Ry Cooder 8.14.18
Words by Elliot Siff (Elliot Siff Photography)
Photo by Don Titelman
Ry Cooder is a major bucket list artist for me and many others. His tours are rare and often tend to feature him in various collaborations with other artists. That is what made this tour so special- Ry cooler doing his thing, a retrospective of his stylings from over 4 decades, in top form, showcasing his mastery of the bottleneck slide guitar and unique showmanship with his personal approach to Americana music and obscure folk tunes.
Immediately following the performance, the man in front of me turned around and we looked at each other in awe and happiness and he said “I’ve been waiting 40 years to see that show!”- which kind of sums it up for any Cooder fan. His new Album Prodigal Son, marks 48 years of solo releases and fits right in as another classic album of his. The show featured a mix of material from the new album and plenty of material all the way back to the 70’s. The band was on point, with Cooder’s son, Joachim, on percussion along with a keyboard/multi instrumentalist, bass, horns and The Hamiltones, a three piece gospel outfit. This type of setup is quite similar to how Ry would rock his solo shows from the 70’s, featuring a tight band and powerful arrangements which led the audience to give standing ovations throughout the performance.
I knew about Ry Cooder from college, discovering his world music explorations and collaborations with folks like The Buena Vista Social Club in Cuba and Ali Farka Toure of North Africa. It wasn't until I started collecting and enjoying vinyl records that I dug into his catalogue and discovered his funky and free approach to Americana music, weather writing his own tunes or creating new compositions and takes on songs from the roots and hidden roots of the American music catalog, while taking influence from his deep knowledge of music worldwide. Cooder does this in his own way and always has, with his quirky and playful voice, unique guitar chordings and slide skill, baritone voice and call and response gospel background vocalists. Its for these reasons and more (like his time in the sixties working with folks like Taj Mahal, Captain Beefheart and The Rolling Stones among others) that Rolling Stone editor David Fricke named Ry Cooder his #8 top guitarist pick in 2010.
One look at the setlist of songs played tonight shows a consistent theme featuring songs of the American Dream and the American Struggle, which Ry delivered in his own gospel/folk/rock/blues hybrid style. Almost every song was written well before Ry’s career was even developing and digs deep in American music history. The show began with two by gospel-blues Blind Willie Johnson ("Nobody’s Fault but My Own" and "Everybody Ought to Treat a Stranger Right"), and featured others like “Vigilante Man” by Woody Guthrie, “Jesus on the Mainline” by Mississippi Fred McDowell, “The Very Thing That Makes You Rich (Makes Me Poor)" by Sidney Bailey, Alfred Reed’s songs “How Can a Poor Man Stand Such Times and Live” and “You Must Unload” among others like the teller track of his new release “Straight Street,” written by Alexander and Whitaker and popularized in the 40’s. It's possible the only true original was “Jesus and Woody,” a new song of his written like an old cowboy story song written as a conversation from Jesus to Woody Guthrie when they meet at the nightclub in heaven, about the state of things, love and hate and being dreamers.
Ry took moments in some of these songs to update verses and share some current thoughts while singing these old politicized numbers. A comedic speech about Jeff Bezos and shocking receipts at the Whole Foods checkout line filled the intro verse to “How Can a Poor Man Stand Such Times and Live” and the song ended with a verse or two ripping into the Trump presidency and their rigging of the election. Woody Guthrie’s song “Vigilante Man” turned to gun protest and cries of Treyvon Martin’s story as Ry took to his own towards the finish of that tune.
At the end of the set, Cooder launched into his classic take on Elvis Presley’s “Little Sister” to get the entire seated crowd up on their feet dancing and staying fired up enough to get the band up for some encores. Before exiting, Ry took a moment to share one more piece of advice…turn off the tv, throw away the tv! Instead, turn on YouTube and look up all these songs you've enjoyed, find the old versions, the original versions, enjoy and learn from that. Head down a Ry Cooder wormhole on YouTube and enjoy songs done by Ry from his catalog, but also find the old and original versions that inspired his takes. The tour is on to Europe at this point, do your best to catch one of the upcoming performances if at all possible.