I've heard a lot of friends complain that living in San Francisco comes with a steep cover charge. While that is true, many notable artists have a particular affinity for the Bay Area's unique venues and personalities. With that high cost of living comes the opportunity to experience art and culture that can be found nowhere else in the world.
Such is the case with Ry Cooder's current stint at the Great American Music Hall. The shows are primarily intended to announce the release of his latest album, "Pull Up Some Dust and Sit Down," but more than that he wanted to bring his San Francisco audience, who he applauds for their appreciation of the new and unexpected, something that in his words "they don't get to see every damn day." There will be no tour to follow this two-night run and on Wednesday fans came from as far away as Florida and Wisconsin.
The band brings together Cooder's past and present, featuring a rare appearance by accordionist Flaco Jimenez as well as singers Terry Evans and Arnold McCuller, all veterans of Cooder's touring bands from the '70s and '80s. The rhythm section represents the younger generation with son Joachim Cooder on drums and Los Angeles based-singer/songwriter/multi-instrumentalist Robert Francis on bass. The core configuration is augmented by a ten-piece horn section including tuba and bass-saxophone, many of whom are positioned in the balconies on either side of the stage.
The Wednesday set spanned Cooder's career highlighted by a spirited version of Woody Guthrie's "Do Re Mi" featuring Jimenez's deft accordion work, a romping boogie-woogie rendition of Sam the Sham's "Wooly Bully," and a whole lot of down home blues and Mexican-tinged traditional songs.
Cooder's new material from "Pull Up Some Dust" was well received by the left-leaning San Francisco audience who seemed to particularly enjoy "El Corrido de Jesse James," a modern-day fable told as a conversation between the outlaw and God. Jesse James asks for his gun back so that he can return to Earth to shoot up Wall Street and "set things straight," naive to the reality that America's problems can no longer be solved with grit and bullets. "No Banker Left Behind" began a two-song encore again using satire to illustrate Cooder's concerns about American political and economic policy.
Time has been kind to Cooder's voice. His vocals have matured over the course of his career and he has learned how to use his singing to convey the spirit of his more recent work which is more lyrics-driven.
Joachim Cooder was solid with good feel and held down the rhythm effectively. The bond between father and son was evident and could be felt in the music, although at times Jim Keltner's wider breadth of expression and rhythmic mastery was missed. Francis' bass playing was enthusiastic and functional although there were moments when he seemed to be just hanging on and unsure where certain songs were going.
The horns were sonically magnificent and added a new dimension to the material but at times overpowered the band and were overwhelming, bordering on painfully loud, which Cooder seemed to enjoy tremendously.
Even with so much sound and so much to look at, the most transcendent moments were when slide hit steel. Cooder is a true master of the guitar and every time he took the lead the music was elevated to a higher level. Though firmly rooted in slide blues, his playing defies genre classification and can only be compared to a handful of other living masters who share his dedication to the eclectic. Guitarists Bill Frisell, Pat Metheny and Mark Ribot jump to mind.
San Pablo's Los Cenzontles (The Mockingbirds) opened the evening with a richly authentic and spirited set of traditional Mexican-influenced dance songs to the delight of the crowd.
Both shows are sold out, but a number of fans were looking for tickets at the door on Wednesday night and most seemed to find their way in. For the dedicated, it might be worth a trip downtown to see if you can get lucky on Thursday. You won't get many, if any, more chances to see this ensemble. Only in San Francisco.
(from SF Gate)