“It all started with the Strat,”...
Review: Ry Cooder at San Franscisco's Great American Music Hall, August 31, 2011.
posted by misterrichter
In our 22nd issue, we published the Guitarist's Bucket List, a compilation of 99 things we think all guitarists should get to doing before their race is run. Entry 37 suggests taking a long road trip while listening to Ry Cooder's Paris, Texas soundtrack. While this is an addition I endorse entirely, I was lucky enough to recently augment it, by making Cooder himself the catalyst of my sojourn.
Roughly three years ago, I ordained myself as a member of the Cooder mega-fan contingent. Like other mega-fans, I had come to accept that seeing him live was not likely in the cards as his touring has become sparse and seemingly concentrated to within Europe. Luckily, when reading the press release regarding Cooder's newest release Pull Up Some Dust & Sit Down, I saw (to my amazement) that two nights of shows at San Francisco's Great American Music Hall had been booked, and that tickets were already on sale. I called a few friends I knew were fans, found a flight and pulled the trigger. Needless to say, the Paris, Texas soundtrack was loaded and at the ready if I felt the need to make the trip any more meta than it already was.
After landing and grabbing a customary Mission District burrito, my travel partner and I arrived at the Great American Music Hall to meet up with friends (and fellow Cooder fans) Blake Mills and Danielle Haim. We slipped in line and caught up while overhearing accounts of past Cooder shows, of people's love for his music, his playing and of their excitement for these two very rare nights.
Bay area-band Los Cenzontles opened both nights with great sets of traditional Mexican music. It was the perfect compliment to the timbres that have been so prominently featured on Cooder's recent albums.
After their set, the lights dimmed and the audience roared Cooder and his cohorts onto the stage. The core band was Joachim Cooder on drums and Robert Francis on bass, along with Terry Evans and Arnold McCuller on backing vocals. They spryly launched into "Crazy 'Bout An Automobile," which -- not surprisingly -- blew the whole room away. I hadn't expected Cooder and Co. to come out of the gates bashfully, but the song was played in such a powerful gallop that it swiftly set the bar for the two nights: All out rockin' and rollin' was afoot, Ry was ready to play, and the music would carry all the heat of its original vintage, and then some.
For both nights, long time collaborator and accordion hero, Flaco Jimenez sat in and made inspired contributions. Singer Juliette Commagere stunned the crowd with her rendition of Vicente Fernández's "Volver Volver." The most substantial component to the supporting personnel was the Mexican brass band that was so great in numbers, they were placed in the mezzanines flanking both sides of the stage they'd other wise have no chance of fitting on. (From my vantage, I counted them as being at least ten members strong). Every song they played on was taken to incredible heights, and the audience responded accordingly.
Now, for the guitar talk: Cooder's playing is as distinct and recognizable as they come; he's become an icon as a result. The same can be said for a few of the instruments he has used over the years. They have attained a kind of mythical celebrity status that only historic artifacts can and they evoked all the ooh's and aah's you might expect. The most notable of which has come to be known as the Coodercaster. (I'd be lying if I said I didn't make a few deliberate pushes to the front in hopes of getting a few good glimpses in.)
Also present was also a powder blue Strat that had also received the Coodercaster treatment, though with a different pick-up compliment and a Bigsby vibrato. The other instrument that made serious waves was an old Rickenbacker lap steel, which Cooder proudly boasted has a pickup so strong, that it recently rendered his precious Gibson Charlie Christian amp (likely an EH-150) into a useless smoldering heap by way of it's merciless output. He also assured the audience that should a musician ever find him or herself in a bar brawl while playing a gig, the guitar could easily double as a means of self-defense. On this, he played what would be the final tune of the engagement, "Vigilante Man." Saying that this tune slayed in no way comes close to covering it.
Amp-wise, he used a Magnatone 280 head going into two separate cabinets. The tones produced with these tools were simply amazing. Raw, complex, familiar, soaring and constantly awe-inspiring. There were moments where Blake and I couldn't help but to exchange smiling glances. The playing and the tones were simply too good to be true, and we weren't alone in our affirmation. We saw people throughout the venue reacting similarly, sharing looks of amazement and simply laughing to themselves. It was that good.
From that very first song, I knew that the trip would be one for the books. It's since claimed its rightful place atop the bevy of impulse decisions I've made in recent times. Cooder and his band sounded unreal and were visibly excited to play. The crowd was enthralled and responsive. Two perfect nights. I can't see this experience being dethroned anytime soon.
All told, it's another item crossed off the Bucket List and another great moment in the history of my guitar obsession.
Here's video of "Vigilante Man," which Ry closed both nights with this one. Not too shabby.
Who would you travel 800 miles to see? Let us know.
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