Ry Cooder Slides Into San Francisco
Last night I was lucky enough to be invited to see Ry Cooder play at one of my all-time favourite venues, The Great American Music Hall here in San Francisco. The ornate, old-school and intimate music hall has been the setting for some great shows, including Robyn Hitchcock, Elvis Costello, Nick Lowe and the last time I saw Cooder, when he did a trio with Nick Lowe and Jim Keltner. Thanks to my friend Colin Nairne, who works with the company that works with Cooder, I went to the will-call booth to pick up my ticket and was already thrilled to spot the legendary Maria Muldaur and Bonnie Raitt ahead of me in the line (the dude in the ticket booth actually asked Ms. Raitt for photo ID to claim her ticked, before someone from the club intervened and ushered her inside.) They were with some guy whose face seemed familiar but I couldn’t place the name, wasn’t a famous person to most but I later realized it was Holger Petersen, the Canadian blues and jazz aficionado, and founder of Stony Plain Records and founder of The Edmonton Folk Music Festival. I had only “met” Holger on the phone before, when I was writing my book about Long John Baldry (It Ain’t Easy: Long John Baldry And The Birth Of The British Blues). Holger had signed Baldry to his final record contract (Long John died in 2005) and they had made Juno award winning records together. A cordial and enthusiastic man, it was nice to shake his hand downstairs at the Great American. I also ran into rock manager extraordinaire Steve Macklem down there, and he remains one of the good guys of music business.
Cooder isn’t actually on tour and apparently doesn’t do much of that these days, but he’s up here for two nights to promote his newest album Pull Up Some Dust and Sit Down, and later next week he’ll return to promote his new book, Los Angeles Stories, at Herbst Theatre (Oct 5, 8 p.m.).
After a great Mexican-American set from Los Cenzontles, personally invited by Cooder, his own set got underway around 9pm, and as it turned out I was standing quite near the V.I.P. section and could see Raitt and Muldaur who were in heaven, as was everyone else, as Ry opened up on his guitar and made that sound that only Ry Cooder can make. His tone is so pure, so real and rurally authentic that for once, I can barely come up with adjectives. Maybe this is the music that makes speech and verbal language obsolete.
Pathetically, I will say that when he solos it’s as though a warm knife is carving through butter, effortlessly melting all in its path. But why would I go that route? His band featured his son Joachim Cooder on drums, who told me later that he’s very influenced by Jim Keltner, but admitted (after I prodded him) that Charlie Watts is probably also a huge influence on his style. Cooder also brought up his long-time friend, accordion player Flaco Jiménez on much of the set and the audience went wild as he walked tenuously onto the the stage. He was also backed by 10 Banda horns who barely fit on the tiny stage, so four of them played from the right side balcony above. One number featured the lovely voice of Juliette Commagere, whose own band opened for Cooder, Keltner and Lowe last year.
But no matter who was on stage with him, Cooder’s guitar was the star. Oh he’s an authentically croaky blues singer, and a funny guy onstage – it occurred to me that “Ry Cooder” sorta rhymes with “Wry Humour” – but when he solos on those guitars of his, well time stands still and we’re sailing over San Diego (his home town), Chavez Ravine, San Francisco and, inevitably, Paris, Texas. One of the highlights of the night was “No Banker Left Behind” from the new album:
Here’s a classic early version of a song they did last night, with Flaco “How Can A Poor Man Stand Such Times And Live”:
Thanks Colin for a swell night. And thanks Ryland Cooder for…well for being Ry Cooder!