Multi-Grammy award winning Ry Cooder has been making music and recording for the past 50 years. He’s a songwriter, film score composer, and record producer. A multi-instrumentalist, he is maybe best known for his slide guitar work,with Rolling Stone magazine ranking him eighth on their list of “The 100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time.” His latest album, The Prodigal Son, his first for six years, has been hailed as “destined to become an instant classic” (Daily Telegraph), and “completely fresh and contemporary” (NPR). MOJO declared it “A career-high.”
Along with his band – Joachim Cooder on drums, Robert Commagere on bass, saxophonist, Sam Gendel and the fabulous vocal trio, The Hamiltones – he played to a sold-out National Stadium, Dublin, having played there some 20-odd years ago. Here’s what we learned.
1. At 71, Ry Cooder can still command the stage and have a crowd eating out of his hand with the quality of his music and his engagement with the audience. He joked about going off to have a few hits of oxygen half way through the set, claiming that Emmylou Harris had got him into it by letting him use her gold tank a while back while playing together. Oxygen or not, he bounced back after a short break to give a barnstorming performance which featured superb versions of Jesus on the Mainline and How Can a Poor Man Stand Such Times And Live.
2. If you have a superb singing group in your band, why not let them take centre stage for a while? Which is exactly what happened with The Hamiltones, Ry Cooder content to let them have at it during his break and later on when he seemed to enjoy just playing a supporting role on guitar behind them. These guys from North Carolina – Antonio Bowers, James Tillman Jr. Corey Williams II – were terrific, three cool looking dudes with bushy beards and shades, with the sweetest tenor voices you ever heard. And they were not just backing vocalists, they were performers who know how to entertain. Their ability to recreate the sound of the old gospel quartet was perfect for the material of Ry Cooder’s new album, The Prodigal Son.
3. You don’t have to wear a beanie cap to be in Ry’s band – but clearly it helps! All but two members of the band sported a beanie – must get chilly up on that stage!
4. Putting a bass saxophone into the mix and giving it a few lead breaks might not seem obvious, but boy, it worked. Sam Gendel doesn’t look as if he has enough puff for that big baby, but when he launched into a solo in Everybody Ought to Treat a Stranger Right, we all sat up and took notice and the ground rumbled beneath us.
5. Updating a Woody Guthrie song with a contemporary reference made complete sense. Guthrie’s Vigilante Man morphed into a sharp commentary about Trayvon Martin, the 17-year-old African American teenager, who was fatally shot in Sanford, Florida, supposedly in self-defence. Blind Alfred Reed’s How Can A Poor Man, got a similar update, to huge roars of approval, with a riff on Donald Trump.
6. Cooder’s slide guitar playing really is something to behold. The technique on How Can A Poor Man where he played slide and worked the volume knob on the guitar at the same time was impressive.
7. And finally – about half the songs he performed were from The Prodigal Son, a carefully curated selection of blues and gospel from the early 20th Century, which really is Cooder’s masterpiece. The audience, presumably like Ry Cooder himself, may not share the faith of the songs’ composers, but their enthusiasm and appreciation was no less than for the other songs performed. These are songs that will speak to anyone, believer or unbeliever. The arrangements, musicianship and feeling are spiritually powerful. There’s humanity, decency, inspiration, hope in these songs, that anyone can feel. And in songs like Harbour of Love and Nobody’s Fault But Mine, we all felt it for sure.
[Find Down at the Crossroads’ take on The Prodigal Son here]