Over the course of his illustrious career, visionary guitarist/producer Ry Cooder
has been one of the most prolific and restlessly creative forces in contemporary music. For a period of over four decades his music and songs have helped shape the American music landscape by filtering the roots of his country's musical history through his own personal style and worldview. His music is a beautiful concoction of blues, folk, country, pop, rock, gospel, Norteno, jazz, and world music that he traverses with a fearlessly nomadic attitude. Typically, his songs are imbued with a cinematic expansiveness and musical sophistication that smooth the edges of his various rootsy sources. If that hasn't been enough, he has been held responsible for a considerable number of important and intriguing cross cultural explorations and productions that showcased his talent for immersing himself in other cultures' musics.
After a long hiatus from solo recordings, during which he produced film music, other people's recordings and several one-off collaborations, Cooder reappeared in recent years with a string of great records (and a novel) that are better known as "the Californian trilogy." The records showed him being inspired with his fire for further explorations rekindled and his new songs took protest music and social commentary blues to a whole new level. And 35 years since his last live record that was recorded at the Great American Music Hall, Show Time
(Warner Bros, 1977), here comes another one that was recorded on the same location in 2011, to promote his album Pull Up Some Dust and Sit Down
(Nonesuch, 2011). Not only was the location the same, but his band included members from Cooder's past and present that also played on that live record, such as accordionist Flaco Jimenez and singer Terry Evans. Also, on stage with him were his son, drummer Joachin Cooder, who provides stomping Jim Keltner-esque beats and grooves throughout, bassist Robert Francis, singer Arnold McCuller as well as a ten piece horn section called La Banda Juvenil.
And the results are bracing regardless if Cooder is reaching back to repertory from as early as his first self-titled album (Reprise, 1970) for the spirited Tex Mex/polka rendition of Woody Guthrie's "Do, Re, Mi," or predominantly stuff that he recorded in the 70s such as romperstompers in the form of Sam the Sham's "Wooly Bully," or "School is Out," then gems such as "Boomer's Story" and "The Dark End of the Street" or bringing new material to the fore, such as songs from his politically charged Pull up
album, such as "Lord Tell Me Why" and "El Corrido de Jesse James," with Cooder introducing the story to his audience of this modern day fable that is actually a conversation between Jesse James and God where James asks for his gun so he can go back to Earth and shoot up "Wall Street" and set things straight.
The high point is a darkish and venomous version of another Guthrie song, "Vigilante man," that showcased Cooder's stellar slide guitar skills. His touch on slide remains peerless, playing it slow and beautiful. The rest of the band is there, but barely. Cooder loves to share, but on this song, he has everything covered. The set ends with the soulful and affecting rendition of Leadbelly's "Goodnight Irene," with Jimenez augmenting the melody with gorgeous accordion lines. And not for a second does Cooder act as a modern day curator to these songs as he injects a dose of festive madness and fun into them. There is joy that is palpable and the chemistry here feels natural.
As on any other Cooder record, there is so much music here. Usually, live recordings have a concept of being a greatest hits assembly or a souvenir of a live show without coming closer to being a celebration of the artist and his art. Coupled with the virtuosity and the boisterous spirits of the players, this concert recording is a vital document that celebrates Cooder's art. Live in San Francisco
is an absorbing and beautiful collection of songs that communicate with a joyous and life-affirming vitality.