If the contemporary concert experience offered by most famous baby-boomer guitar heroes evokes an upscale sports bar—you know the place: Budweiser in those strange aluminum bottles, flat-screen TVs like wallpaper—then Ry Cooder’s current tour is more like a family-run coffeehouse. Hopefully you’ve been there too, with its farm-to-table snacks, old upholstered furniture, and interesting books strewn about.
On Friday night, June 8, at the Town Hall in Manhattan, Cooder, 71, settled into that atmosphere to deliver pretty much everything you should want from one of his rare live shows. That doesn’t mean a retrospective that attempts to hit each landmark of his half-century-plus in music; he’s smart enough to let lightning-bolt moments like Buena Vista Social Club or his film scores rest. Rather, it meant a program that leaned on The Prodigal Son (Fantasy), an excellent new collection of spiritual Americana that plays to his time-honored strengths: his peerless bottleneck guitar playing; his durable, folksy voice, which makes a far stronger impression live than it does on record; his ability to nurture a sensitive and communicative band dynamic; his historian’s curiosity for ageless songs and fading traditions, and his ability to shape original material in the image of those traditions. These are the skills that earned him a cult-like following in the heady early-to-mid-1970s, that epoch when the guitar still ruled pop and thoughtful singer/songwriters depended on thoughtful instrumentalists to make great albums.
This was a roughly 90-minute program of comfort and quaintness that nonetheless carried moments of startling power. At the center was Cooder, seated sometimes and standing others, ensconced in a pawn shop’s worth of guitar and amp treasures and dressed like a surfer about to change into his wetsuit. His son, drummer/percussionist Joachim Cooder, and the band’s saxophonist, the rising experimental songwriter and improviser Sam Gendel, carried the look in ski caps and loose garb. (Gendel and Joachim, trading his kit for an elaborate mbira and singing in a kind, modest voice, opened the evening with tunes like the latter’s “Fuchsia Machu Picchu,” the trancelike title cut off his charming new EP.)
The ensemble was filled out by the singer/songwriter Robert Francis on bass, Glenn Patscha on keyboards and pump organ, and North Carolina’s HamilTones, a brilliant young R&B and gospel vocal trio. Save for those singers and Patscha, this is primarily the band that appears on The Prodigal Son, and the ambience of this performance underscored Ry and Joachim’s deftly understated production on that project—limber and live and airy, like Don Was’ back-to-basics work for the Rolling Stones or Dylan’s own touch on his recent studio albums.
What a band, with such a rapport. Roots music too often functions on a sort of cruise control, with the rhythm section shuffling as in a play-along loop. But Cooder’s unit was interactive, nimble, a group of listeners; you’d be tempted to call it jazz-like, but a lot of jazz musicians don’t mind one another so intently. Much of this had to do with Joachim, who provided an anchor that shifted keenly to match his father’s intensity and make space for the other moving parts. On midtempo stompers like Cooder’s “Shrinking Man,” his adapted spiritual “The Prodigal Son,” and Blind Willie Johnson’s “Everybody Ought to Treat a Stranger Right,” the band achieved the powerful equilibrium you might associate with midcentury Chicago blues—a self-assured, locomotive strength that transcends volume and speed.
Other peaks in the program, like “Get Rhythm” and “Jesus on the Mainline,” relied on fan-favorite repertoire, arranged to please while also allowing for personalization from this fantastic young working band. Gendel, on the hulking bass saxophone, brought “The Very Thing That Makes You Rich (Makes Me Poor)” to a boil with a solo as shrewdly rhythmic as a hip-hop turntablist’s scratching, atop Cooder’s Catfish Collins-style accompaniment. (Gendel was a secret weapon elsewhere, providing mood-setting orchestral dressing through effects.)
Cooder’s leads were marvels of vintage tone, clipped rhythmic phrasing, and complex lyricism made to look effortless, and he’s retained his gifts in ways that some of his guitar-god peers have not. An encore cover of the Invincibles’ “Can’t Win,” which gave the HamilTones yet another opportunity to stun, also let the guitarist showcase the angle of his playing that’s more indebted to Curtis Mayfield. In meditative troubadour mode, during his recasting of Woody Guthrie’s “Vigilante Man,” Cooder made his ongoing protest mission explicit by invoking the tragedy of Trayvon Martin.
As an entertainer, Cooder established a connection with the eager crowd that made them comfortable enough to holler toward the stage between tunes but respectful enough to remain rapt during the music. He threw sly jabs at David Geffen and Jeff Bezos while introducing “The Very Thing That Makes You Rich”; he told a story involving Johnny Cash, David Lindley, and chopsticks; he complained about his sleep (and sleep-aid) troubles after picking up the wrong guitar; he quipped with skillful timing, in a persona that might best be described as sweet curmudgeon or reluctant sweetheart. He took his time, and he got cozy.