftist political parable featuring Buddy Red Cat and his friends Lefty Mouse and Rev. Tom Toad, and I, Flathead, inspired by southern California drag racing culture and released with a booklet of stories Cooder had written to accompany the songs. Two more politically-charged albums followed, Pull Up Some Dust and Sit Down, with the anti-Wall Street anthem “No Banker Left Behind”, and last year’s Election Special, nine bitingly satiric broadsides against the GOP, Wall Street, and the Right.
From this rich catalog, Cooder cherry-picked only a dozen songs to include on Live but they’re fairly representative of his eclectic oeuvre. His picks also feature plenty of his guitar playing, which will please fans who felt (as I sometimes did) that his recent albums were a bit stingy with his greatest asset.
At the San Francisco gigs, Cooder was backed by the Corridos Famosos sextet and the ten-piece, horns and percussion ensemble, La Banda Juvenil. Cooder and his first-rate collaborators perform with passion, soul, and humor; they’re obviously having a great time onstage and the audience feels it. The crowd noise is at times a little obtrusive, but it conveys the mood of the gig – a joyful welcome-back party for a much-loved but reclusive friend you’ve missed seeing.
The shows also were a family affair. The Corridos Famosos include Ry’s son Joachim on drums, Joachim’s wife Juliet Commagere on vocals, and her brother Robert Francis on bass, as well as an old friend and collaborator, Flaco Jimenez, the Tejano accordionist who was at Cooder’s side when he played this venue 34 years earlier. Terry Evans, another veteran of the 1977 shows, handles backup vocals, along with Arnold McCuller, filling in for Cooder’s other longtime singing partner Bobby King.
The show gets underway with “Crazy ‘Bout an Automobile”, from the 1980 album, Borderline. It’s a great opener. Cooder’s vocal is relaxed and bluesy (at 66, the man’s singing better than ever) and he lays down those trademark buzzing slide guitar licks that thrill us devotees. La Banda Juvenil’s drums and horns make their first appearance on “Why Don’t You Try Me?”, also from Borderline, and they fit the song well, never overpowering the core ensemble.
The folk song “Boomer’s Story” has been in Cooder’s repertoire for years, and for good reason: its quietly moving account of a hobo’s desperate search for work fits his longstanding concern for the exploited and powerless. But Cooder’s introduction of the song is anything but downbeat. When he observes that Boomer gets run out of town before he can get paid for his work, Terry Evans jokes, “That sounds like me!” Cooder replies, “Oh, we’re going to get paid, Terry. Look at all these people, you know we’re going to get paid.”
Cooder’s humor – ironic, satiric, and sometimes self-deprecating — is one of the pleasures of this show. He dedicates “Lord Tell Me Why”, a “bitter little song”, to “the white men in the audience…you know who you are.” The song’s narrator, an Angry White Man and prospective Tea Party recruit, complains that “a white man ain’t worth nothing in this world no more.” The Caucasian’s lament, though, isn’t a country or folk song. Its pedigree is African American — a stomping blues rocker with a touch of gospel, as Evans and McCuller comically exhort God to save the beleaguered white man: “Fix it, Lord!”
In “El Corrido de Jesse James”, the notorious bank robber looks down from Heaven and sees the thievery and corruption of Wall Street and the banks. “He thinks this is wrong,” Cooder observes, introducing the song. “He goes to God and asks for his .44 back, and says, ‘Con permiso I will go down and take care of this.’” In the instrumental break, La Banda Juvenil leaps in, playing the melody in unison and turning Cooder’s corrido (narrative ballad) into a rousing anthem.
“Volver Volver”, the ranchera that was the signature song of Vicente Fernández, gets an effectively plaintive reading from Juliet Commagere; “School is Out” is a jaunty Tex-Mex rocker, and the wild card — a cover of Sam the Sham and the Pharoahs’ immortal (and inscrutable) 1965 hit “Wooly Bully” — is a hoot. The only track that doesn’t quite work is the Mexicanized take on Woody Guthrie’s “Do Re Mi”: the tempo feels rushed and Cooder’s vocal lacks the ease of the version he recorded in 1971 for his debut album. Flaco Jimenez’ playing is a delight, and bassist Francis shines, as he does on every track, but overall the performance feels contrived.
The show’s musical and emotional peaks are the superb renditions of “Dark End of the Street”, a soul ballad first recorded by James Carr in 1967, and Woody Guthrie’s “Vigilante Man”. On the first, Terry Evans and Arnold McCuller handle the vocals, and they’re magnificent, wringing every bit of pathos and self-punishment from the lyrics about adulterous lovers “hiding in shadows where we don’t belong/living in darkness to hide our wrong”.
At eight-minutes plus, “Vigilante Man” is the longest selection, and a showcase for the kind of slide-guitar blues that’s Cooder’s stock in trade. Backed just by Cooder fils, Francis and Jimenez, he makes his guitar keen, swoop, glide and sting, echoing and amplifying Guthrie’s chilling lyrics. Its stark drama lifts with the next number, a low-key and tender “Goodnight Irene” featuring La Banda Juvenil, a fitting closer to a thoroughly satisfying show. If only its touring-averse star would take it on the road!