Miraculously, someone on the internet once went to the trouble of digitizing an old VHS home-recording of a 1987 Ry Cooder concert and uploading it some two decades after it was first broadcast on the UK's Channel 4. A fine human that person was. As a fan, I thought I'd do my small duty and help share the joy.
This recording, running just over 75 minutes, shows a collection of born performers at work, playing an evocative, virtuoso set of Blues Rock, Soul and Gospel songs from the history of popular song in the US. Like all of Cooder's output, the set takes you on a whistlestop tour of American popular music history. In a run of three consecutive tracks you glimpse the reception of telecommunications on 'Jesus on the Mainline', dustbowl hardships on 'How Can A Poor Man Stand Such Times and Live?', and Cold War-era Millenarianism on 'Atom Bomb'. The cast is mighty, featuring fellow Americana-lover Van Dyke Parks (paying homage in-dress to Colonel Sanders) on keyboards; Flaco Jiménez, bringing the distinctive accordions of Chicken Skin Music (1976) to the show; the sublime gospel vocals of Bobby King and booming Baritone Terry Evans; and the prolific session drummer Jim Keltner.
In a manner that will be familiar to fans of his solo career, Cooder's choices of homage both reexamine and update acknowledged classics, such as the soul-stirring, big-band rendition of 'Chain Gang', but also play with tangents of pre-Industry popular music that few would have otherwise remembered.
But as well as tipping his hat to these forgotten composers, Cooder also pushes the bounds of genre, borrowing from all eras and roots-music styles in his adaptations. Take, on this film, his epic, Latin-Blues-tinged rendition of Blind Alfred Reed's 'How Can A Poor Man Stand Such Times and Live?' (first covered on his self-titled 1970 debut), in comparison to the decidedly un-hip original. It feels as if the link between the two is always about to snap under the weight of the latter's effortless alloy of influences. However, something of the original's essence is always retained in spirit, despite the gleeful transgressions in form:
Cooder's always articulate presence is never far from the forefront. Admiration for his playing his now a platitude, but I would say that I admire his tactful restraint just as much as his astounding vocabulary of expression. For times when he is not centre stage, his playing is, for the most part, delivered in subtle, complementary utterances: the group's setup is virtuoso, loose but, fundamentally, cooperative. You can see the infectious joy of musicians in the midst of fellow masters of their crafts. You see them feed off each other's spontaneous creativity and, together, maintain the thrill of live improvisation from second to second.
From the pouting four-wheel-drive of Soul-hoe-downs (Shoul-downs?) like 'The Very Thing That Makes You Rich (Makes Me Poor)' (vastly improving on the velveted studio version on Bop Til You Drop, 1983) to the menacing brass plunges in the murky atmosphere of 'Mississippi', the set is captivating and unpredictable at every turn. It's a pity that Cooder doesn't talk more in the film, being as he is such an curious yet charismatic presence on stage. But his gruff crooning and spontaneous in-character deliveries are still great entertainment value.
Anyway, I here reupload the home-recorded video - I stress it's not my achievement - but also, underneath it is handy, portable audio version, cut into tracks and even featuring some hastily designed album art by myself. If a Ry Cooder fan more knowledgeable than me can place what the name of the track I labelled '[Instrumental]' is, then I would much appreciate knowing.@256
18.07.11 - The instrumental track is 'Goodnight Irene', also on Chicken Skin Music (1976). Thanks to Lukas for identifying it.
1. Let's Have A Ball
2. Jesus on the Mainline
3. How Can a Poor Man Stand Such Times and Live?
4. Atom Bomb
6. Goodnight Irene
7. Just a Little Bit
8. The Very Thing That Makes You Rich (Makes Me Poor)
9. Crazy 'Bout An Automobile
10. Chain Gang
11. Down in Hollywood