Played in duet with Hamiltones pianist Glenn Patscha, "Jesus and Woody" took on special significance after Cooder's solo acoustic version of Guthrie's "Vigilante Man," originally the album closer on Into the Purple Valley
, where the guitarist added his own topical verse, which included: "Well Trévon Martin was only seventeen years old when he took a trip to the grocery store. He might have grown up to be president, but that's something we'll never know because he ran into a vigilante man."
These words made the sentiment of "Jesus and Woody" all the more poignant and relevant to today's circumstances: "So sing me a song 'bout 'This Land is Your Land' And fascists bound to lose You were a dreamer, Mr. Guthrie And I was a dreamer too.
Once I spoke of a love for those who hate It requires effort and strain Vengeance casts a false shadow of justice Which leads to destruction and pain.
Some say I was a friend to sinners But by now you know it's true Guess I like sinners better than fascists And I guess that makes me a dreamer too."
The beauty of Cooder's set, including his engaging song introductions, was that, if it preached anything (and it absolutely did not
proselytize), it was for love, compassion, tolerance and, even, hope.
Cooder's set wasn't all about such serious and currently topical matters, however. Songs like Bop Till You Drop
's soulful Arthur Alexander ballad, "Go Home, Girl" and Sidney Bailey's dark-hued but ultimately more propulsive "The Very Thing That Makes You Rich (Makes Me Poor)" were all about relationships, while Johnny Cash's title track to Cooder's Get Rhythm
was about finding joy, even when life seems an insurmountable challenge: "A little shoeshine boy he never gets lowdown But he's got the dirtiest job in town Bendin' low at the people's feet On a windy corner of a dirty street Well I asked him while he shined my shoes How'd he keep from gettin' the blues He grinned as he raised his little head He popped his shoeshine rag and then he said
Get rhythm when you get the blues C'mon get rhythm when you get the blues Yes a jumpy rhythm makes you feel so fine It'll shake all your troubles from your worried mind Get rhythm when you get the blues."
As he did when he was playing with backup singers including the great Bobby King and Terry Evans, Cooder gave plenty of space to the Hamiltones' three singers, Antonio Bowers, James Tillman, Jr. and Corey Williams II, taking a mid-set break to let the Hamiltones go solo on two songs, including "74" and "Gotta Be Lovin' Me," where Cooder returned, but in support the group, rather than the other way around. He also let Bowers, Tillman Jr. and Williams II have the final words of the night with a soul-drenched version of Lester Johnson, Clifton Knight and Dave Richardson's "I Can't Win," again from Bop Till You Drop
. But throughout the set, bassist Robert Commagere and son Joachim anchored the group, while pianist Patscha and saxophonist Gendel not only provided empathic support but were also afforded plenty of their own space, with Gendel contributing a particularly fine bass saxophone solo on "The Very Thing That Makes You Rich" and Patscha's piano solo providing the perfect buildup to Cooder's mind-blowing slide solo (and rhythm work) on "Get Rhythm."
It's unlikely that even the hardest of hardcore Cooder fan expected to hear Bop Till You Drop
's opener, Doc Pomus and Mort Shuman's "Little Sister," the second of three encores. Nor would they have expected to hear Cooder's significantly reworked "Jesus on the Mainline," from Paradise and Lunch
, which Cooder said came about at a sound check just a few days prior. After that song, which features lyrics including "Jesus is on that mainline / Tell Him what you want / Call Him up and tell Him what you want," Cooder related a story about watching a woman (in his hometown of Santa Monica) texting as she was crossing the street against a red light, tripping and almost falling...but, nevertheless, continue texting. "Was she texting Jesus?," Cooder quipped, "We'll never know."
It was that kind of loose, comfortable humor about life, its many challenges and the troubled times times in which we live that made Cooder's message, during much of the show, so beautifully articulated without being, in the least way, overbearing. Relaxed but always clear, Cooder certainly has his opinions about the world in which we live. Still, the same way that he delivered his music with a kind of sloppy but masterful expertise, relying more on feel than perfection, Cooder may, indeed, have a particular viewpoint on the world as it is today, but delivered it in ways that would engender compassion and hope rather than divisiveness and irredeemable desperation.
Whether espousing Alfred Reed's words of wisdom and truth on Prodigal Son
's "You Must Unload" or Carter Stanley's words of hope on "Harbor of Love," Cooder's FIJM set was filled with messages, but delivered in ways that, rather than dividing people, could only bring his audience of 1,500 together.
Cooder's message may have been impossible to deny, but it was also a memorable set for other reasons, specifically how, in addition to his exceptional group of instrumentalists and singers, it was absolutely a guitar geek's dream.
