Last Monday night the Birchmere in Alexandria, VA hosted Ry Cooder for the second sold-out Monday night in a row. Joachim Cooder’s set opened the night, and for a separate review of his show, please click any of these bolded words right here.
Fans were eagerly anticipating the band, and more than a dozen of them were lined up in front of the stage taking pictures of the gear. When the set began, it was subtle, with Ry Cooder seated and playing slide on his acoustic — a mysterious, fluid slide — and plucking the strings with his right hand with a cadence and timing that’s best comparison is to the flow of a river. He was accompanied only by the mystery man, Sam Gendel, playing low, low, bass saxophone tones from the stage’s shadowy recesses: Blind Willie Johnson’s “Nobody’s Fault But Mine”
Next up was “Shrinking Man,” another from Ry’s recent release,Prodigal Son (Fantasy Records), and an original with lyrics both wry and sincere. [to read our review of this album click any of these bolded words here.] Cooder remarked “this is a song about downsizing; it happens to all of us,” and one of the fans noted privately that Ry was sitting in the same chair Joachim had been in for the opener — like father, like son. The rest of the band, Glenn Patscha on piano, Robert Francis on bass and Joachim Cooder on drums, made their wily entrances onstage. With the crowd effectively warmed up and drawn in, Ry stood up, switched to his stratocaster and boomingly asked the room to “please welcome to the stage, the Hamiltones!” to raucous applause from the crowd, and the band launched into another Blind Willie Johnson song “Everybody Ought to Treat a Stranger Right” while the Grammy nominated trio arranged themselves around the mic, simultaneously already belting out perfect, bold, power 3-part harmonies. The sax was grooving in the pocket with bass and drums creating an innovative sound that was so gripping the whole room was slackjawed. The interplay between the rhythm section’s groove, Ry Cooder’s guitar work, and the super astrolift of the Hamiltones’ vocals was superlatively grand, and really out of this world in a way that words fail to capture.
“Straight Street,” is a Pilgrim Travelers song and Cooder encouraged the audience to investigate their version on YouTube, and then “Go Home Girl” by Arthur Alexander had an almost reggae beat, and then it was the “written by a cab driver” Sidney Bailey song “The Very Thing That Makes You Rich (Makes Me Poor) and by this point the band, and the crowd, was heated to full rolling boil. The rhythm section again is hypnotic and impossible to differentiate yourself from, guiding and echoing your own heartbeats. Joachim’s drumming is fluid like a sidewinder and Gendel’s sax adds a bold unique dimension to the bottom end. Gendel is playing in his stocking feet, with Francis holding it down in bass duet with the sax.
Two rousing songs were next by the Hamiltones: “74” and then “Gotta Be Lovin’ Me.” The Hamiltones are a seat of power in the room, and Ry accompanied them for the latter number, his grey ponytail hanging behind under his blue cap and the whole room clapping accompaniment. The full band returned for Woody Guthrie’s “Vigilante Man,” with Ry ad libbing a verse about Travyon Martin “taking a little trip down to the grocery store, well he might have grown up to be President but that’s something we’ll never know…why does a vigilante man…?” and then an original song about Guthrie: “Jesus and Woody” with “you were a dreamer Mr. Guthrie and I was a dreamer too.” Ry switched to mando-cello for Mississippi Fred McDowell’s “Jesus on the Mainline,” and the overall sonic result was intertwining like the Grateful Dead used to do on “Brokedown Palace.”
The end of the night was drawing nigh, and Ry told a little anecdote about being 8 years old, in the 4th grade and “with no prospects” when he used to listen to greats akin and leading up to Johnny Cash with LA dj Eekin’ Squeakin’ Deacon. He recounted a folk festival where he played Cash’s “Get Rhythm” and afterward was eating chop suey in the trailer with David Lindley when Johnny Cash came up and knocked on the door, said “Hello, I’m Johnny Cash.” (Cooder really did a great impression), and Cooder said “I see that!” to which Cash replied: “I just want to thank you for singing my song,” and got back into his Cadillac and drove off into the night. “See, you make these records and you never know whether anybody hears them or not.” And the band lit into more of the same groundbreaking intertwining layers they’ve been mesmerizing the room with all night, this time playing Cash’s “Get Rhythm” and it was Patscha’s piano’s turn to interplay with Gendel’s sax. Ry introduced the next one, “Prodigal Son,” by saying “Washington Phillips did this tune and spruced it up for consumption,” with the Hamiltones’ harmonizing “Believe, I believe, I’m going home to be a servant of the lord” in fullblown fashion. The encore was the Hamiltones’ song “I Can’t Win,” which left everyone feeling like, on the contrary, we all, indeed, could win. After the set, people had glassy eyed looks and smiles on their faces as they filed out into the spring night air, lingering to chat in the parking lot, and more than one of them were overheard exclaiming that was their best concert experience… ever. And for that, we were the winners. For more information and tour info, please click here. http://www.rycooder.com/