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.