Cooder seemed to switch instruments with almost every song, using a variety of electric and acoustic guitars, as well as an electric mandolin on a couple of tunes. Some of the guitars, contrary to what might be expected, were not particularly expensive but, as Cooder explained while he adjusted one of his many altered tunings, "I got this one for about $300...but if you touch it just right it makes a good sound."
Whether playing guitar or singing, Cooder never stuck to a script, instead taking constant risks. And, as with all risk takers, sometimes they worked, sometimes they didn't. But that was the beauty of his performance: there may have been a few near-train wrecks, but when everything worked, it was the kind of magic that only happens when
you take those risks.
At 100 minutes, it was a satisfying but, at the same time, all too short performance from one of the great guitarists and musical archivists of the last 50 years. Who knows if Cooder will ever return to these parts in his lifetime? It would be wonderful if he did, but if he doesn't, those who were at Théâtre Maisonneuve on this warm summer's evening experienced something all too rare: a show that, as imperfect as the human condition, reached a rare kind of musical height achieved only by risk-takers, and with a message that, hopefully, everyone in the audience will bring home with them.
Mike Stern with Randy Brecker, Monument National
Imagine this, as a guitarist's worst nightmare: an accidental trip on some construction debris, resulting in multiple fractures of not one, but both
arms, the damage so severe that a total of eleven screws are required to put things right.
This is exactly what happened to Mike Stern
in the summer of 2016. Still, the veteran guitarist, whose bright smile indicates an irrepressible positivity, managed the almost unimaginable feat of getting back in the game within just a few months. Since then, even with his right hand appearing oddly bent and Stern going through a substantial period of time where he literally had to glue his pick to his thumb so that he wouldn't drop it, there has been negligible perceptual change in his playing except, as much as it might challenge credulity, for the guitarist actually seeming to be the better for it.
Certainly, nobody in the capacity crowd at Monument National who didn't already know would have been able to tell that he'd broken both his arms, based on the incendiary performance he delivered with a crack group featuring, in addition to bassist Tom Kennedy
and the always mind-boggling drummer Dennis Chambers
, the great trumpeter Randy Brecker
Brecker and Stern go back a ways, on record at least as far as the guitarist's 1992 album Standards
(Atlantic) and, the same year, the heralded Brecker Brothers
reunion, Return of the Brecker Brothers
(GRP), which also spawned a fiery live show on VHS tape that's crying out for release in a more contemporary format. Brecker's career is a long and varied one, going back to The Jazz Composer's Orchestra
(JCOA, 1968), participation in the early commune-like White Elephant, and recording and/or touring with artists including Hal Galper
, Horace Silver
, Stanley Turrentine
and Billy Cobham
, before forming the first Brecker Brothers band for its 1975, self-titled Arista debut. Since then, beyond more jazz gigs than can be counted and his still-growing discography as a leader, the trumpeter has entered the pantheon of musicians whom virtually anyone with a radio has heard, with the trumpeter appearing on hits by big-name pop/rock artists including Paul Simon
, Steely Dan
, James Taylor
and Elton John
, amidst a complete discography numbering in the many hundreds (if not thousands).
Chambers and Stern go even farther back on record, to the guitarist's 1989 album that still remains a personal favorite, Jigsaw
(Atlantic). Chambers was also a member of the '90s Brecker Brothers reunion, and has his own storied history with artists ranging from John Scofield
, Parliament, the P-Funk All Stars and the late Bob Berg
(who was part of this family of players before a tragic accident took him 16 years ago) to John McLaughlin
, Steve Khan
and (also) Steely Dan.
Kennedy is relatively new to Stern, making his first appearance on the guitarist's New Morning: The Paris Concert
(In-Akustik, 2008) DVD and contributing to subsequent albums including, along with Brecker and Chambers, Stern's first album since his accident, the aptly titled Trip
(Heads Up, 2017). The virtuosic bassist can also be found, beginning in the mid-'80s, with artists ranging from Bill Connors
, the late Don Grolnick
and Dave Weckl
to Al Di Meola
and Steps Ahead
...even a live date with Swedish saxophonist Jonas Knutsson
at Sweden's 2012 Umeå Jazz Festival.
Together, Stern, Brecker, Kennedy and Chambers hit the ground running with an opening version of the modal-based blower "Out of the Blue," from 2012's All Over the Place
(Heads Up). Extending for well over twenty minutes, it gave everyone in the band, well, not exactly a chance to warm up (they were already on fire), but an opportunity to make clear what was in store with a show that, including its brief encore, ran about 95 minutes, following an unexpectedly impressive 40-minute opening set by a local duo featuring guitarist François Jalbert and pianist Jérôme Beaulieu, playing material largely from its debut, This is a Real Place
(Les Productions Multiple Chord Music, 2017).